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Nicholas H. Wolfinger: Trudeau’s response to the trucker protest is harsh but understandable

Canadians are not pleased with what they see as foreign interference in their domestic politics.

(Brett Gundlock | The New York Times) Protestors in downtown, Ottawa, Canada, Feb. 11, 2022.

The news that the Canadian government has responded to the trucker protest with emergency powers that allow it to temporarily seize bank accounts without a court order has generated a firestorm of condemnation on both sides of the border.

Even many commentators who aren’t on the record as supporting the trucker protest are uneasy with the prospect. Some progressives who harbor little sympathy for the protestors worry about setting a disturbing precedent: Perhaps next time, these emergency powers will be unleashed against a left-wing protest movement?

I understand these concerns but suspect even well-meaning American observers haven’t really tried to probe the Canadian government’s motivations. In the end, I’m sympathetic to Prime Minister’s Justin Trudeau’s position without being fully comfortable with his government’s broad emergency powers.

I suspect the Canadian government has been influenced by what it’s seen from the United States over the past couple of years. The protests themselves have had a distinctly un-Canadian flavor, with its demands for freedom and Gadsden flags. Like many European countries — but unlike America — Canadians place greater emphasis on their collective well-being than on individual rights. American protestors routinely demand freedom, but this is a relatively unfamiliar spectacle up north.

The Canadian truckers have received considerable backing from the United States. Many GOP politicians in America have offered their support, including former President Donald Trump and senators such as Ted Cruz of Texas. After gofundme.com stopped accepting donations for the truckers, funding efforts shifted to the Christian crowd-sourcing platform givesendgo.com. This was promptly hacked, revealing the identities of the donors. Over half were Americans. None of these developments could have been too welcome in Ottawa. What country wants to see foreigners meddle in its domestic politics?

And what the Canadian government observed down south over the past couple of years couldn’t have been encouraging. In April of 2020 armed protestors occupied the Michigan statehouse a couple of weeks after Trump tweeted the words “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” in response to COVID restrictions there. In December, armed protestors occupied the Oregon statehouse; this time a member of the Legislature literally unlocked the door for them. A few weeks later, protestors attempted to stop the certification of election results on January 6. Pundits and state and federal legislators have blessed all these mass actions.

The trucker protest has adhered to Canadian stereotypes in many ways. Initially the protestors honked their horns late into the night, but they politely desisted after a court order. And the protests have been mostly free of violence.

But a group of 11 was arrested in Alberta for plotting violence. Fourteen guns were seized, along with body armor and high capacity magazines illegal in Canada (but legal in most U.S. states).

Put this all together: a persistent criminal protest movement receiving encouragement and material support from the same folks that recently supported unprecedented forms of political violence in the United States, and you might appreciate why the Canadian government is willing to adopt harsh measures to quell the occupation of its capital.

Nicholas H. Wolfinger Professor, Department of Family and Consumer Studies, Adjunct Professor, Department of Sociology University of Utah

Nicholas H. Wolfinger is professor of family and consumer studies and adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Utah. His most recent book is Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Children, and Marriage Among African Americans and Latinos (with W. Bradford Wilcox; Oxford University Press, 2016).

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