Down a Blind Alley with the Freedom Convoy

The breath-taking inanity of the “Freedom Convoy” and the anti-vax movement is exposed in this piercing article by Ben D’Andrea. Are there no limits to this madness, based on misinformation and lies about unlimited freedom?

The breath-taking inanity of the “Freedom Convoy” and the anti-vax movement is exposed in this piercing article by Ben D’Andrea. Are there no limits to this madness, based on misinformation and lies about unlimited freedom?

Demands for political or personal freedom run the gamut from indisputable to highly suspect. One unequivocal call for freedom is that of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, whose country Putin’s army invaded in February 2022. A month before that all-out invasion, Canadian protesters of the self-styled Freedom Convoy also staked a claim to liberty when for three weeks they parked thousands of their big rigs and pickup trucks in downtown Ottawa.

In his address to Canada’s Parliament, Zelensky described the Kremlin’s war of aggression as “an attempt to destroy our future … our nation, our character.” Invoking the right to independence and self-defence, he has urged Canada and all democratic nations to supply the military hardware his country’s soldiers need to retake Russian-occupied territory. For Zelensky and his compatriots, freedom means ousting an imperialist invader. In the former Soviet republic, from front-line trenches to civilian bomb shelters, freedom speaks with one nationwide voice.

Nowhere near as evident is what freedom meant to those protesters who camped out night after night in their commercial trucks parked on the downtown and residential streets of Canada’s capital. Of course, there’s more than one way to define freedom. And threats to freedom can emerge from within a country as well as from without. “Like happiness and goodness,” wrote political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, the term freedom is “so porous that there is little interpretation that it seems able to resist.” Who can be against freedom if it’s defined fuzzily or not at all?

The leaders and organizers of the Freedom Convoy tapped into a truncated notion of liberty that’s egocentric and politically divisive. Their take on personal freedom draws upon a trove of right-wing populist grievances, social and economic, supercharged by disinformation spread on social media. Within such an ideological bubble, where second thoughts equate to profanity, even a legitimate complaint will escalate into outrage over a horrible wrong perceived as the government’s existential assault on freedom.

Covid-19 vaccination requirements for commercial truckers crossing the Canada–U.S. border, imposed early in 2022, jump-started the effort to organize the truck convoys bound for Ottawa. But protesters’ complaints went far beyond the financial impact of those new rules on that small minority of truckers who chose not to get vaccinated. Protesters objected to the entire package of public-health measures intended to control spread of the coronavirus throughout the pandemic: limits on travel and large gatherings, mask and test mandates, vaccine and quarantine requirements, and lockdown orders. In their view, these restrictions were blatant violations of their personal rights, attempts by an overreaching state to control their lives.

Berlin pointed out that freedom to live as we wish “must be weighed against the claims of many other values, of which equality, or justice, or happiness, or security, or public order are perhaps the most obvious examples.”

A veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces who travelled to Ottawa to join the convoy protest referred provocatively to Covid-mitigation policies as “constant persecution after persecution.” For the imaginary persecuted among the anti-mandate agitators, harassment must also have been the intent behind the government’s pandemic aid programs that distributed, according to Canada’s Auditor-General, over $200 billion to individuals and businesses.

On February 14, 2022, three weeks into the increasingly lawless protest, the Trudeau government invoked the Emergencies Act, after which police from across the country cleared convoy trucks from Ottawa streets, and protest encampments from its parks. At the hearings of the Public Order Emergency Commission tasked with reviewing the decision to invoke the act, convoy leaders explained their motivations for protesting.

Ending mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations was the goal of Tamara Lich, the leading fundraiser for the Freedom Convoy. Positioning herself at the vanguard of a liberty procession, she said in sworn testimony: “As the convoy came across Canada, you know, Canadians were telling us, ‘Don’t stop. Don’t stop until we’re free. Don’t stop until the mandates are lifted.’” In her telling, vaccination mandates had obliterated freedom. She implied that they had caused social breakdown, even suicides. Families had been “torn apart.” In her hometown the suicides were “so numerous that they stopped reporting them.” She held those government mandates responsible for all the socio-psychological consequences of the global pandemic.

Like other leaders of the Freedom Convoy, Lich didn’t say if the mandates — or any other public-health interventions — might have prevented vulnerable people from getting fatally ill. Nor did an acknowledgment that tens of thousands in Canada had lost their lives to Covid-19 break through her self-assured narrative premised on unlimited personal freedom.

