We are now into the third week of the ‘Freedom Convoy’ that has besieged downtown Ottawa, inspiring similar protests at border bridges across Canada and throughout the province of Ontario. What we have witnessed is a total abdication of responsibility by all levels of government, evidenced by their failure to provide any real institutional response to a hostile group organized chiefly by western separatists and white supremacists. These failures have been exacerbated by Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who time and again has cowered in the face of any crisis that was not artificially manufactured by himself and his party.
First, let’s be clear about what the convoy represents: this is a ‘movement’ that has come together to manifest a form of libertarianism rooted in the total refusal of its adherents to bear any consequences for actions that can undermine the community around them—a toxic individualism and selfishness that has been deepened by neoliberalism, and inflamed by the pandemic and festering anti-democratic sentiment. The convoy has attempted to cloak itself in “anti-mandate” and anti-vaccination discourse, but in practice it has mostly boiled down to random bursts of decontextualized yelling about “freedom!” with all the jingoism of a “USA!” chant and an understanding of negative liberty akin to a toddler refusing to eat vegetables.
Critical political theorist Wendy Brown helpfully identifies this recent historical moment and tone of politics as rooted in a form of nihilism and resentment that rears its head as a destructive acting out through anti-democratic grievance and enraged entitlement. This is what the convoy ultimately represents in its politics. The reality is members of the convoy have been harassing people wearing masks, attacking homeless centres, and invading public spaces. Convoy members have also been accused of not just assaulting Ottawans, but attempting to set an apartment on fire after residents complained about their actions.
If there is anybody who understands empty discourse, right populism, and neoliberalized individualism, it is certainly the heir and namesake of Ford Nation. As I wrote in a previous article for Canadian Dimension, Premier Ford utilized a populist dichotomy of “the people” versus “the elites,” with the former representing “everyday Ontarians” and taxpayers, and the latter representing “downtown elites” and “special interests.” Politicians and bureaucrats are cast as entities working against the interests of the people and represent their own selfish interests, akin to the public choice anti-democratism of James Buchanan and Friedrich Hayek.
Compared to the Freedom Convoy leaders, Ford is a reserved right populist, yet he has similarly embraced an us-versus-them politics designed to attack the concept of majority rule, deliberation, and democratic decision making. While the convoy is explicitly more reactionary on its face, both it and Ford represent a politics rooted in undermining liberal democracy.
Ford and federalism
Ford has managed to bolster the convoy while at the same time effectively ignoring it. He’s done this by abdicating his responsibility as premier and its associated legal jurisdiction and creating an opening for the convoy to thrive. Besides taking advantage of either incompetent or complicit law enforcement by the Ottawa Police, the convoy has flourished due to the inaction of the Ford government, which has done little to nothing to deal with, or even address, the occupation. And while the convoy has displayed a lack of understanding about federalism and the contrasting responsibilities of the federal and provincial governments, the media has not helped, largely giving Ford a free pass.
The premier has actually done a fairly remarkable job of convincing most people that he is not responsible for this debacle. Ford and the Ontario Legislature have been on break for two months and the premier has resisted demands by opposition parties to convene a session at Queen’s Park to discuss and deal with the convoy. This is normal for Ford, who is a hall-of-famer when it comes to a lack of sitting days by the legislative branch in Ontario. It is of course much easier to avoid accountability when one simply does not have to show up to work and be subjected to debate and critique. He has been using these (lack of) optics to take political advantage of the situation, ignoring criticism while bolstering the idea that the occupation is entirely the responsibility of the municipality of Ottawa and the federal government. He has also exploited ignorance of Canadian federalism and the constitution to benefit himself politically—all at the expense of the people of Ottawa.
In addition to not facing the public or the press for most of the last three weeks, Ford has refused invitations to three different trilateral meetings between the federal, provincial and Ottawa municipal governments to discuss strategy for dealing with the protests. What’s more, around the same time Ford stated Ottawa was “under siege” he was photographed on a Muskoka snowmobile trail near his vacation cottage. Many pundits quickly came to his defence using the decontextualized language of “self-care” (like the “need to unplug”) to rationalize his abandonment of the people of Ottawa, most of whom lack the luxury of escaping to a second home.
