Canada: Counter-protests held against far-right convoys

February 18, 2022
Ottawa convoy counter-protester
A counter-protester in Ottawa holds a placard reading "Go home now FluTruxKlan". Photo: @feministcanuck/Twitter

The capitalist state, and its police forces do not, and will not, keep working-class communities safe. Police do not protect Indigenous and racialised communities in the “best of times” — they are often the ones terrorising them — let alone during a far-right mobilisation like the Freedom Convoy and its spin-offs. The convoys in Canada have finally made this clear to many.

While police have shown support for the convoys, it is community members who have stepped up to organise against them and their extended occupations of various cities and towns. Coming together in diverse ways, with diverse tactics, communities have confronted, opposed, and blocked the mobilisations, all while providing care, mutual aid, and community defence. We can hope this is only a beginning, laying groundwork for more durable infrastructures of resistance against capitalist crises and fascist violence — and for a world without either.

Counter-protesters rise up

Counter-protests started in multiple cities across Canada during the weekend of February 5, after the Ottawa occupation had been underway for more than a week. Protesters, some using bikes as barriers, successfully blocked convoys from reaching downtown hospitals in Vancouver, in counter-protests organised quickly over Reddit.

About 40 counter-protesters blocked a convoy heading into downtown Halifax, on the east coast. The small group entered a pedestrian crossing, stopping the line of vehicles in its tracks. Police actions to limit the counter-protest showed which side they were on. Halifax Regional Police forced counter-protesters to the footpath to allow the convoy to proceed.

About 300 counter-protesters, including many healthcare workers, assembled at the Medical Sciences building at the University of Toronto before marching to block a convoy slated to arrive downtown.

These actions served as a signal for communities elsewhere to mobilise to impede or halt convoys planning to arrive in their cities and towns. It also showed some potentially effective tactics for blocking convoys and keeping them from reaching intended destinations, such as hospitals.

Ottawa and the “Battle of Billings Bridge”

The counter-protest actions continued to spread, with significant mobilisations in Ottawa — the international symbol of the convoy movement. Hundreds marched through Ottawa's Glebe neighbourhood on February 12. Counter-protests culminated the next day in what has been dubbed the “Battle of Billings Bridge” — a day-long blockade of convoy vehicles that succeeded in forcing them to leave.

The Battle began as an impromptu reaction to the threat of arriving vehicles, with about 20 people taking a south Ottawa intersection early Sunday morning. It quickly grew to more than 200 people, as more residents showed up to block the road or offer support. The action swelled to more than 1000 people and succeeded in turning the vehicles away.

More than 500 people gathered on February 12 in Lansdowne Park, less than five kilometres away from the Parliament Hill occupation. Two organised rallies, including one called by labour unions, came together and marched through the neighbourhood along Bank Street, which the convoy was planning as a main route into downtown Ottawa.

In small cities, too

In Belleville, Ontario, a counter-protest of about 15 people faced off against a larger pro-convoy rally of 50, as several dozen “Slow Roll” (slow-moving) vehicles entered the city’s central business district.

More than 100 counter-protesters gathered outside the city hall in Kingston to block an incoming Slow Roll convoy. Recognising that the convoys are far-right rather than trucker mobilisations, counter-protesters held signs saying, “End White Supremacy” and “Nazis Fuck Off".

Counter-protesters placed orange barricades across the road and stood arm-in-arm in front of the oncoming vehicles. Tellingly, police moved quickly to remove the barricades and clear counter-protesters from the road. They had to put the barriers back, however, when the vehicles attempted to hit people amid calls from drivers to run over the counter-protesters. As the Slow Roll tried to reroute, they were met by counter-protesters using bikes to block them at intersections.

Police target counter-protesters

In other cities, police — who have not moved against the far-right convoys and have instead been openly friendly towards them — have targeted counter-protesters for repression. Police arrested and threatened counter-protesters and cleared blockades, even as the convoys and their occupations continued unabated.

In Edmonton, police moved in after about 40 people stopped a line of “Freedom Convoy” supporters in pickup trucks, SUVS, and semi-trailer cabs. Police met counter-protesters with aggression and threats of fines. One protester said: “When I saw that last unit deployed with batons and that they were facing off to us … I felt a little bit scared.”

Edmonton city councillor Michael Janz reported: “They brought down two paddy wagons and over 20 officers with billy clubs to crack down on a small group of peaceful parents with signs saying, ‘Just let our children sleep'. When you see the police turn in on protesters with billy clubs while doing nothing to the big rigs behind them, that is beyond the pale.”

Edmonton Police and Alberta Sheriffs threatened counter-protesters with Alberta’s Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, a piece of repressive, neo-colonial legislation drafted after Indigenous land defenders blocked pipeline construction and railways to stop destruction of their territories. Notably, the act has not been applied to the convoys, one of which blocked the international border between Canada and the United States — fairly significant “critical infrastructure”.