Apparently, not even the public-health emergency of a highly infectious and deadly respiratory disease could require any sacrifice of individual freedom. They are not champions of liberty who, in order to grasp it for themselves, expose the vulnerable to danger. “Freedom without limits,” French-Algerian author and philosopher Albert Camus said, can only be experienced “at the expense ultimately of the death of others.”

Philosopher Isaiah Berlin warned about the risk of upholding freedom as an absolute law, that is, “as something good without qualification.” Individual liberty has always been a question of degree. Its extent can vary, and it is in fact limited by laws to prevent injustice to the weakest in society. “Where there is no law there is no freedom,” wrote English philosopher John Locke. Three centuries later, Camus echoed him: “Freedom without limits is the opposite of freedom.” Social chaos looms wherever unrestricted personal freedom holds sway.

The “thousands of Canadians” Lich encountered in her motor trek across Canada validated her unchallenged conviction about freedom. In emotional testimony, she described “little old ladies praying on their knees on the side of the road” and “little children holding signs saying ‘Thank you for giving me back my future.’” Lich didn’t elaborate on what those pious seniors were praying for. Nor did she explain how those little children could have regarded their future as newly secured even before the Ottawa-bound convoy had reached its destination, much less its goal of ending vaccination mandates. Leading the faithful along the highway to her Damascus, as it were, demanded a passable level of self-delusion.

From behind the steering wheel of a truck leading a jumbo convoy, roadside pantomimes, those with a devotional aura in particular, evidently expressed the mystical hope: “Don’t stop until we’re free.” Kindled by emotionalism, some visions of liberty achieve a mythic status immune to rational criticism or common-sense objections. Freedom in its hard-right populist guise is always at risk of extinction. Rescuing it before it dies out — with violent protest if necessary — demands the urgency of a sacred duty.

Like an admonitory ghost, a hard fact haunts Lich’s messianic story of freedom. The coronavirus pandemic had a devastating financial impact not just on truckers but on millions of Canadians. Like so many, Lich was unfortunately laid off when the oil-and-gas-services company she worked for suffered a pandemic-related downturn. On her cross-country odyssey, she heard from people who had endured far more hardship than she had from joblessness: families that ended up “living in their vehicles” and others who “lost everything.”

Regardless of causes, widespread unemployment can incite the collective action of public demonstrations. But Lich’s main complaint wasn’t that countless people had lost their livelihoods. Nor was it the main complaint, as revealed in their testimonies, of the other leaders and organizers of the Freedom Convoy. They didn’t demand what under the circumstances might be expected: reopen the economy to restore jobs. Despite differences in temperament between the mobilizers of the Freedom Convoy, all of them, like Lich, confirmed in sworn testimony that their goal was to be liberated from mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations. During the protest, the Terry Fox statue near Parliament Hill displayed an anti-vaccine-mandate sign.

Theirs was an ideological battle waged with the preeminent symbols of their tribal affiliation: big rigs, trucks, and even motor homes. Built to haul payloads in the tens of thousands of pounds, transport trucks took up most of the limited parking available on Ottawa streets, gridlocking the downtown. Not nearly as disruptive to the entire city is the conventional method of chartering buses to drop off scores of protesters onto that venerable national locus of public demonstrations, Parliament Hill.

As Ottawa residents discovered, there’s no cloud-cuckoo-land where truck convoys are peaceful. They’re intended for maximum disruption. Ear-splitting air horns weren’t an innovation stumbled upon when the convoy arrived in downtown Ottawa. They were integral to the protest from the outset.

The owner of a Saskatchewan trucking business and self-described “internet troll” Christopher Barber was one of the chief organizers of the Freedom Convoy. In sworn testimony, he described being “very angry” at the Federal Government’s decision to require truckers to be vaccinated before crossing the border. His online rants have targeted the “liberal left.”

A road captain who led the Southwestern Ontario section of the convoy to Ottawa in her pickup truck, Brigitte Belton testified that the purpose of the protest was to “end the mandates” so that she “could go back to work” as an independent truck driver. In defence of her anti-vax position, she suggested the Covid-19 vaccine could kill her. Echoing the populist message common in the alternative-medicine movement, she said that “bodily autonomy” belonged to her, not the government.

James Bauder, self-described “alpha male trucker,” was another key organizer of the Freedom Convoy. Covid-19 public-health measures were “unlawful,” he said, and Prime Minister Trudeau is guilty of treason. He saw himself as pioneering a movement to restore “lawful freedom of choice.” Under oath, he explained that God told him to “put this convoy together.” Like Belton, he found in the company of the like-minded a sense of legitimacy for his marginal beliefs. His opinions veer towards the conspiratorial: mRNA Covid-19 vaccines are, in his words, a “gene-altering therapy,” and the 2020 U.S. election was “rigged” against Donald Trump.

