Though truckers are supposed to be the central actors in the current convoy protests that have led this week to invocation of the Emergencies Act, the social grievances of truckers themselves are strangely absent from any of the public discussion.
Just like the 1971 film Duel, which revolves around a deranged and unknown truck driver who terrorizes an unsuspecting salesman in the lawless landscape of the California desert, the unseen driver and his motives remain a mystery, receding behind the figure of their menacing truck.
The imagery generated by the spectre of threatening trucks and their anonymous drivers so skillfully brought to life in Duel has had a lasting impact on popular culture. The result has been that in even the best of times, truck driving is dismissed by some as a job of last resort chosen only by those with few other choices.
Of course, these are not the best of times for Canada’s often unseen truck drivers. It is precisely their anonymity and the symbolic menace of their trucks that have made them the ideal conduit for the sort of disruption and chaos anti-mandate protesters thrive on.
As the convoy rolled into Ottawa last week, it didn’t take long for the truck drivers participating in the protest, which arguably was never really about them to begin with, to become the focus of negative attention from all fronts. As the protest drags on, in smaller numbers in Ottawa but in satellite locations throughout the country, its many audiences have focussed almost entirely on the trucks themselves, as objectified representations of pent-up pandemic-driven, aggression, danger, radicalism, and menace.
As someone who has dedicated my professional life to championing the motivations truck drivers have for doing their demanding, lonely, and highly skilled work, it was first with interest and even a little excitement that I watched the growth of the so-called Freedom Convoy. Early on, I was encouraged by the renewed support for truck drivers who had once again been thrust into the pandemic spotlight.
COVID-19 pandemic was not all bad for truck drivers, after all. In the early days of the pandemic, truckers were one of the first groups to be valorized as essential workers. Recall the images of makeshift community-led drive-throughs providing meals for pandemic weary and stranded drivers as they delivered our essential goods.
Even before the convoy reached Ottawa, however, it was becoming clear that any space for legitimate discussion of Canadian truck drivers’ concerns was becoming quickly overshadowed by the motivations of opportunistic agitators, including the tiny percentage of truck drivers rolling into Ottawa, aligned with a wide range of largely anti-government grievances.
Discussion of truckers’ well-being was quickly subordinated to the convoluted demands of nationalist, sometimes white supremacist, and otherwise ill-conceived anti-vaccination, and anti-Trudeau rhetoric. Very quickly, it seemed, truck drivers – the apparent raison d’etre of the convoy – stood to lose far more than they bargained for by supporting the demonstration, in person or otherwise.
Let me be clear: the work truck drivers do is tireless, dangerous, and wrought with vulnerability that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. This is especially true for those who own their own trucks, including most of the truck drivers caught up in the convoy.
The question must be asked: how would early-pandemic-inspired goodwill towards truck drivers and the glimpse of awareness into their unenviable working conditions,have been mobilized if the convoy had actually been about truck drivers to begin with?
Organizers could have legitimized the roots of truckers’ demands instead of diverting public attention to the demonstrably minimal impact of vaccine mandates – 90 per cent of truck drivers are fully vaccinated, after all. Or, they could have brought the impacts of the race-to-the-bottom ethos of the deregulated trucking industry, which forces drivers into dangerous and sometimes illegal situations to survive, to the attention of the policymakers so often eager to see and be seen at the protest.
They could also have rallied media attention to the persistent inability of the trucking industry to professionalize the occupation – a vital step needed to replace a shortfall of 55,000 truck drivers in Canada by the end of 2023. Or, they could even have used the convoy’s social media presence (and considerable fundraising capacity) to draw attention to the toll that trucking takes on truckers’ and their families’ health and economic security, with many drivers struggling to survive amidst growing fuel and operating costs and stagnant or declining real wages.
Certainly, all these issues predated COVID-19 and the convoy, but instead of being empowered to demand change on any of these fronts, the only option for truck drivers involved was to honk for social change – anonymously and menacingly – in solidarity with a protest organization that is demonstrably less concerned with truck drivers than its own agenda.
Two weeks after the convoy rolled into Ottawa, and with similar protests popping up throughout the country, the only thing that is clear is the murky and confusing motivations, increasingly tangential to the truck drivers’ realities.
Ultimately, these protests will end. Money and energy will run out, and even the most stalwart of its supporters will return home. What does the finality offered by the convoy look like for its key supports and audiences?
While condemning the protest from afar, the trucking industry will undoubtedly stay the course by relying on its long-lived mantra – If you’ve got it a truck brought it – without any commitment to finding solutions for the very real problems it has created for truckers. The pandemic-weary public will remember only the menacing and disrupting behaviours that ground their lives to a halt.
In Duel, finality is achieved when the unseen driver’s truck is sent careening over a cliff and order is restored. For the truck drivers participating in the convoy, and indeed for the unseen majority of Canada’s 225,000 truck drivers who cannot afford the financial burden of protesting, the finality of the protest will come with no tangible gains, as they continue to teeter perilously close to the edge of a financial cliff.