Taming the truckers

The current trucker-inspired protests that have spread from Canada to other countries share three features that make them particularly difficult to manage. But governments and law-enforcement agencies can still apply some well-established conflict-management lessons.

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Protesters in Canada - a sign on the side of a car says "proud members of the fringe minority"
Protesters in Canada, 5 February 2022. Image by GoToVan on Flickr.

Truculent truckers have driven several governments to distraction in recent weeks. In Canada, they blocked bridges to the United States and laid siege to the capital, Ottawa. In New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, truckers and other demonstrators inspired by the Canadian protesters blocked the square in front of the country’s parliament, as well as several city streets. This new wave of “freedom convoy” protests – fuelled initially by opposition to coronavirus restrictions – has since spread to France, Australia, and the US.

Governments and law-enforcement agencies have responded with a range of tactics, but ending the protests is proving difficult. In Ottawa, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at first described the truckers as a fringe minority. But one survey reported that one-third of Canadians supported the protesters, even as they were creating havoc for Ottawa residents, and for factories on both sides of the US-Canada border.

The Ottawa police tried a “surge and contain” strategy, arresting a few people, issuing tickets and traffic notices, and seizing fuel being brought to the truckers. This approach, the city’s police chief said, significantly reduced the number of trucks and protesters. But it has not been successful enough. On February 6, the mayor of Ottawa declared a state of emergency, and police subsequently used a court injunction to start clearing the Ambassador Bridge between Ontario and the US. But the protests have continued, and on February 15 the police chief resigned.

In Wellington, as in Ottawa, the protesters were initially permitted to have their say. But after a week of growing disorder, the authorities adopted various measures in an effort to disperse them. The Speaker of the House of Representatives turned on water sprinklers on the lawn where protesters were assembled, and then played Barry Manilow and the Macarena on a 15-minute loop. But many of the protesters remained.

The French authorities took a more robust approach, banning the convoi de la liberté in Paris. On February 11, the police deployed over 7,000 officers to tollbooths and other key sites around the city, along with bulldozers and water cannons to break up potential blockades. By the following day, 337 people had been fined, and several dozen arrested. But a cat-and-mouse game between protesters and police continues. The current protests have three features that make them particularly difficult to manage.

First, myriad grievances are uniting protesters. Clearly, repeated government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions have led to widespread exhaustion and exasperation. This was evident in Europe in late 2021, when the introduction of new lockdowns and restrictions because of the spread of the Omicron variant triggered immediate large-scale demonstrations in Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Croatia, and Italy. But the current trucker-inspired protests have snowballed quickly to include groups with a multitude of complaints and demands.

The protests in Canada were sparked by a new government mandate requiring unvaccinated truckers to quarantine after returning from the US. Within days, the truckers were joined by an assortment of political groups and were egged on by some opposition parties. Similarly, in New Zealand, what started as a protest against vaccine mandates rapidly expanded to include truckers, the fundamentalist Christian leader Brian Tamaki’s Freedoms and Rights Coalition, and an online conspiracy-theory channel, with banners highlighting a range of issues, including COVID-19, censorship, and indigenous rights.

A second feature of the current protests is the inspiration and support they receive from abroad. Paradoxically, nationalist anti-globalisers are encouraging movements in other countries. Already in 2021, right-wing US groups were fuelling anti-vaccine protests in Australia. And US politicians, including former President Donald Trump, US Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, and US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia show little restraint in urging on protesters elsewhere.

Funding for the protests is global, too. The crowdfunding platform GoFundMe transferred an initial C$1 million ($787,000) to the Canadian protesters before it stopped payments and refunded donations following police reports of violence. GiveSendGo, a US Christian crowdfunding site, has reportedly raised more than $8 million for the protesters, and insists that it will distribute the money despite a Canadian court order prohibiting it from doing so.

Trudeau has raised concerns about US-based callers flooding emergency phone lines in Ottawa, and about the presence of US citizens in the blockades. In New Zealand, where protesters are flying Canadian and Trump flags opposite the parliament, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described the anti-vaccine-mandate demonstrations as an unprecedented “imported” phenomenon.

A final complicating factor is that the protests’ lack of clear leadership or organisation leaves governments and police with no negotiating partners. The Teamsters union, which represents 15,000 long-haul truck drivers in Canada, denounced the Ottawa blockade. And amid chaotic scenes in Wellington, Tamaki’s coalition reportedly left the protests when they saw white supremacists joining the ranks, but subsequently returned.

Despite these obstacles, some conflict-management lessons are worth applying. For starters, civic leaders would do well to avoid defining the issues at stake in a maximalist way. Mark Carney, a former governor of the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England, was arguably guilty of this when he wrote in a recent heartfelt commentary that, “the goals of the leadership of the so-called freedom convoy were clear from the start: to remove from power the government that Canadians elected less than six months ago.”

The authorities should instead focus on the protesters’ narrower common goals, such as those concerning specific aspects of COVID-19 mandates. With that in mind, they should seek out the protesters who are championing those issues and pursue a dialogue with them.

Finally, amid calls to use the military, governments need to think both tactically and strategically about how to uphold the rule of law. Troops should not be used. Instead, officials should consult the playbook used by the United Kingdom to address violent protests in 2011: courts were kept open 24 hours a day so that the police could enforce every infraction in real time. Tactically, opportunistic protesters were dissuaded. Strategically, public support for the rule of law was strengthened.

This article originally appeared in Project Syndicate on 17 February 2022.