The truck convoy protests in Ottawa and several provincial capitals represent an unexpected show of force for the far-right and right-populist factions at their helm.
In years past, these movements have not made as many inroads into the mainstream as their American and European counterparts.
It’s too early to tell, political pundits warn, if this indicates that the right-wing populist wave has now fully arrived in Canada.
But the sudden surge in protests, coming amid a broader response to pandemic-related restrictions, highlights the unique and potentially changing role of the far right in Canadian political and cultural life, as well as the challenges and the opportunities it faces.
“The biggest misconception about this, even in Canada, is that extremists have infiltrated the movement,” said Stephanie Carvin, a former national security official in Canada who now teaches at Carleton University.
In reality, she added, “it was an extremist movement that caught the attention of the general public.”
The organizers are mostly fringe activists, rather than truckers, an overwhelming majority of whom are vaccinated.
One of the organizers, Tamara Lich, was a senior member of a breakaway party that advocated secession from the western provinces, until she resigned her post last week. BJ Dichter, who was on the convoy’s official fundraising list alongside Ms Lich, said ‘political Islam’ is ‘rotting our society like syphilis’.
Pat King, who is listed as an official contact for a regional group involved in the protest and has been a prominent champion of online protests, called Covid an “artificial biological weapon” and claims that international financiers seek to “depopulate the Anglo-Saxon race”. He said of the blockages: “The only way to solve this problem is with bullets”.
That influence — along with the inspiration and financial assistance of some members of America’s far-right — is barely hidden during the protests. Pro-Trump and QAnon signs are frequently seen, as are figures like Romana Didulo, a Canadian QAnon activist who has called for the military execution of doctors who vaccinate children.
Activists have sought for several years to organize protest convoys, according to a report co-authored by Dr Carvin. They first saw success in 2019, when about 100 trucks swarmed Ottawa over energy policies, though the protesters’ message drifted towards opposition to immigration.
But the 2019 protest, like other such efforts, generally failed to gain traction.
“You had far-right populism — historically it was there — but it was isolated,” said Jeffrey S. Kopstein, a Canadian political scientist at the University of California, Irvine.
Canada’s populist right has lagged, Dr. Kopstein said, in part because the typical drivers of these movements — cultural polarization and white racial resentment — are less prevalent in the country than in other Western nations.
The country’s large and politically well-organized immigrant populations mean that both major parties see greater benefit in courting immigrants than cultivating white reaction.
The nature of the country’s electoral system also gives party officials more power than grassroots activists, making it harder for populist outsiders to win. And the relatively low polarization means that party affiliation has not become, as in other countries, a matter of hardened identity, which can fuel us-versus-them absolutism that privileges the hardliners.
As a result, Canada’s Conservative leaders have neither been embraced nor co-opted by the more extreme elements of their base to the same degree as some other right-wing parties.
“One of the reasons they come down to Ottawa is that they have a hard time taking control of parties and winning elections. And so they go for this other way,” Dr. Kopstein said of the populist right.
And because the movement mostly lacks formal party structures or mainstream media, its leadership falls to fringe charlatans like Ms. Didulo, who calls herself Canada’s rightful queen. These leaders are free to be more extreme but also tend to be less strategic.
Canada’s populist right, though homegrown, is also strongly influenced by its much larger and better-off American counterparts. This helps give the movement energy and direction, although often in ways that hamper its influence in Canada, where Donald J. Trump is deeply unpopular.
But growing impatience with pandemic restrictions has provided an opening. A slight majority of Canadians want to lift these rules, according to polls. This hardly indicates a broader shift to the right. But that may be why one in three people are voicing support for the truck protests, which are the most visible demonstration of opposition to lockdown measures.
Even a brother-in-law of Jagmeet Singh, who leads a major left-wing party, donated thousands of dollars to a fundraising convoy, although he later sought to revoke him, saying he had no understood the “true nature” of the group.
Still, support for the protests has dwindled, polls show, as residents of affected towns came face to face with far-right flags and rallies.
Canada’s populist right went through a similar cycle in the mid-2010s, when its influence grew amid a backlash from Muslim immigration before receding without achieving significant political gains.
But in the years that followed, populist movements across the Western world continued to grow and coordinate across borders, helping to foster the slow but steady growth of their Canadian counterparts.
In a demonstration of this effect in action, a number of American political and media figures, including Mr. Trump, forcefully approved or promoted trucker protests. The Americans are believed to have provided much of the $8 million raised online for the convoy.
And there is another change: the Conservative Party of Canada, after a difficult year, may be rethinking its long-standing practice of isolating conservative fringes.
Party officials recently ousted Erin O’Toole, the party leader, in part, they said, for insufficiently embracing the truck protests.
The new interim leader sparked controversy last year when a photo surfaced showing her wearing a Make America Great Again hat. Several conservative lawmakers have since visited the protests to support them. One was pictured alongside Mr King, the white nationalist and conspiracy theorist, but then issued a statement condemning ‘all violent rhetoric’.
In some ways, support for the protests appears to reflect swings in public opinion related more to the pandemic than to the far right.
When Canada held an election last September, public opinion here, as in many countries, favored leftist policies that promised vaccination mandates and other government interventions. Mr O’Toole, taking this into account, veered left on climate and social issues, while distancing himself from anti-vaccine voices that fled for the nascent People’s Party.
But as the winter months have added to the burden of pandemic restrictions and patience amid the milder variant of omicron is running out, attitudes have changed.
In Canada, as around the world, opposition to pandemic rules is strongly associated with the political right, and particularly its more populist wings, which thrive on backlash from institutions and pundits. Conservative leaders have surely noticed the new energy among anti-lockdown groups, as well as the People’s Party’s rise to 13% support from 5%.
The effect this has on Canadian politics depends, to a greater extent than in most western systems, on party leaders. Unlike European systems that allocate seats in proportion to vote share, Canadian elections, like those in the United States, create two dominant parties, meaning that political outsiders cannot easily gain power without capturing one. of these two. But even a committed grassroots movement cannot overtake a party here through primaries like it can in the United States.
Conservative leaders had toyed with Trump-style voices during the previous populist wave of the mid-2010s, but eventually pushed them aside. Whether they will now change course remains to be seen, although the party’s upcoming election to replace Mr O’Toole will give a clue.
But even if the truckers’ protests recede, their show of force has won them demonstrable support abroad, including financial backing, and created large online communities that could fuel future activity. However, to what end they might use these resources remains difficult to predict.
“We haven’t normally seen this in modern Canadian politics,” Dr. Carvin said. “We are really in uncharted territory.”