On Sunday, the mayor of Ottawa, Ontario, Jim Watson, declared a state of emergency as an estimated 5,000 people and 1,000 trucks joined the ongoing trucker protest over the country’s COVID-19 protocols. “We’re in the midst of a serious emergency,” Watson said, “the most serious emergency our city has ever faced.”
This week, the “Freedom Convoy” begins its eleventh day in the Canadian capital, honking loud truck horns all night, harassing locals, and urinating on a national war memorial while setting up bouncy castles and hot tubs. Local residents, protestors, and authorities have described the trucker’s descent on the capital as an “occupation.” While the protest started as a movement of truckers who objected to the cross-border Canada-U.S. vaccination or quarantine mandate, it has sprawled into a protest of all COVID orders, lockdowns and mitigation protocols. As of today, a major shopping mall, Ottawa City Hall, two public library branches and two COVID-19 vaccination clinics remain closed due to road closures and harassment.
Local police issued more arrests on Sunday and began to work to halt fuel supplies from being transferred to the truckers as protests and counter protests have sprung up in Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver and cities across a country with an 79 percent vaccination rate. Meanwhile, 90 percent of Canadian truckers are vaccinated, according to the Canadian Trucking Alliance, which has disavowed the Freedom Convoy protests.
Comparisons to Jan. 6, 2021, are inevitable, and it’s plain that much of the support is coming from the U.S.: Crowdfunding is disproportionately coming from American donors and information spread by far-right influencers. Republican lawmakers promised to “investigate” GoFundMe for removing an account that had raised $9 million in support of the truckers. Sen. Ted Cruz suggested on Twitter that unvaxxed truckers should leave Vancouver with “empty shelves.” Former president Donald Trump unsurprisingly tweeted support, saying the drivers are “peacefully protesting the harsh policies of far left lunatic Justin Trudeau.” Banners on display at the demonstration have included confederate and Nazi flags, “Make Canada great again,” “F–k Trudeau,” or “Trump 2024.” Notably, one of the demands of the protestors is a dissolution of the current government.
Canadian novelist and journalist Stephen Marche recently published The Next Civil War: Dispatches From the American Future, a deeply researched and wildly chilling set of dispatches about how the next American civil war could begin. As a cautionary tale to Americans who insist that such a thing couldn’t possibly happen in the United States, I was curious to find out whether recent events across Canada suggest that armed insurrection, occupation, and the toppling of institutions might just as easily happen in Canada. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Dahlia Lithwick: First off, congratulations on the book. I loved it/hated it. Your final scenario—about white supremacy and the constitutionality of secession—has been the stuff of my nightmares in recent years as is the research on constitutional sheriffs. One of the reasons I wanted to hear from you on the Ottawa truckers rally is that a lot of the same themes you diagnosed in American politics have surfaced in Canadian guise, starting from the language of “freedom” and use of the media, to flirtation with white supremacist movements. Are comparisons to Jan. 6 inapt? What about this is American and what’s homegrown?
Stephen Marche: I mean, I think it’s pretty natural to compare them. They have the same carnivalesque spirit, and they have the same messianic vision of an unattainable freedom behind them. But they are, when you look closer, quite, quite different. There are several reasons. The first is that, other than a few horrific incidents, the protest has been relatively peaceful. There were some swastikas out but, as I understand it, they were mostly there to call Justin Trudeau a Nazi. At its peak, the protests reached 8,000 people. That’s nothing compared to American protests. To be honest, I think Americans are more obsessed with this story than Canadians are. This Saturday’s Globe and Mail didn’t lead with it. It didn’t make the cover of any of the sections. It’s my American friends who are worried, not my Canadian ones. Not that what’s happening in Ottawa isn’t serious and grotesque. It just isn’t Jan. 6.
Here’s why I think it’s not Jan. 6. First, the protests are massively unpopular. About 60 percent of the country find the truckers “offensive and inappropriate.” Close to 70 percent disapprove. Significant numbers of conservatives are in that number. Secondly, they have virtually no mainstream political support. Both Doug Ford and Jason Kenney (the premieres of Ontario and Alberta, respectively, and by far the most conservative Canadian politicians out there) have been clear that they are against the truckers, and are now some of the truckers’ main targets. Third, this could not be a less effective form of protest. They are disturbing middle class people trying to get to work and put their children to sleep. Every day they stay out there, the power of their position declines.
