Business freedom convoy delivers regressive politics
By Gabriel Haythornthwaite
Less than two weeks after the cross-country “freedom convoy” took up a crusade to end government COVID regulations, the far-right movement has claimed its first political scalp—federal Loyal Opposition leader, Erin O’Toole. The Conservative Party leader was rejected by more than 60% of his caucus, initiating the party’s third leadership battle in five years. With hardline reactionaries like prominent MP Pierre Poilievre grasping for the keys to Stornoway, the path is clear to Trumpify the Northern Republican Party.
A Regressive Movement:
The nature of this movement is illustrated in its demands, strategy and supporters. Tapping into growing frustration with continuing public health orders and an ongoing pandemic, the Convoy’s original demand against a firing mandate extension to truckers (90% vaccinated already) morphed into a wider rejection of consumer passports and public health measures. These demands are precisely those pushed by anti-regulation business interests as well as far-right parties, most prominently, the People’s Party of Canada (PPC).
The business-first agenda of the Convoy is also revealed in what the movement is dead silent about in regards to COVID government policy, namely, billions in business handouts from the working class taxpayer. The Convoy is not demanding an end or claw-back of the federal two-year “emergency” payroll subsidy which has gifted more than $100 billion to corporate profit-looting.
Consistent with their regressive support for corporate interests, the movement insists upon an anti-democratic recipe for change. Canada Unity, the leadership front of the Convoy, came to Ottawa with a crackpot Memorandum of Misunderstanding which proposed that the unelected Governor-General and Senate form a “governing council” to end all COVID restrictions enacted by elected governments across the country. While this particular authoritarian gambit is a non-starter, the Convoy has successfully organized an ongoing occupation of the capital to coincide with a new Parliamentary session and has begun to wring real political moves in its direction on the part of the right-wing establishment.
Support for the Convoy appears diverse and widespread while accompanied by a large social media push which has generated sizeable anonymous donations. Cheering crowds and mutual aid assistance greeted the Convoy as it made its initial merry way from the West to Ottawa. Conservative partisans are undoubtedly the biggest political base of support but many Greens are reportedly sympathetic to the Convoy as well.
Less surprisingly, the rabidly anti-worker Canadian Federation of Independent Business has thrown its ideological support against the vaccine mandate of truckers. High profile endorsements have also twittered in from American billionaire class trolls like the Trumps and Elon Musk.
Showing that the movement has legs, a hardcore element has remained in Ottawa for more than a week with a reported 500 large trucks occupying city streets and a renewed mass demonstration in the capital for a second weekend. Provincial capitals and major cities have also seen new though generally reduced mobilizations as well.
Regressive Political Leadership:
Leadership is a particularly crucial factor for a movement. While federal Conservatives and their provincial bed-fellows have pandered to the Convoy (particularly in Alberta contending with a separate occupation at the Montana border crossing), the real political leadership of the movement has come from those associated with the two far-right populist parties that contested the last federal election.
The most prominent Convoy leader has been the appropriately named Tamara Lich. Critical to the fundraising and organizing of the Convoy as well as the main spokesperson for the movement in Ottawa, Lich cut her anti-social movement teeth in the small 2019 “United We Roll” convoy which combined pipeline worship with racist hysteria against migrants. She also has also been a member of the governing council of the Wexity Maverick Party which bombed at the polls last September.
The more successful People’s Party of Canada (PPC) appears to be less prominent in the Convoy’s prairie-based leadership but has nonetheless mobilized its members to take part with the organizing of “freedom” rallies such as one held in Waterloo on January 27th.
It Can’t Trump Here?:
The opposing responses to the Convoy have been generally dismissive of both its credibility and viability. The ruling Liberals and the tag-along New Democrats have condemned the occupation of the capital with Trudeau indicating he will not back down on COVID measures. Opponents of the Convoy have repeatedly complained about the Ottawa police kid-gloves approach in contrast to RCMP violence against Indigenous protests. These complaints have been accompanied with suggestions that government repression is in order.
Counter-protests have emerged a week into the Convoy’s run with the hallmarks of muddled improvisation and a supine allegiance to the current conservative status quo. The messaging of counter-protests has been strictly one of support for narrow COVID restrictions and measures with moralist appeals for vaccinations (even though 90% of adults already are), “trusting science” (about as effective as lecturing people to believe that the world is round and the sky is blue) and “respecting” health care workers (but silence around continuing austerity and privatization that are destroying public health care).
