Nearly five months after being driven from Ottawa, Freedom Convoy protesters return to the capital this weekend, where, with a more determined police presence, they will face questions about the direction the movement is taking.
With many leaders who emerged during the winter occupation either in prison or restricted by bail conditions, the current direction of the movement is unclear.
The issue that united the disparate groups in the first place — opposition to vaccination mandates — has lost its appeal since federal and provincial governments lifted most public health measures.
In the absence of clear leadership, the groups resorted to their various pet causes, ranging from Alberta independence to fabricated legal concepts such as constitutional sheriffs.
Around them, meanwhile, a wide range of figures are vying for influence on the various popular social media channels within the movement.
In videos posted to Facebook, TikTok and other platforms, well-followed figures traded accusations of defrauding supporters, fleeing Ottawa before arrests or government agents.
Conspiracy theories, radical anti-government rhetoric, and homophobic and transphobic slurs remain common in online convoy chat rooms, limiting the overall appeal of the movement.
The Canada Day weekend protests in Ottawa, as well as small rallies planned in Mirror, Alberta, Salmo, British Columbia and Winnipeg, therefore come at a critical time for the movement. Several groups see it as a chance to project a more unified and moderate image.
“Let’s show Ottawa that we are respectful Canadians,” said Amanda Haveman, organizer of Freedom Central Canada, one of the largest convoy groups on Facebook, in a video message earlier this week.
“We just want our voices to be heard and we want Canada to be back to how it was.”
As part of the rebranding effort, Haveman asked his group’s more than 100,000 Facebook followers to avoid hoisting the maple leaf upside down and avoid waving F-flags. -k Trudeau, two symbols that were prominent in previous convoy protests.
Tory leader agrees with MPs attending freedom events
Convoy events scheduled for this weekend include a march to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Thursday, a march to Parliament Hill on Friday and a pancake breakfast on Saturday – each hosted by a different group.
Ottawa police said they would not tolerate any attempts at a prolonged occupation and banned vehicles from driving around Parliament Hill.
The zero-tolerance policy was evident on Wednesday, when by-law officers announced they had issued 154 tickets and towed 44 vehicles as part of the city’s enforcement plan.
In the minds of some convoy supporters, however, the policing strategy is part of an attempt to spur the movement toward violence.
“They want you to be the people they accuse you of being. They want you to be the terrorists,” said the anonymous host of Live From the Shed, a webcast focusing on the convoy movement.
In a recent interview with CTV, interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen said her caucus was welcome to attend the convoy protests this summer, dismissing claims that the Ottawa occupation was an attempt to overthrow the government. Federal Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre arrived Thursday walking with veteran James Topp
Such appearances relate to Ahmed Al-Rawi, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University who studies extremist movements online.
“We have seen in the past many members of this movement engage in some forms of violence and harass others…it would be like giving credibility to these people,” Al-Rawi said.
Within the movement, civil opposition often coexists with extremist demands and actions that elude democratic norms, let alone the law.
A judge recently told CBC/Radio-Canada that he received offensive messages from supporters of the convoy, including a threat that prompted a police intervention, after presiding over hearings involving the leaders of the movement.
“It’s bullying,” the judge said. “He’s trying to influence a court decision, and that’s serious.”
This month, two pro-convoy groups encouraged members to contact public libraries to protest Drag Story Hour, events in which a drag performer reads books with positive LGBTQ messages to children.
At least seven libraries said they received a wave of hateful comments and threats by email, phone and on Facebook.
In their messages to supporters, influential figures in the convoy movement are often ambivalent about their commitment to the democratic process.
“[Prime Minister Justin Trudeau] should be in jail for treason. The RCMP, the police – they should arrest politicians for the crimes they are committing against their people,” Ron Clark told his 128,000 Facebook followers in a video this week.
Clark, who has driven around central Canada to attend various convoy supporter rallies, also railed in his video against “transgender shit” in schools and blamed chemtrails for causing natural disasters in Columbia. British (this is based on a conspiracy theory that claims aircraft exhaust contains climate-controlling chemicals).
A movement at the crossroads
While there may be individuals within the movement who pose national security risks due to their violent ideologies, the movement itself is best treated as a matter of law and order, said Stephanie Carvin, professor in international affairs at Carleton University and a former national security analyst.
But, she added, the movement in its current form is difficult for law enforcement to manage.
“I think one of the challenges for the police right now is that there are no leaders. There is not one leader. There are different movements. There are maneuvers. There there are infighting,” Carvin said.
For now, some anti-mandate groups are trying to coalesce around the less polarizing figures in the movement, rather than around specific issues.
Among the most popular are Tamara Lich, a key organizer during the Winter Occupation who was recently arrested again for breaching bail conditions, and Highwhose anti-warrant march across the country culminated Thursday in Ottawa.
But the future of the convoy movement likely hinges on its disparate groups finding new grievances beyond their opposition to vaccination mandates and deciding what kind of relationship they want to have with democratic institutions.
Shadoe Davis, whose webcast mixes conspiracy theories and right-wing politics and is popular within the convoy movement, told his listeners this week to start running for school and municipal elections. The anti-mandate group Stand4thee recently held an online information session for aspiring candidates.
So far, however, supporters of the convoy have had little success at the polls.
Jason LaFace, a motorcade organizer from Sudbury, Ontario, ran in the recent provincial election. He got 1.2% of the vote.