But it was never very strong to begin with. Eighty-eight percent of Canadians over the age of five have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
One of the complaints I’m hearing is that the police response in Ottawa has been flaccid; that the overwhelming response from law enforcement has been, at best, paralysis and,at worst, high fives. You wrote about race and policing in The Next Civil War and I find myself wondering, as I did after Charlottesville 2017, and Jan. 6, 2021, whether the police response would have been different if the occupiers were people of color or indigenous folks? Is there carryover from your American research here?
Well, I think the Ottawa police didn’t see it coming. And how could they? Once the Toronto and Montreal police learned from their mistakes, they were quite effective. The police have made it quite clear that they don’t want the truckers in their cities and have opened several criminal investigations already. The government shut down their funding through GoFundMe, which they didn’t with a lot of leftwing protest movements. Only one person was arrested for tearing down a statue of the country’s founder John A. MacDonald a year ago. The police have arrested dozens in Ottawa and are confiscating their fuel now. The Conservatives asked whether Trudeau was going to offer “an olive branch” to the protestors and he certainly hasn’t done that. Needless to say, their convoy will have zero effect on actual health policy in this country. I do not believe, for a moment, that there is widespread sympathy for the trucker convoy among police departments. Again, the contrast with America is substantial. In the United States, there is so much support for white power movements in police departments that the FBI cannot use watch lists. That is very much not the situation here. The truth, to me, is that Canadians of all political stripes despise disorder, whether it comes from the left or the right.
Your chapter on “The Fall of New York” focuses on threat multipliers for instability – economic, climate, property. Part of me wonders if part of the Canadian protest – in a country known for being almost smugly civil and polite and law abiding – is just a growing recognition that stuff is broken, governments are bankrupt, the climate is an existential threat, and that institutions are not up to the task of repair. I guess what I am asking is, when lawful Canadians are boiling over, is it a sign that the conditions you identified in the U.S. are in fact worldwide?
There is no question that the Trucker Convoy is the toxic American political environment spilling across our border. I mean, its biggest supporters, by far, have been Donald Trump and Elon Musk. But when you say Canadians are boiling over, we’re talking about a few thousand Canadians boiling over. And who can blame them? I mean, honestly, I sympathize with the frustrations of these truckers. I’m sick of this Covid shit, too. It makes me want to go to a major city in a piece of machinery and blare the horn too. But I don’t think the Trucker Convoy is anywhere near as significant as Jan. 6, and not simply because it happened in Canada! It’s a temper tantrum. And everyone in the country is disgusted by the temper tantrum. But it’s not much more than that.
So in a way, you’re saying that even this Canadian event is somehow more revealing about what’s going on in America than in Canada?
There is political insanity everywhere. That’s not unique to America. The question is how ready the systems are to deal with the insanity. Covid happened everywhere. It was brutal everywhere. It led to political unrest everywhere. But it was vastly more toxic, and more divisive, in America than elsewhere. That’s true about much more than Covid. For example, during the tour for this book, I’ve been asked how much social media is driving America’s toxic politics. Of course, it does have an impact but look at the rest of the world. They’ve all had to deal with Facebook too. But they didn’t have their entire political apparatus disrupted. German political parties entered into a “gentleman’s agreement” not to spread foreign misinformation. Which would never be possible in the United States today.
America is ripe for conflict in a way that Canada simply isn’t. The forces that cause civil war are manifesting in the States. The legitimacy of its institutions are in decline, its legal system is increasingly partisan, inequality is exploding, and climate change is starting to manifest in direct destruction. These are the subjects of The Next Civil War.
I get the sense you’re not as anxious about all this as, well, like, me?
The truckers actually entered my neighborhood in Toronto yesterday. I went to check it out. They certainly disgusted me. But later, on my way home, I saw them shopping on my block. They marveled at all the pot shops and fancy bakeries. Their trip to the big city.