In my personal interactions, I have encountered repeated assertions that deny the movement can achieve anything politically, particularly the Trumpification of Canada. People point to the evident stupidity and disorganization of the Convoy that has left many of its participants stranded at times without food, fuel or toilet facilities. However, the dumping of O’Toole has already proven the anti-Convoy skeptics wrong and there is likely more to come with murmurs of a COVID climbdown on the part of reactionary governments on the Prairies.
For those who think that Trump can't happen here, consider the example of arch-reactionary Doug Ford in 2018. That alleged ex-gangster monstrosity was merely a Toronto city councillor at the beginning of that year and was nowhere on the radar of Ontario provincial power. Cue a sexual predator scandal of the then-sitting Tory leader and the corpulent Ford was Premier in less than 6 months with full corporate backing. With an enforced quiet on the part of disorganized labour and no initiative from the toy opposition NDP or Liberals, the Ford Tories are currently on track for re-election this June.
All Quiet on the Left Front:
Throughout the pandemic, what passes for a Left in English Canada has played duck and cover with respect to the COVID actions of right-wing governments and corporate cartels. The few left-wing forums that do exist have dutifully retreated to online ghettos despite the safety measures that can be taken to hold in-person meetings (masks, distancing and outdoor events).
Despite initial anger over the lethality of privatized long-term care facilities and the risks taken by (often low-wage) workers in vital industries, initial government income supports and temporary hazard pay seems to have worked in short-circuiting any concerted labour response to the crisis. The record corporate handouts supported by all the establishment parties have been acquiesced to with a minimum of fuss.
A recent Rabble article co-authored by Judy Rebick and Corvin Russell has decried a “vacuum on the left” sketching out a COVID critique of both labour and the NDP. The authors observe that Canadian labour has not followed the lead of unions who fought for worker safety during the pandemic:
Health care unions failed to mobilize to defend members targeted during hospital protests by anti-mask, anti-vax groups. Unions representing factory and food workers largely failed to mobilize for better respiratory protection, despite the expertise of the labour movement’s occupational health and safety sector in this area.
In regard to the NDP, the article notes:
Where in opposition, the NDP has been slow, reactive, and cautious. In British Columbia (BC), where they are in government and where ERs and ICUs have been stretched beyond capacity for months, their strategy has focused on data suppression and public relations, and a push for ‘herd immunity’
This critique of the NDP misses the party’s steadfast defense of corporate subsidies and other profit-looting priorities.
The denial of the Business Freedom Convoy’s political successes and the associated lack of effective left-wing political action in the COVID era are hindering our capacity to stop a far-right politics on the march.
In considering the ongoing political implications of the Convoy and its lessons for democratic politics in Canada, we need to first evaluate the specific accomplishments and character of this regressive movement as a step towards understanding its success.
For now, it appears that the Convoy has laid the foundations for both short-term and longer-range political victory for the far-right. In the realm of public opinion, a majority in support of existing COVID restrictions appears to have shrunk to a minority in a matter of weeks with an Angus Reid poll in late January suggesting that 54% of Canadians support an end to COVID measures. The movement has made rightward waves in the halls of the great, taking down the relatively liberal O'Toole and pushing more right-wing governments towards ending COVID restrictions at a near high-point of pandemic cases.
While the movement has brought out a wide assortment of clowns with fascist boutique issues, the Convoy has succeeded in not getting tripped up like the preceding 2019 pipeline convoy which unsuccessfully tried to wed Oil Cartel interests with Nazi agitation against migrants. The movement’s focus has remained squarely on government measures that Canadian regressives think get in the way of business profits. This business-first notion of freedom glories in the American corporate model and the Trumpian hatred of public health and safety.
The success of such a movement augurs ill for the last democratic checks on corporate power in Canada. One does not have to be a political genius to see how a strident business-first agenda will embolden the establishment to make unions and public services (whose continued existence is characterized as Communism by the far-right) be the scapegoats for record government deficits, economic dislocation and inflation. Already, the drums of union-busting are rolling from regressive rags like the National Post which, prior to the Convoy, demanded an acceleration of health care privatization in response to the pandemic.
