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Ottawa state of emergency over trucker protest shows Canada's Trumpists are growing

Those caught off guard by the intensity of the protests haven't been paying attention to the creeping extremism in the country’s political discourse.

True to type, Canadians such as myself are humble enough to know that when the rest of the world thinks of us — which, admittedly, is almost never — it is as a kinder, gentler and less ideological version of our raucous American neighbors to the south. O Canada! We put the real in realpolitik.

While Canadians have been consuming news from down south since the dawn of broadcasting, the American right appears to be speaking directly to them now. On Friday, Trump endorsed the convoy.

When you belong to a country mercifully untroubled by civil war, catastrophic political upheaval or alarming geopolitics, you are used to being looked upon as a shining beacon of all that is good. Whether that’s entirely accurate, it is usually where the narrative ends.

This may explain why Canada’s been receiving some international side-eye lately. A nation that has spent the pandemic widely supportive of protective measures, such as travel restrictions, vaccine passports, occasional curfews and business closures, is making headlines at home and around the world as its capital city, Ottawa, is flooded with protesters pushing back.

The Freedom Convoy, a demonstration against the requirement that Canadian truckers crossing the U.S. border be inoculated against Covid-19, has resulted in blocked streets around Parliament Hill as protesters demand an end to pandemic-related restrictions or for the prime minister to resign, or both. There are worries more protesters will arrive this weekend, and the people of Ottawa are fed up.

Never mind what the rest of the world thinks; the situation has jarred and jangled millions of Canadians. But those who were caught off guard by the intensity, passion and adamance of the protesters have clearly not been paying attention to the creeping extremism in this country’s political discourse, fertilized in recent years by American political rhetoric, misinformation online and a sense of alienation among a significant segment of the population.

Five years ago, as the world was coming to grips with the unprecedented election of former President Donald Trump, many took comfort in Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. While Washington disengaged from traditional allies, pulled out of international treaties and disparaged refugees, Trudeau and his “sunny ways” government provided an inspiring counterweight. Canadians took pride — moral superiority even — in their policies embracing multilateralism abroad and pluralism at home.

But even then, there were signs that while this country was better protected against Trump-style populism, so-called Canadian exceptionalism did not render it immune. In 2017, as the White House imposed a moratorium on Syrian refugees, polling showed 1 in 4 Canadians believed their country should adopt a similar ban. That same year, a white supremacist opened fire at a mosque in Quebec City, killing six.

The ensuing years have borne witness to other anti-establishment, elite-rejecting events. Before the Freedom Convoy, there were the 2019 “yellow vest” protests. While participants mostly demonstrated against the imposition of carbon taxes, others who attended proffered conspiracy theories about how powerful Jewish families control the world.

Last year, a Canadian Department of Defense investigation found one of its reserve units contained members “at risk” of being swept into “a hateful ideology.” And just weeks ago, a public opinion study found that nearly 30 percent of voters who cast a ballot for the Conservative Party of Canada in September’s national elections said the Jan. 6 attacks on Capitol Hill were “a fiction created by the media.”

The parallels to U.S. politics don’t stop there. While Canadians have been consuming news from down south since the dawn of broadcasting, the American right appears to be speaking directly to them now. On Friday, Trump endorsed the convoy on social media, referring to Trudeau as a “far left lunatic who has destroyed Canada with insane Covid mandates” and urging the protesters to come to Washington, D.C.

Unlike Americans, Canadians found a brief moment of pan-political unity in the first months of the pandemic. Two years of anxiety, isolation and fatigue are, however, exacerbating feelings of disengagement.

A sounding of the Canadian public mood shows more than half in Canada say the equal application of the rule of law — a key tenet of democracy — is weakening. Just one-in-three say their federal government cares about the issues that are important to them, including a whopping 88 percent of Conservatives voters.

Just as a (brief) battle raged after 2020 about where the true heart of the GOP beat – with Trump or more moderate Republicans — the same conflict is now tearing Canada’s Conservatives apart. Their leader, Erin O’Toole, was putsched Wednesday. He ascended to party leadership by playing vigorous footsie with an organization called Ontario Proud and using campaign slogans like “Take Back Canada.”He then tried during the fall campaign to pivot to a more progressive electoral stance. Hardline Conservatives hated it. Centrist voters didn’t buy it.

According to reports, interim party leader Candice Bergen (no, not Murphy Brown), said in reference to the convoy that there were good people “on both sides.” We know where we’ve heard that inflammatory language before. By week’s end, a Conservative senator had quit the caucus. More internal conflict is sure to come.

In the meantime, the Conservative base grows more and more frustrated — and Canadian politicians exploit the rhetoric of political division.

Pierre Poilievre, a possible successor to O’Toole, refers to convoy members as “bright, joyful and peaceful Canadians championing freedom over fear.” While he did condemn those “individually responsible” for parading flags bearing Nazi and Confederate symbols and urinating on the National War Memorial, he has so far been mute about their “joyful, peaceful” ranks roughing up a homeless man, and harassing soup kitchen staff.

The prime minister is also playing to his base. Having lost the popular vote two elections in a row, his power depends on a coalition of center-left parties no longer motivated by “sunny ways” but fear of the right. Trudeau repeatedly dismisses those protesting as a “small fringe minority” who don’t follow “the science,” but he ignores a broader frustration with perceived government overreach after two years of collective sacrifice.

Indeed, while strong majorities support requiring health care workers, first responders, teachers and public-facing employees to be vaccinated, the same cannot be said for other workers. And more than half of the largely vaccinated Canadian population is now calling for all pandemic- related restrictions to be lifted.

We have a moment to live up to the standard the international community generally expects of us. That warm familiar feeling of Canadian moral superiority depends on it.

But Trudeau has yet to acknowledge that the country is showing signs of wanting a new approach, because he knows his core voters are energized by othering the “fringe.”

The result? Nearly 40 percent of Canadians believe there is no room for political compromise in Canada, which is a staggering number of people in a country that prides itself on peace, order and good government.

Canadian political leaders and protesters have an opportunity to politically compromise their way out of this (traffic) jam. The convoy should drive their rigs out of town and go home. Point made. Government should, in turn, take into consideration that, after two years of Canadians doing almost everything asked of them, they are less than enthused by continued restrictions aimed at stopping an infection most believe they can no longer avoid.

If an obvious political thaw remains elusive in Ottawa’s frigid February air, there are small signs of deescalation: Trudeau has ruled out calling in the military to clear the protesters out. Bergen has called on convoy members to “please remain peaceful.” We have a moment to live up to the standard the international community generally expects of us. That warm familiar feeling of Canadian moral superiority depends on it.