The Canadian working class is organized yet ideologically confused. A few weeks ago, in late April and early May, Rolling Thunder descended upon Ottawa. It was a protest event inspired by the Freedom Convoy in February
Neil Sheard, a key organizer, distanced himself from some of Rolling Thunder’s less palatable attendees: Chris “Sky” Saccoccia, a conspiracy theorist with a history of Holocaust denial, racism, and homophobia who once claimed on Facebook that Adolph Hitler was “bang on, like he has a crystal ball into the future.”
Sheard described the Rolling Thunder rally as a way for Canadian citizens to pay their respects to veterans. Organized through online Facebook groups and messaging channels on Slack and Discord, both the trucker and biker convoys have been some of the most publicized examples of working class organizing in a decade. But why have these movements materialized? What do they mean for Canadian politics? Are they a threat, a barrier, or a nuisance for working people?
In February, writing for The Brunswickan, UNB’s student newspaper, I attended a Freedom Convoy rally in Fredericton. It was clear that while the convoy was made up of several disparate groups, everyone had similar working class backgrounds, and their fury was unmatched.
I approached one man, yelling uncoordinated chants out of sync with everyone else.
“What do you think about incorporating other demands into the movement,” I asked. “Like raising wages and increasing rates of unionization?”
“It’s not about that,” he answered, his tone resolute and his eyes unflinching. “They [politicians] are liars. They work for the corporate masters.”
I was excited that he had identified the influence of corporate interests on electoral politics. I began to ask him about the “c” word, class.
“I’m not against corporatism,” he answered, cutting me short. “I’m not against business. I’d rather die on my feet than be a slave to a communist government.”
“Trudeau, that’s a communist,” he continued. “His father was a communist. His father was Fidel Castro. And a lot of people don’t know that, but he’s got communist beliefs, and he wants to limit freedom of speech.”
As the man spoke, he moved away from my question about class. His argument seemed fourfold. First, corporations run the system by controlling elected politicians. Second, corporations and businesses are forces for good. Third, politicians are all communists, which means communism is when corporations run the political show. Fourth, this means that labour and left reforms are also communism and not worth pursuing.
The argument is hard to follow and inherently contradictory.
Still, the man’s fear of corporate power stems from a set of fundamental oppressions that working people face. Where his analysis falters is that it draws from a wide range of common-sense beliefs championed by the status quo: anti-leftism, corporatism, and culture war wedge issues brewed up by think tanks in the United States that divide rather than unite exploited political communities.
Later, I approached another attendee, this time a woman dancing and waving the Canadian flag.
“It’s just enough already,” she said. “I need a job. I don’t need a vaccine.”
I asked her to explain.
“It’s either you get a job, or you don’t even get hired. You don’t even get your foot in the door. That’s not right. That’s not Canadian. That’s not human rights. That’s extortion. And that’s stealing my livelihood, and it’s preventing me from earning my fucking living wage, which they won’t even provide.”
“Just give me a job,” she ended, pleading.
“I haven’t had any government assistance since the start of COVID two years ago. I can’t get a job now because I’m not vaccinated, but I can hold a sign and scream really loud.”
Before I left, I approached another attendee: a veteran standing near a black pickup truck.
“Oppression, it’s not a single thing,” he said. “Like it’s not Black. It’s not White. It’s not Asian. It’s oppression to people.”
“In a place that we consider a first world democratic society, I believe that our minimum wage should be way higher,” he continued. “I live in Saint John, where we have the highest child poverty rate in Canada.”
Still, a subtle form of classless and colour-blind nationalism underlined his thinking, I thought.
“We [need to] start treating people with respect and dignity,” he ended. “We should be able to meet in the middle and say, ‘I respect you because you’re a Canadian.’ And that’s what makes us, that’s what separates us from every other culture in this world.”
On balance, what both convoy protests show is that more Canadians than ever see the current economic and political systems as hopelessly stacked against them. Despite subtle changes in party and policy, life for most people has steadily deteriorated over the last half century. Political economists see this deterioration as a product of the 1970s and a turn toward neoliberalism, which began when Richard Nixon abandoned the gold standard.
In Canada, the current neoliberal order—agreed upon by the Liberal, Conservative, New Democratic, and Green parties—is maintained with great effort. War memorials like the one in Ottawa play an important role in this process by helping to create a sense of national identity.
Sheard, a central organizer for Rolling Thunder, enlisted with the Canadian armed forces and served two tours in Iraq. He was discharged due to injuries. While Sheard and other organizers saw the first Freedom Convoy as a success, he also understood its political failings. For example, in February, the Freedom Convoy participants chose to desecrate Ottawa’s War Memorial. The act became a point of fissure and lightning rod for critique from the Liberal and Conservative centre.
On April 30, Rolling Thunder sought to make amends for the earlier desecration by laying a wreath atop the War Memorial and paying respect to their fallen comrades.
For Sheard and others, Rolling Thunder represented an opportunity for the anti-establishment fringe to preserve Canada’s warlike and nationalistic sensibility.
In Canada, war memorials like the one in Ottawa serve a dual purpose. First, the creation of a national mythos tied to classless nationalism and warlike pacificism. This mythos bypasses critique of Canada’s role in contemporary military engagements and genocidal campaigns—Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen, among others.
Second, by cloaking wars in a vague sense of remembrance and social responsibility, memorials commemorate past military operations in order to enable further military action abroad. Memorials present Canadian war efforts as historical and non-existent rather than as contemporary, every day, and on-going.
What to conclude?
The convoys and its participants were struggling with systemic and subtle oppressions at the very center of contemporary life: poverty, wage exploitation, and growing inequality between working people and the wealthy. Still, the convoy and its organizers lack a language and theory capable of explaining these oppressions.
With media monopolies having become so commonplace in both New Brunswick and North America more generally, more people than ever have come to adopt the common-sense values of the groups who govern them. The convoy and its proponents have fallen victim to a political sleight of hand. The economic and social grievances of the participants in the convoy are real and acute, and yet, organizers have rerouted these grievances to fit within conservative and pro-corporate narratives.
At the same time, there remains an unwillingness on the part of the Canadian left to offer an alternative politics capable of orienting these grievances toward solutions that benefit working people. Wider forms of cooperation, solidarity, and grassroots organizing have been abandoned in favour of privatization schemes that undermine necessary resources in healthcare and education. As a result, the lives of working Canadians have become more precarious and less conducive to direct action, taking potential activists away from the streets and back to the polling booths.
Harrison Dressler is a researcher and writer working out of the Human Environments Workshop (HEW) funded by RAVEN. He writes on New Brunswick and Canadian history, labour, politics, and environmental activism. Reporting and research contributions by Marlowe Evans, editor-in-chief for the Brunswickan, were indispensable during the writing of this article.