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Canada’s ‘Freedom Convoy’ has shut down Ottawa and is blocking $500 million daily in cross-border trade. Here’s where things stand

February 17, 2022, 1:44 AM UTC

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made history on Monday when he invoked the Emergencies Act for the first time to give law enforcement extraordinary powers in a bid to end the ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests that have affected cities from Canada’s prairie in the west to its economic center in the east.

Enacting the sweeping, temporary law signals the Canadian’s leader most defiant response to the protestors since the demonstrations began at the end of January. “We will not allow illegal and dangerous activities to continue,” Trudeau said during a Monday press briefing.

Canada’s ‘Freedom Convoy’ started when a group of truckers drove from Canada’s west coast to the national capital of Ottawa to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates for truckers. Over the past few weeks, ordinary Canadians fed up with pandemic restrictions—some claiming the mandates cost them their jobs and affected their families—also joined the movement.

Truckers blockaded bridges and border crossings, at a cost of half a billion dollars in daily trade with the U.S. Meanwhile, protestors have paralyzed Ottawa, causing the mayor to declare a state of emergency.

Despite the harsher government response, the protestors have vowed to continue their fight until officials remove all COVID restrictions nationwide—even as several provinces have already begun lifting some. The movement has also evolved into a broader, anti-government and anti-Trudeau revolt, with many protestors calling for continued demonstrations until the prime minister steps down.

Here are the latest developments in the ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests.

Blockades

The blockades inflicted a steep economic toll on the country, costing roughly $500 million daily in lost trade, according to Canada’s minister of finance Chrystia Freeland. Daily policing costs in capital city Ottawa have surged to $800,000; and city mayor Jim Watson last week requested extra police and city services, which could push daily costs up to $2.5 million, according to Global News.

On Sunday, Ontario police removed the final few protestors from the Ambassador Bridge and reopened the border crossing, which was occupied for six days and connects Windsor, Ontario to Detroit. Approximately one-fourth of all U.S.-Canada trade crosses the bridge, which Reuters estimates carries around $360 million in cargo daily.

The Ambassador Bridge disruptions hit the auto industry particularly hard. Around $141 million of auto parts cross the bridge daily, says research firm IHS Markit, meaning that the sector faces losses as high as $988 million due to the week-long blockade. As of Tuesday, Ontario police announced that at least 46 people have been charged with 90 crimes in relation to the Ambassador blockade.

Canada’s prairie provinces have also been a key gathering point for protestors and border blockades. In the last two weeks, protesters in farm equipment and semi-trailers have occupied the Alberta border crossing that connects to Sweet Grass, Montana; in addition to the border crossing between Emerson, Manitoba and Peminba, North Dakota.

Canada implemented the Emergencies Act partly due to protestors who refused to leave the border posts at Alberta and Manitoba. But the action prompted protestors to further block and disrupt commercial traffic at the two sites in defiance of the new rules.

On Monday, the blockade took a darker turn when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)—Canada’s federal police seized a “heavy stash” of weapons including guns, ammunition, and a machete from a fringe group of protestors linked to the Alberta-Montana blockade. On Tuesday, four Canadians were charged with conspiracy to commit murder, with at least a dozen others in court facing weapons and mischief-related charges. RCMP officers were the targets of those charged, said the RCMP’s chief superintendent Trevor Daroux. “[We] took immediate action. This threat was very serious,” he said.

The protesters took the arrests as a cue to leave. On Tuesday, after an 18-day blockade, demonstrators tooting tractor horns rolled out of the Coutts site, in addition to a smaller blockade nearby in the town of Milk River. The Coutts border post reopened as of Tuesday morning. By Tuesday afternoon, the Emerson-Pembina crossing also reopened. Marco Van Huigenbos, a blockade organizer and Alberta town councillor, told The Star: “We were always here peacefully. To control that narrative, we wanted to leave peacefully. The infiltration of extreme elements… and the members that were associated with that [being] involved in our movement, really changed things for us.”

