“Freedom Convoy” Exposes Canada’s Hollow Liberal Universalism

COMMENTARY Conservatism

“Freedom Convoy” Exposes Canada’s Hollow Liberal Universalism

Feb 17, 2022 5 min read

Former Director, Simon Center for American Studies

Richard was Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies and AWC Family Foundation Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
Supporters of the Freedom Convoy block the roadway at the Ambassador Bridge border crossing in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, on February 9, 2022. GEOFF ROBINS / AFP / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Canada has seen its third week of so-called trucker protests that mostly have centered on downtown Ottawa, adjacent to Parliament.

By defining rights and values without the consent of the people, Canada’s highest court imbibed some of the worst features of American politics.

Does the Conservative Party realize that here are the building blocks of a new majority, and perhaps a new constitutional vision for Canada?  

Canada has seen its third week of so-called trucker protests that mostly have centered on downtown Ottawa, adjacent to Parliament. Last weekend, authorities ended the blocking of traffic on the Ambassador Bridge connecting Ontario and Michigan.

And now Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the government will use the tools of its Emergencies Act to end truckers’ “Freedom Convoy,” or so it hopes.

This effort involves dragooning private parties to assist the government in removing trucks, seizing property and accounts without a court order, and using state coercion beyond the formal channels of due process. This entire situation, obviously, is a rapidly moving one and it could turn against the key players, depending on how events emerge.

Canadian lawmakers created the Emergencies Act for truly harrowing situations of national security, and it seems ill-fitting to what is a large and peaceful protest in the streets of Ottawa.

The government did not employ the law during the darkest times of the COVID-19 pandemic, but now brings its wrath upon the truckers. The move represents incredible power being employed in arbitrary fashion, indicating not strength but weakness in Canadian government authority.

But Trudeau’s use of the Emergencies Act is instructive because it reveals the underlying dynamics driving this political drama. The harshness and even humiliating aspects of Canada’s COVID-19 enforcement regime have illuminated the numerous identities and interests that Canadians possess, long ignored and diminished by official government ideology.

We should not be surprised, then, that citizens working in the private sector have risen to vindicate their interests and their pride.

Many residents of Quebec acquired dogs once it was announced that those in the province who care for the four-legged kind would be allowed extended time outdoors to exercise them.

After stating in full humanitarian voice in 2020 that Canada would not close its borders to China because that solves nothing, Canada has maintained a rigorous border policy for international travelers. The government requires them to stay in quarantine hotels for three nights upon entering the country and paying the bill, which is upward of $2,000 for each stay. Restrictions on Canadians traveling between provinces have been nearly absolute and in violation of Canada’s Constitution.

Truckers and their associates in the Freedom Convoy mostly are working- and middle-class Canadians. They have proclaimed in deeds their opposition to the government’s COVID-19 matrix of policies.

But why has the movement been so intense, so prolonged, and, apparently, not widely opposed by an equal and opposite number of Canadians? One reason could be that the length of the policy restrictions, in boiling tea kettle fashion, caused an explosion with which many Canadians concur. Their assent to the protests could increase.

Will Trudeau risk his legitimacy with his intention to use extraordinary powers to end the demonstrations?

Perhaps what we are witnessing is an extended challenge to Canada’s liberal universalism, which Trudeau once announced is the bedrock of what it means to be Canadian. And that challenge could come in many forms, arising out of identities, loyalties, and commercial interests. Trudeau argued in 2015 that Canada is a “post-national state” with “no core identity” or “mainstream.”

So what exactly is Canada? Trudeau appeals to the rather vacuous ideals of modern liberalism, replete with therapeutic overtones: Canada has “shared values” of “openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice.”

In an insightful piece in The American Interest, Canadian Ben Woodfinden argued that Trudeau was only building on the Canadian liberalism that his father, Pierre Trudeau, enshrined in the passage of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.

This had the effect of creating a new Canadian identity rooted in a homogeneous liberalism that primarily identified itself by its rejection of purported American illiberalism. Thus, to be Canadian was to support as a matter of right public health care, international peacekeeping, abortion, multiculturalism, and general abstractions such as equality and justice.

Whatever Canada previously was, the elder Trudeau managed to lay a liberal humanitarian foundation that positively buried former Canadian standards of citizenship. In practice, the Supreme Court of Canada functions, courtesy of the charter, in expansive rights-defining fashion. The high court began to bypass parliamentary sovereignty with ease and to declare new rights for Canadian citizens outside the democratic process.

And the irony is that as the charter was seen as a proclamation of how Canada is morally and politically superior to America, the country’s political dynamic became more American. The Supreme Court of Canada began to function like the U.S. Supreme Court.

By defining rights and values without the consent of the people, Canada’s highest court imbibed some of the worst features of American politics. Did Canada also tacitly accept major power being exercised by unelected officials who are held loosely accountable? That, too, would be American.

Can any nation be defined by such abstractions, all of which seem to cohere around egalitarianism? What kind of actual citizenship and belonging can such liberalism bring you, other than mindless attempts to moralize every political decision on behalf of various groups? What about the attachments, loyalties, and interests that inevitably will arise in any modern democracy composed of over 30 million people?

And in almost clockwork fashion, the attempt to cover Canada in the shade of liberal universal ideology is being challenged. However, this rejection is not by an equally comprehensive quest for a populist nationalism or conservative nationalism, but by the rise of provincial and commercial identities and interests that find no representation or affirmation in this liberalism.

Quebec long was home to separationist elements, owing to its Francophone status. That preliberal identity went dormant, but has arisen in recent years with a new political party called Coalition Avenir Quebec, a nationalist party that seeks greater autonomy for Quebec. Its majority victory in the French-speaking province in 2018 clearly signaled that Quebec’s identity had reemerged in the nation’s politics.

But the real movement is in the Western province of Alberta. There, citizens have a very real frustration with Trudeau’s green energy policies and taxes, which render Alberta’s oil business stagnant and incapable of future growth as taxes and transfer payments from Alberta to Ottawa and other provinces diminish its wealth.

Alberta’s future may no longer be in Canada, a fact that many of its leaders are beginning to articulate. Alberta would seem to have more in common with Montana or Texas than with Ottawa.

Returning to the truckers and their supporters, well might we conclude that a rising number of Canadians are aroused and stand steadfastly opposed to a COVID-19 regime that has been seemingly without end. That this regime’s draconian substance is surely backed by the liberalism that marks Canada has not protected it from concentrated opposition.

Do those who oppose these policies find representation in Canada’s official liberalism? No.

Even Canada’s Conservative Party, led by the recently ousted Erin O’Toole, has been unwilling to contest the prevailing consensus and seize clear political momentum. The subnational ties of commercial interests, personal freedom to work and travel, and the desire not to have your life dictated in endless fashion by experts seem to be reemerging in Canada.

Think of it as a Lockean liberalism, and all the personal and commercial elements that compose it spontaneously emerging to challenge Trudeau liberalism.

Does the Conservative Party realize that here are the building blocks of a new majority, and perhaps a new constitutional vision for Canada?  

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal

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