For those who correctly fear that creeping fascism in the USA is being imported here, the smashing of what remains of union power and public services will quicken the pace of things. The far-right in Canada is overwhelmingly a pro-American fifth column. The Wexit politics that inspires the Business Freedom Convoy is explicitly warm to the notion of adopting the political malignancies of Uncle Sam even to the point of posing the annexation of Western provinces by the Evil Empire itself.
Which brings us to the lessons for those still dedicated to democratic politics in Canada.
The comprehensive political failure of a would-be Left in English-Canada was already entirely evident before the pandemic. The historic default party of the Left, the NDP, has continued a decades-long embrace of right-wing business-first politics, from endorsing austerity attacks (and, at times, privatization) to the approval of a renewed corporate free trade agreement with America and Mexico in 2020.
During the pandemic, despite unconvincing leftish talk during elections, the federal NDP has boasted about its instrumental role in dramatically widening the initial 10% payroll subsidy proposal from Trudeau into the open-ended 75% give-away in the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy. The NDP is entirely unfit to provide leadership for working people around a single question. Now an otherwise very unappealing assortment of far-right nuts is scoring relatively easy political victories around the key question of the pandemic.
Such a political coincidence demands a vigorous rejection of the NDP and a concerted effort to recast and reorganize a new left-wing politics in Canada. The Greens, by both their own words and deeds, have never been a left-wing party and so we are compelled to go back to drawing board in our political efforts. The bulk of progressive liberals will no doubt insist on continuing to support one of the three pro-corporate federal liberal parties in the name of expediency and time pressures. Leftists should stop following the political lead of progressive liberals whose slavish orientation has resulted in decades of detours and failure from a democratic point of view.
We would do well to learn some lessons from our enemies on the far-right. They have put in the organizing work necessary over years to come to this point. The far-right was not deterred by the failures of the 2019 convoy, Wexit or the first disappointing run of the PPC. The latter upped their game in the last election, combining their campaigning with direct action and the PPC received more than double the votes of the Green Party which only three years ago was viewed as an up-and-coming political concern. Now the far-right have seized further political initiative only months after the election and now are on the brink of a remarkable political victory if and when governments begin to rescind increasingly unpopular COVID measures.
It should be evident that there is little that leftists can do in this precise moment apart from coming to grips with understanding the Convoy movement’s successes to inform the planning and preparation that will make a democratic response to COVID possible on any level. The challenges involved demand that we engage in the building of new political and social networks around the lessons posed here and elsewhere so as to learn from each other and co-ordinate around effective events and campaigns.
Specific to the pandemic, a new left-wing network needs to lay out the vital issues affecting the working majority that COVID has vividly exposed, such as: the rot of health care privatization and endless austerity; the ramped-up theft of working class taxpayers; the housing fiasco; the continued destruction of livelihoods for profit; falling real wages; and worsening labour conditions.
These are matters that a newly reorganized labour movement would be well suited to provide day-to-day leadership around in both workplaces and communities. Developing methods to revive rank and file organizing, whether that be workplace committees in non-union shops, caucuses within union organizations or neighbourhood labour associations, would be facilitated by broader networking efforts.
New left-wing networks also need to engage the political aspects of class conflict where the absence of the Left is most keenly felt, with virtually no current democratic challenges to right-wing governments at any level. One aspect of this work would be to consider a fruitful democratic relationship between labour organizing, protest movements and political electoral action.
Learning from the Convoy, which does not fear combining protests with politics, leftists must set aside their syndicalist disdain for electoral combat; an attitude which only reinforces the political dominance of right-wing liberal parties like the NDP. We should be aiming to organize specific struggles outside elections in a way that can be readily translated into democratic political action. Such electoral activity would not be premised on winning votes and positions by compromising left-wing approaches but, instead, would seek to win broader political support for uncompromising democratic aims.
Again, the role of a revived labour movement is critical to the emergence of a democratic politics in Canada. The independent political action of labour through effective focused campaigns (starting at the local level) can introduce and rally people to a democratic perspective that prioritizes the material interests of working communities. Through reliable hard-working candidates backed by labour-led elector organizations, ordinary people can see examples of what true democratic political leadership looks like and be convinced to take up their responsibility to contribute beyond mere voting. By intruding into the one mass realm in which politics is currently organized, elections can become an ongoing organizing school of struggle through which the working majority can learn to translate their needs and aspirations into a viable long-term political program of democratic change.
Gabriel Haythornthwaite is a PhD Candidate at Western University's Faculty of Education and a long-time political trouble-maker.