Funding

Canadian authorities have doubled down on choking off funding to the ‘Freedom Convoy.’ The Emergencies Act authorizes financial institutions to freeze any accounts suspected of being linked to the protestors, without prior court order. Canadian authorities have encouraged financial institutions to report any suspicious activity or accounts to the government. The Act’s sweeping measures has also widened the scope of national financial intelligence agency FINTRAC to monitor fundraising sites and payment providers, which include cryptocurrency companies.

Over the weekend, one of Canada’s biggest banks, TD Bank, froze two personal accounts that had received $1.1 million to support the protestors. Earlier this month, popular crowdfunding platform GoFundMe was the first to suspend a donation campaign for the movement which had raised over $8 million. GoFundMe said the campaign had violated its terms of service that “prohibits the promotion of violence and harassment.”

The protestors have found funding alternatives. A donation campaign on GiveSendGo, a Christian crowdfunding platform, has raised nearly $11 million. Meanwhile, a group of libertarian Bitcoin enthusiasts, who go by the moniker ‘HonkHonkHodl,’ launched a crypto fundraiser on platform Tallycoin for the protesters. The campaign has since paused its fundraising efforts after meeting its goal of collecting 21 Bitcoin (BTC), or around $929,134, the group announced on Twitter. Major figures in the crypto world donated to the cause, including Jesse Powell, co-founder and CEO of Kraken, one of the largest crypto exchanges.

Still, fundraising organizers may face difficulties easily and quickly distributing funds to protestors—particularly crypto. Today, Canada’s RCMP ordered all FINTRAC-regulated firms to stop transactions from 34 crypto wallets. Most crypto exchanges in Canada are regulated by FINTRAC, Canada’s national financial intelligence agency.

Such an action makes it much more difficult for the wallet owners to convert their crypto to Canadian dollars (CAD), given that they’ll need to turn to U.S., international or offshore platforms, which don’t process CAD as easily, says crypto and blockchain-focused lawyer Matthew Burgoyne, a partner at Calgary-based McLeod Law. International exchanges may need a week or more to convert crypto and wire CAD to the wallet holders, he said.

Extremism

The protests, however disruptive and costly, have largely been peaceful. Ordinary Canadians joined the demonstrations to contest pandemic restrictions, particularly those who have had their livelihoods and families affected by COVID mandates. One protestor told The Guardian that her request for a vaccine exemption on religious ground was rejected by her government employer, and, as result, she’s been on unpaid leave for months. “I’m a human rights activist. I don’t think vaccines should be mandated for people to keep jobs,” she said.

At the same time, Canada’s protests have shown that disruptive strategies can gain “an incredible amount of political and media attention,” says Paul Saurette, a political science professor at the University of Ottawa who studies politics and ideology. The world has seen how successful Canadian protestors have been in bringing the “capital city of an advanced democracy to a screeching halt,” says Feodor Snagovsky, an associate political science professor at the University of Alberta.

Experts worry that far-right, extremist elements have latched onto the movement to spread their ideology. The Canadian Anti-Hate Network found that some of the vests seized on Monday in Alberta displayed insignia belonging to Diagolon, a right-wing militia network that allegedly advocates for violent revolution to topple the government. Throughout the demonstrations, a few fringe protestors have also displayed Confederate and Nazi flags.

David Hofmann, an associate professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick who researches far-right ideologies and extremism in Canada, said the convoy has been a natural breeding ground for far-right ideas and actors because they share a common starting point—”an innate distrust of government, anti-Trudeau rhetoric, and anti-authoritarian worldviews,” he says.

University of Calgary political science professor Barry Cooper, argues that the characterization of the ‘freedom’ movement being infiltrated by the alt-right is inaccurate. “The people that are attracted to that kind of [right-wing] disruption… aren’t concerned with trucker concerns. It’s just an opportunity for them to cause mayhem,” he says. Still, Cooper says that the protests have evolved into a broader uprising against the current government because Canadians who follow alternative media have “simply lost trust [that] the government is telling the truth.”

