On Jan. 29, Dena Wouters stood in a crowd of people at the U.S. border in Sweetgrass, Montana, watching a line of trucks on the Canadian side form a blockade in Coutts, Alberta.
About 1,800 miles east, commercial truck drivers were converging on Ottawa to begin a blockade in protest of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Wouters, 42, and her husband, Remko, a truck driver at a Montana company, had read about it on Facebook and were spurred to make the drive to their nearest border crossing to protest in solidarity.
Unlike some of the protesting truckers, Remko had been vaccinated. “My husband felt he had no choice,” Wouters said. His route sometimes crosses into Canada, which now requires a record of vaccination to enter by land. Foreign travelers crossing the border from Canada into the U.S. must now be vaccinated, too.
So the momentum and message of the so-called Freedom Convoy drew Wouters in.
“For me it was really awesome to see. It meant a lot,” she said. “We were honking our horns, we were waving flags. We were holding signs that said ‘thank you, truckers’ and all that stuff. It was really a great time.”
All along the border between Canada and the U.S., truckers and their families—and a vast variety of hangers-on, including members of several far-right groups—are shutting down crossings, blockading bridges, and occupying towns. For two weeks, organizers have effectively shut down the downtown area of Ottawa, Canada’s capital city. Many say they won’t back down until Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves office.
As the blockades drag on, threats of further law enforcement crackdowns and violence are getting louder. Downtown Ottawa residents have complained of intimidation and pyrotechnics in the streets. On Sunday, Mayor Jim Watson declared a state of emergency in light of “the serious danger and threat to the safety and security of residents posed by the ongoing demonstrations.” Peter Sloly, the Ottawa police chief, told city councilors that he is “increasingly concerned there is no policing solution to this,” hinting at military intervention. On Saturday, Canadian police moved in to clear protesters of a bridge connecting Canada and the U.S., called the Ambassador Bridge.
In short: The truckers are going wild. We know from a lot of reporting that the energy behind this movement is fueled in large part by conspiracy theorists and extremists, as well as from dark money that is flooding crowdfunding websites. There has also been a huge boost from right wing media. (Fox News, as you might imagine, has devoted a lot of time to this story.)
But it also seems to be drawing genuine grassroots support from individuals who see themselves in solidarity with the message that is being honed about the truckers, even if those individuals are vaccinated themselves. Copycat convoys have spread to France, New Zealand and Australia, and the U.S. seems next.
Brian Brase, a trucker who is organizing a protest currently called the People’s Convoy, told Fox Business that a U.S. demonstration will begin in California in March. Truckers and other supporters will drive to D.C., aiming to arrive about a week later, and plan to stay until all vaccine mandates are eliminated. (According to a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police Department of D.C., the department has not received a permit application for any truck convoy protests in the city, but the department “is aware of potential First Amendment activities that may take place” on March 1.)
I spoke to Wouters, who is part of a network of five Montana groups that are organizing to support the convoy to D.C., to learn what was motivating some of these protesters and how the nature of the demonstrations might shift as they spread to the U.S.
Wouters said that after the January rally at the Coutts-Sweetgrass border, she joined some Facebook groups for updates about the trucker protests and soon heard about the plans for a convoy to D.C. She doesn’t know any truck drivers who expect to participate in the convoy, because most work for companies, unlike the owner-operators who can take their trucks wherever they please.
But Wouters wanted to help, so she volunteered to collect supplies. She plans to host a rally and cookout to gather supplies later this month.
“Forcing people to wear masks, forcing people to get vaccinations—I don’t think it’s right,” she said. She said that she and her husband doubted that he needed the vaccine, since a previous bout with COVID-19 may have conferred some protection against the virus. (Medical experts advise that vaccination is the best way to protect against serious illness.) But “if he did not do what they were supposed to be required to do, he would lose his job,” Wouters said. “And with a special-needs son, we can’t do that. We have to pay so many medical bills and everything.”
Wouters has fielded some messages through her convoy Facebook group that aired concerns about the demonstrators in Canada, particularly those who have interfered with ambulances and patients trying to access Ottawa hospitals. Those remarks didn’t bother her. “That is a very, very, very small minority of people doing that. The rest of everybody is peaceful and fine,” she said, worrying that “one bad apple will spoil the whole bunch.”
“For me it’s like—you guys might say this is a great way to recruit white supremacy or something like that, but that’s not what it’s for. We’re just wanting freedom back,” she said.
But the essential role of right-wing extremists in organizing these convoys is undeniable.
Protesters have carried Confederate flags and flags emblazoned with swastikas. One of the Canadian convoy’s organizers, Patrick King, has warned of a campaign by international entities to bring about the “depopulation of the Caucasian race” because whites “are the ones with the strongest bloodlines.” One of the two people who were listed on the convoy’s fundraising page has said that “political Islam is rotting away at our society like syphilis.” And on Gab, the social media network that’s made a home for alt-right and extremists, the trucker convoy groups are filled with racist comments, racial slurs, and death threats directed at Sloly, the Ottawa police chief, who is Black.
As for the planned D.C. convoy, Brase and his co-organizers hit a snag in their planning—and a goldmine for their publicity campaign—when Facebook deleted their “Convoy to D.C. 2022” group, which had reportedly amassed more than 100,000 members. The company said the group had repeatedly violated its policies about content related to QAnon, the set of right-wing conspiracy theories that often involve anti-Semitic myths. Facebook classifies QAnon as a “violence-inducing conspiracy network” prohibited from coordinating or maintaining a presence on the platform. (The convoy’s organizers deny that the group’s page hosted any QAnon material.)
The rapid influx of money to the fundraising pages for the Canadian convoys—much of it from donors who identified their locations as outside of Canada—has also raised alarms among analysts, who note that the sums have far outpaced organic political campaigns in a country where strong majorities express approval for vaccine mandates and nearly 90 percent of truckers are vaccinated.
Crowdfunding sites can be treasure troves for grifters, and security experts warn that they may allow foreign individuals and state actors to add fuel to domestic political fires. Sloly told Grid that the department is “now aware of a significant element from the U.S. that have been involved in the funding, the organizing and the demonstrating” in the purportedly Canadian convoy.
Last week, GoFundMe removed a fundraiser for the Canadian blockade from its website after the company reported receiving “evidence from law enforcement that the previously peaceful demonstration has become an occupation, with police reports of violence and other unlawful activity,” violating its terms of service. The page had raised more than $8 million for the demonstrators, including $1 million that had been released to organizers.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Freedom Convoy has moved its fundraising to GiveSendGo, where it has already raised more than $8 million. (The crowdfunding site is known for welcoming far-right extremist groups and their pet causes, such as legal defense funds for Kyle Rittenhouse and Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio.)
If organizers don’t change course before March, trucker blockades in the U.S. could be ugly. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before the U.S.—a country with a much bigger and deeper-pocketed anti-vaccine element and a mainstream Republican Party that feeds off the volatility of right-wing extremist groups—got its own convoy to the capital.
But the coexistence of various flavors of right-wingers within the auspices of the convoy is part of what makes it worrisome. It’s not hard to imagine a U.S. convoy arriving in D.C. to a cheering crowd of ordinary people who like trucks, miss Trump, and mock mask mandates—alongside a contingent of armed militia members bent on enacting a reprise of Jan. 6. The rioters who sacked the Capitol that day were part of a demonstration that placed violent extremists alongside everyday people, too. With the power of 10-ton vehicles and a motivated army of supporters, it wouldn’t take many extremists to take things to the extreme.