A fifth convoy mobilizer was Patrick King. Self-defined “hothead,” he too testified that the vaccination mandates prompted his involvement with the Freedom Convoy.

Under oath, Ottawa residents and municipal officials described how convoy demonstrators had upended their lives. Their complaints included the blaring of truck horns day and night, noxious diesel fumes, open fires and propane tanks near buildings and cars, and antagonistic behaviour by anti-vaccine-mandate protesters.

Lich’s answer to a question about these tribulations landed with the hard thud of denialism. Alluding again to her messianic role, she described encountering “hundreds and hundreds of Ottawa residents” who thanked her for giving them “hope.” Asked a specific question about threats to Ottawa citizens by convoy protesters, she compared reports by city residents to hearsay: “There was always rumours, but I never personally witnessed any behaviour like that whatsoever.” To her, the truckers’ occupation of the country’s capital was “the biggest lovefest” she’d ever participated in. A block party, it seems, is a quick fix to myriad perplexing challenges in a time of pandemic.

Lich’s cohorts also engaged in self-serving deflection, disregarding or downplaying complaints that commercial trucks had blockaded the city. Denying evidence that conflicts with entrenched beliefs is the hallmark trait of the ideologue whose motivations, naturally, are unimpeachable. Asked about Ottawa residents’ complaints that the honking of air horns, and the even louder “train” horns installed in some trucks, kept them awake at night, King went on the defensive with chutzpah and a dubious comparison: “Did they remember what we went through for the last two years? What’s a little bit of horns for ten days?”

Defensiveness leaps to the fore in anger to shield ideological intransigence from factual evidence. Blocked is any path to clear thinking about the social variables that can and often should limit individual freedom. Berlin pointed out that freedom to live as we wish “must be weighed against the claims of many other values, of which equality, or justice, or happiness, or security, or public order are perhaps the most obvious examples.”

In the subjectivist bubble that was the Freedom Convoy, where the connection between an infectious disease and widespread death had yet to be proven, many protesters experienced a curious awakening as to the close-contact power of hugs for promoting unity even as the city around them descended into chaos. A former member of the RCMP and a member of Mounties for Freedom, an organization that opposed Covid-mitigation measures and the Covid-19 vaccine, described the first weekend of the protests as “hugs all over the place.” For his part, King testified: “Everywhere you went, you were getting hugs,” and Bauder called for “giving bear hugs.” Another protest participant was astonished to see “grown men crying and giving hugs.” In his testimony, Barber recalled: “There was so many tears, there was so many hugs, there was so much laughter.”

At the expense of the citizens of Ottawa — and while turning up the heat in a climate of ideological polarization — these self-selected members of the convoy family enjoyed wide latitude, up until the invocation of the Emergencies Act, to experience a cliquish fantasy of unity reinforced with such essential protest trappings as inflatable hot tubs, weekend barbecues, and bouncy castles. Why would the organizers of a protest against vaccine mandates be surprised to find themselves surrounded by like-minded truckers, not to mention holiday-makers, disposed to giving hugs? Just as their touchy-feely sense of unity required blinders as well as rose-coloured glasses, so too did their perception of freedom. They gadded about a fictitious capital conjured up by groupthink.

Only one of the five principal convoy organizers showed a willingness to take account of actual events, and, on some level, to consider his assumptions about freedom. Under questioning, Barber admitted that the dangerously loud honking of thousands of trucks could not be considered part of a peaceful protest. He agreed that big rigs and trucks had gridlocked the city. His implicit recognition that our core freedoms, like that of political expression, must be exercised responsibly stands in stark contrast to his cohorts’ evasions and illusions. In a moment of self-examination rare among the convoy leaders, Barber also regretted having posted “nasty racist and anti-Muslim content.”

More than a year after the trucks and big rigs departed Ottawa, the Freedom Convoy has emerged clearly in retrospect as an exercise in collective populist deception — tumultuous and absurd. Its leading defenders of liberty were oblivious to the shared responsibility that forever links the personal and common-good spheres of freedom. Their brand of freedom sells like cut-rate merchandise in the populist marketplace to anyone with a grievance against targets in the professional and political class. “Freedom has children,” Camus said in the middle of the last century, “who are not all legitimate and admirable.” Fortunately, no convoy organizer had the ruthless populist cunning of a Donald Trump.

Far from Ottawa, Ukrainians are fighting for true liberty against a savage regime bent on obliterating their nation and identity. Freedom is the hard duty, to echo Camus, that we owe to one another — certainly in wartime but not only then.