Vaccines, Truckers, and White Supremacy between the US and Canada

“Freedom” Convoy, Ottawa, Canada, February 12, 2022 (Wikimedia Commons)

On January 28, 2022, with plenty of social media forewarning, hundreds of large rigs, pick-up trucks, cars, and a few thousand protestors shut down Canada’s capital, Ottawa. Peaking at a few thousand then quickly falling in number, protestors initially touted the cause of freedom from US and Canadian rules requiring cross-border truckers to be fully vaccinated to enter either country. Still the vehicles remained over three weeks, their messaging broadened, and the protestors moved in swells—blocking off main thoroughfares in front of Parliament, its surrounding streets, and hundreds of homes and businesses that serve Canada’s dense public servant workforce each day. Convoy occupation support spread to US-Canada border crossings, where white truckers blocked essential trade routes for weeks.

In Ottawa there were no military style AR-15s strapped to white fathers and sons, no heads of state buoying up the angry masses, no wooden gallows, and no crowds of well-groomed young men marching with fire sticks into the night. Instead, there were lively symbols: makeshift daycares and bouncy castles, wooden DJ stages instead of rustic gallows, and an inflatable hot tub to bolster the image of an easy and innocent atmosphere. Portrayed widely on international news and social media, this nearly all white group of protestors in Trudeau’s Canada behaved quite different from their American counterparts on January 6th. Perhaps this is why The New York Times got it so wrong when it wrote, in an arrogant and decisive editorial on February 10, 2022, that the protestors should “have a right to be noisy and even disruptive.”

On the ground, however, a more insidious reality was documented. Semi-trucks and eighteen wheelers ran continuously, blackening the narrow capitol streets with toxic diesel exhaust and incessant horn blaring. Middle-aged men yelled at masked public servants, then banged through the night, caring nil about parents’ pleas for quiet. Local residents were regularly accosted and harassed by a few hundred lingering white, largely male protestors, and reports of the widespread terror experienced by local children, women, disabled citizens, and volunteers are still being documented. Within the first few days of the occupation, police collected hundreds of reports of hate crimes.

Tellingly stock icons of white supremacy flowered within the festive crowds, symbolizing a familiar kinship—Confederate and yellow Gadsen flags, la meute symbols, swastikas, pro-Trump and other hateful signsAfter the city’s first Black police chief was unable to mobilize the Ottawa Police Service (OPS)—some of whose members became convoy-supporting TikTok sensations during the occupation or had earlier resigned for conspiring with local towing companieshe quietly stepped down. In addition to public support from American right-wing and fascist politicians, thousands of US donors used GiveSendGo—an ultraconservative crowdfunding site previously used for Kyle Rittenhouse and ProudBoys—to express their support for the occupation in Ottawa. Copycat convoys appeared in Europe and the US. Black and Indigenous organizers throughout Canada noted the exceptional deference given to a miniscule group of white Canadians who terrorized residents for twenty-one days and in turn, cost Canada astronomically. Over three weeks policing expenses equaled $35 million, border blockades cost hundreds of millions in lost wages and production in the automotive industry, local businesses lost $150 to $200 million, and Canada’s gross domestic product dropped by billions of dollars. We now know that the nation’s largest police and security agencies were not only uniquely sympathetic to the white protestors, but also provided the “steady stream of information and leaks” that protected them, something movement organizers and Canadian criminologists had long surmised.

The three-week long convoy occupation is the most important modern case study to elucidate Canada’s history of white supremacy and the burgeoning intimacy of white right-wing extremism globally—one that has not before had Canada as its leading protagonist. Globally Canada has a reputation of tolerance, goodness, and diversity—the antithesis of America’s anti-Black foundation. Yet, as Canadian historians have documented, this is ahistorical. The popular misinterpretation of the convoy as benign or righteous is due, in good part, to a mythic national innocence that Canada has built to distinguish itself from America’s treatment of Black people. Together these histories share a kinship with America’s settler colonial foundations, but the inflatable hot tubs at Trump-sympathizing protests also feel distinctly Canadian. As journalists and parliamentarians noted during the occupation, Canada has always been in the import-export business of white supremacy. Thus to fully understand the convoy occupation is to reckon with Canada’s history of anti-Blackness and a fabled national narrative that led even the world’s most powerful news outlets to mistakenly proclaim its innocence.

While its own 200-year history of slavery has been decentered by its popular “North Star” narrative, Canada’s history of anti-Blackness is illustrated through a culture of Black representation that arose in its aftermath. Anti-Black stereotypes dominated popular entertainment beginning in the nineteenth century with well-conditioned tropes of Black inferiority and a folkloric Canadian history. When the film, Birth of a Nation, arrived in Canada in 1915, its widespread success was not only possible due to its history of slavery, but also a plantation nostalgia that enamored white Canadians. In Toronto for example, “the almost exclusively white crowds went wild” at viewings.1  The film was shown in the nation’s capital as well as small rural communities such as New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, where the film was shown annually at the Roseland Theatre. In nearby New Brunswick, where at least one community enforced its own de facto “sundown law,” the film was shown uncensored in 1916 despite protests from local Black residents.2 White locals celebrated “one of their own” through Birth of a Nation actor Sam Degrasse, born in Bathurst, New Brunswick, in 1875.3

Blackface minstrel shows were, perhaps, the most popular form of entertainment in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with hundreds performed from Quebec to British Columbia between 1840 and 1965. From 1850-1900 minstrel shows became a primary form of theatrical entertainment in the Atlantic region, with many documented performances taking place in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. These gatherings created opportunities, by the thousands, for white Canadians to personalize aberrant and degrading representations of Black speech, behavior, and affect as entertainment. Importantly, for most white Canadians, these stereotyped caricatures reinforced their only corporeal encounters with Blackness. As cultural historian Cheryl Thompson explains, minstrelsy and Blackface were so common that they became “familiar comforts” to white Canadians who desired a voyeuristic, yet guiltless experience of slaveholding culture in the US South. This elusive disjuncture between desire and practice allowed Canada to bolster its reputation as beneficent on the world stage as it did with the convoy occupation last winter.

Canadian scholars Barbara Perry and Bryan Scrivens have described right-wing extremism (RWE) in the US and Canada as a “loose movement, characterized by a racially, ethnically and sexually defined nationalism,” one “often framed in terms of white power.” While Perry and Scrivens do differentiate between RWE in Canada and the US, Canada’s history of anti-Black and settler colonial violence, as well as the well-organized convoy occupation, contradict the description of RWE as a “loose movement” in the nation. Ottawa’s all white occupation and all white border blockades last winter are a mirror to a history and present that we must not turn away from.

  1. Allan Bartley, The Ku Klux Klan in Canada: A Century of Promoting Racism and Hate in the Peaceable Kingdom (Halifax, Nova Scotia: Formac Publishing Company, 2020), 15.
  2. Robin Winks, Blacks in Canada: A History (Montreal, Quebec; Kingston, Ontario: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997), 325.
  3. Bartley, 23.
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Rachel Zellars

Dr. Rachel Zellars, M.A., J.D., Ph.D., is a lawyer, Senior Research Fellow, and Assistant Professor at Saint Mary's University in the Department of Social Justice & Community Studies in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her research and scholarship focus on the history of Black Canada beginning with the American Revolution; slavery in the Maritimes and the lives of enslaved women; and gender violence and transformative justice.