Maybe it’s the stark contrast that makes the event seem so ominous. In a city where politeness reigns and the phrase “Canada Nice” is seen as a sign of strength, hundreds of big rig truckers have blockaded Ottawa’s capital district and intimidated passers-by in a protest that has shocked the nation and caused international ramifications.
Beginning as a protest against vaccine mandates for truckers who cross the border into the US, the incident has devolved into a catch-all opportunity for dissent and disaffection. Most of the thousands who gathered (peacefully) in the opening days of the protest have long since gone home, leaving a core group of truck drivers who have parked their vehicles with motors loudly idling and aggrieved drivers threatening those they encounter on the street. The protest is now approaching its third week, putting an emotional strangle hold on the citizens of Ottawa.
Catherine Porter writes in the New York Times: “This is not my city,” said Ellie Charters, 45, crossing the street before a line of shoulder-to-shoulder tractor cabs, their metal grills festooned in flags, handmade signs and stuffed toys. Ms. Charters, a local resident, called the party scene a “sanitization” of the protest’s darker motives.
“But there is a definite edge — like that end-of-the-night feeling at a tailgate party, when some of the crowd might have had too much to drink, and things could go sideways. In part, it is the trucks: giant lumbering machines that offer more esprit de roadkill than peace.
“Local residents say it is far more than perception. They have been harassed on the street, and recount being frightened, even chased. The police are investigating a potential arson attempt in the lobby of an apartment building downtown.”
The truckers’ grievances have become less clearly defined. Their ranks have been swelled by disaffected right-wing nationalists, including white supremacists from the US. The blockade in Ottawa has become a festering cauldron for disaffection, attracting a wide variety of grievances against the Canadian government.
And this is not just a local issue that impacts a few square blocks in the Canadian capital district. It has become a focal point for larger, global issues as witness to the back-up at the famed Ambassador Bridge that connects Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, the busiest cross-border entry in North America, which has been effectively shut down for days. US auto manufacturers, already reeling from supply chain woes, have been forced to cancel shifts because shipments of parts have been slowed or stopped altogether.
The demonstrations have also captured the imagination of far right and anti-vaccine groups around the world, raising millions of dollars in online campaigns and inspiring protests in at least two countries — New Zealand and Australia — with talks of a third in the works in the United States.
Further, I would argue, this incident is emblematic of a deeper sense of worldwide foreboding. Whether it be in Ukraine, where the decidedly power-hungry Vladimir Putin continues to threaten invasion, thereby securing his preeminence in the panoply of international “strongmen” (on one level, it doesn’t matter if the Russians invade Ukraine or not, Putin has accomplished his objective—to bully his way into the center of the international spotlight), or the persistence of gun violence in the US which seems to trap ever-younger random victims in its web, I sense a pervasive feeling of foreboding—both intellectually and viscerally—that we are not okay.
In this space, I have often quoted my good friend Sam Simon who says the most important question we can ask ourselves at any historical moment is, “what are we right before?” He roots this question in the experience of Germany in the 1930’s where the whole world refused to ask that question with intention. Our lack of collective curiosity led us to the horrors of the Third Reich and its impact on a global society unprepared for the devastation of World War II.
What is happening in Ottawa right now seems to be a harbinger of things to come. Our loss of civility and mutual respect has become so intense that violence, it seems, is poised to erupt anywhere—even in unexpected places like peaceful Canada.