In recent weeks, prominent American right-wing and conservative figures have expressed support for the convoy protestors, including former President Donald Trump; Fox News’ Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson; and online political commentator Ben Shapiro. Some reports indicate that U.S. conservatives are helping fund the Canadian protestors. Hackers last Sunday, breached GiveSendGo’s fundraising platform and leaked data that suggested 41%—or nearly $11 million—of the funds donated to the ‘Freedom Convoy 2022’ campaign came from the U.S.

Hoffman said the far-right elements present in the Canadian protests are in line with a surge in extremist activity in Canada since 2016. “This increase [of far-right groups] is part of a larger global trend… [of] an increased tolerance of far-right narratives across Western societies, fueled by populist and ultra-nationalist politics. The Convoy gave the opportunistic far-right a pulpit to share their hateful views,” says Hofmann.

But he added that “Not all anti-mandate [protestors] are far-right adherents; and not all far-right extremists are anti-vaxxers.”

What’s next?

The convoy has divided Canadians, creating a wound in Canadian identity that will have long-term repercussions, says Hofmann.

Sixty-five percent of Canadian citizens believe the ‘Freedom Convoy’ is a “small minority of selfish Canadians,” according to a recent survey by polling and research firm Leger. Meanwhile, 72% of Canadians say it’s “time for protestors to go home,” as noted by a new poll released by the Angus Reid Institute, a public opinion research foundation. Still, a significant minority of those surveyed by Leger—44%—said they sympathized with the protestors’ frustrations and concerns, signaling to Canadian leadership a bigger problem and underlying public frustration.

It’s these same grievances that Canadian protestors have voiced that have resonated worldwide and ignited similar, ‘freedom’ movements in other nations. People around the world are experiencing “COVID exhaustion… and a profound loss of faith and trust in… the established political systems,” says Saurette.

In the U.S., efforts are underway to launch an American ‘people’s convoy’ to travel from California to Washington D.C. in early March. On its Facebook page which has 82,300 members, the group’s organizers called on “truckers and all freedom-loving American citizens” to “unite and demand restoration of our constitutional rights.”

Last weekend saw a flurry of ‘freedom’ protest activity across the globe, which suggests that international movements are only just beginning. A group that calls itself the ‘Convoy to Save America’ gathered at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, New York, last weekend to “stand for the freedom to choose: no mandates, no mask rules, no more lies,” Pennie Fay, one of the group’s founders, said in a statement.

Last Saturday, a network of nightclubs across Amsterdam stayed open in protest against venue closures in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, French protestors driving an assortment of vehicles—including tractors, cars, and campervans—descended on Paris last weekend to oppose the country’s COVID-19 mandates. Then on Monday, around 400 to 500 vehicles, many of them from France, arrived in Brussels to protest against pandemic restrictions.

In New Zealand, the government blared Barry Manilow and James Blunt ballads on repeat in an effort to disperse anti-vaccine protestors, who had set up tents and camped out on the grounds of the country’s parliament last weekend. During the same weekend, thousands of Australian demonstrators marched through capital city Canberra to fight for ‘freedom’ and against ‘forced drugs.’

As for the Canadian protestors, many are calling for public health restrictions to end nationwide, while others have vowed to keep demonstrating until the Prime Minister resigns. On Canadian Twitter, several of the top trending terms on Wednesday were related to the Emergencies Act or Trudeau’s resignation, including #TrudeauForTreason and #TrudeauDictatorshipMustGo. Several Canadian provinces in the past week, have initiated staggered plans to remove all pandemic mandates, including vaccine passports, indoor mask mandates, and limitations on public gatherings. At the federal level, the government has announced that its scrapping pre-arrival COVID tests for incoming fully-vaccinated travelers.

Trudeau for his part, stressed that the Emergencies Act won’t be used to call in the military or to curb civil liberties. The prime minster tweeted yesterday that the government will “always defend the rights of Canadians to peaceful assembly and… freedom of expression.”

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