In Winnipeg, a city with an infamous history of racist police violence, a video circulated showing police officers arresting an Indigenous counter-protester who was holding a sign while blocking a convoy vehicle. Winnipeg police arrested two Indigenous counter-protesters over the weekend, using the Intoxicated Person Detention Act, a piece of legislation with its own sordid history of racist application.

The Southern Chiefs’ Organization (SCO) in Manitoba released a statement demanding answers from the Winnipeg Police Service. SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels stated: “I call on the Winnipeg Police Service to provide a full accounting as to why these two people were singled out from among hundreds, while noise, traffic control and other bylaws are being violated every day by members of the so-called Freedom Convoy.”

Daniels named this as yet another example of the “double standard” of policing in Canada, replicated during the convoys and counter-protests: “This is just another example of the stark evidence that reveals a two-tier system of justice when it comes to First Nations people.”

In Montreal, counter-protesters were surrounded by police officers in riot gear, some of whom were wearing the infamous “Thin Blue Line” patch — a symbol associated with fascism and white supremacy, following its use as a show of intimidation against Black Lives Matter movements.

No Borders Media and Parc-ex/Villeray inclusifs organised the counter-protest as an explicitly “anti-racist mobilisation against the far right”. It drew hundreds of counter-protesters to demonstrate at the same park as Freedom Convoy supporters. As one counter-protester put it: “We understand their frustration. But the leaders of this movement are known racists, fascists, Islamophobes.”

As has often been the case in Canada when anti-fascists and leftists confront fascist and white supremacist mobilisations, the police choose to act as security for the fascists rather than for those who oppose fascism. According to counter-protester Leila Marshy: “Certainly we weren’t scary and we weren’t being threatening and nobody was charging anybody. They had rows of riot police maybe one or two deep ... We were boxed in tightly and they were standing there in combat stance with their shields and their helmets, visors and batons and some of them had long guns.”

This is in stark contrast with the officers who were assigned to the convoy, who were dressed in yellow vests (a symbol used by far-right mobilisations themselves) and acted as low-level crowd control. Marshy said: “It was just sort of general parade cop presence. They were escorts and our cops were, I believe, trying to provoke something and looking for the slightest misstep on our part to move in and be able to say that we were causing violence.”

Policing in Canada has always been a force for colonial military occupation, dispossession and displacement. There are many cases of active police officers expressing support for or helping organise the convoy.

From mutual aid to infrastructures of resistance

Counter-protests against the far-right convoys show important examples of mutual aid, solidarity and community defence. They developed quickly and spontaneously, often over social media, and brought together people concerned about the rise of fascist mobilisations in their communities — people who might otherwise not have met.

There is real promise here, but it also shows the need for more durable resources and connections, what I call infrastructures of resistance, to be ready for the challenges that remain and will grow after the convoys have moved on. Historically in the Canadian context, such infrastructures have been built in and through unions. But the labour movement in Canada has moved far from being leftist.

The Battle of Billings Bridge is instructive, in terms of participatory democratic processes and communications. Decisions about the action, its development over time, were made by consensus. “Discussion circles” were held to collectively decide the conditions under which the trucks would be released. Later, they agreed to pursue a “negotiated retreat” that would not allow the convoy to reroute downtown. Vehicles were allowed to leave, but only one at a time, and only after the trucks had been stripped of flags, banners and “Freedom Convoy” stickers. Drivers had to surrender any containers used to transport fuel to the occupation.

Counter-protesters also decided to talk with convoy members, to explain their opposition, and to let them know they do not have the support they think they have among working-class people. Counter-protester Sean Devine said: “I don’t want to take away anyone’s right to protest, but I wanted them to hear that they’re having a negative impact on the citizens of Ottawa.

“Most of the people I spoke to were surprised at the resistance. I think the convoy is under the false impression that they have unwavering popular support. It helps them to see opposition.”

This can be important. There is a real danger of people who are drawn to the convoys, but have no connection to far-right groups or ideas, being left conversing only with the far-right, hearing only their misplaced explanations for inequality or injustice.

The crucial and pressing question for the left is whether these actions can be replicated and built upon, and whether they become proactive in struggles against fascism or merely remain defensive. Protester Gillian Carter reflected, “It was so organic. It was galvanising for the community. But I don’t know if you can create that organic feeling again.”

The left in Canada has been focused for a very long time on reactive actions, which is understandable given the crises the system constantly throws at people. We need to be able to build the infrastructures and the shared resources that can sustain us over time, and move to proactive action — to take the offensive. We need to reclaim spaces for offering material solutions to address and end the miseries of capitalism, which have been intensified under COVID-19. A vacuum into which the far-right has, quite literally, driven itself.

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