Doug Ford and I often disagree. But the fact he snowmobiled on a weekend isn’t evidence that he ignores his job. No one, including our leaders, should reasonably be expected to never take a moment for themselves. Ford often deserves criticism, but that criticism should be fair.— Josh Matlow (@JoshMatlow) February 11, 2022
The provincial government, relying even more on executive decree while the legislature is closed, has not indicated it has listened to calls for the commercial truck licenses of convoy participants to be suspended, or to demands that the Ontario Provincial Police enforce basic highway and traffic laws. Ford has tricked everyone into believing he bears no responsibility for the occupation.
Intervening in the name of capital
When Ford finally intervened he cast himself as the hero coming to deal with a crisis the municipal and federal governments simply were ill-equipped to handle. He utilized the courts to freeze donations to GiveSendGo, a right-wing Christian alternative to GoFundMe, which was set-up to get around the federal seizure of the original convoy funds. More importantly, rather than using existing laws and resources to deal with the convoy, he enacted a state of emergency, declaring, “While these emergency orders will be temporary, we have every intention to bring new legislation forward that will make these measures permanent in law. We are taking the steps necessary to support our police as they do what it takes to restore law and order.”
In reality, this announcement was mostly in response to the blockade of Windsor’s Ambassador Bridge, which began on February 7 and was able to halt commercial truck traffic from traversing a crucial cross-border artery. His language revealed as much, saying the state of emergency will “make crystal clear it is illegal and punishable to block and impede the movement of goods, people and services along critical infrastructure.” Ultimately, Ford was most concerned about the movement of goods and capital across the border and removing any interference to the supply chain. It is no coincidence that these actions came after a phone call from President Joe Biden to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, during which the former aired his concerns over manufacturing stoppages which threatened to slow the transfer of goods over the border.
Ford’s intervention was made on the grounds of protecting the interests of capital. While the premier failed to act as the convoy laid siege to Ottawa—placing the onus to respond on the federal and Ottawa municipal governments—he changed tact as soon as the interests of the business community were threatened. In addition, as he utilizes legal threats he simultaneously provides backdoor appeasement to the convoy by making clear that Ontario’s vaccine passport system is on the outs (Ontario is ending its vaccine certificate system on March 1).
As worrying as Ford’s inaction towards the convoy is his threat to pass legislation to enshrine permanently measures enacted during the state of emergency. Like many right populists and neoliberals including Jason Kenney, Ford is effective at manufacturing crises and ultimately taking advantage of them, threatening to enact more draconian anti-democratic policing provisions. It now appears likely the Ford government will argue for increased policing and surveillance powers that will almost surely be used against Indigenous and racialized organizers, along with other progressive movements that occupy any property deemed to be “critical infrastructure.”
As Ottawans showed by setting up makeshift blockades and counter-protests to block the convoy from re-entering downtown Ottawa over the weekend, the answer is not in increasing the number of police. Nor is it in the outlandish demands present in the media for the military to intervene against its own citizens.
The answer is to rethink the role of police in society, to question why it’s politically acceptable to place the interests of transnational trade over the well-being of the residents of Canada’s capital city, and to promote a better understanding of provincial responsibilities under our federalist system.
These issues are far from over, and as popular disenchantment grows, reactionary movements will be emboldened by a combination of institutional inaction, complicity by law enforcement, and a lack of critical engagement by the mainstream press. The solution to far-right organizing and the governments, like Ford’s, that enable it, is not more bureaucratic and tepid liberal relativism, but a robust left response that points the way out of this pandemic with a real commitment to social and economic justice.
Ryan Kelpin is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at York University. His area of research pertains to Toronto and Ontario politics, neoliberalization, and de-democratization.