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A convoy of truckers and their supporters is set to converge on the Canadian capital in a protest which has spiralled from frustrations over vaccine mandates into calls for the repeal of all public health measures – and even the overthrow of the federal government.
Ahead of Saturday’s protest in Ottawa, the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, dismissed the group as a “small fringe” that held “unacceptable views” and didn’t reflect the majority of Canadians.
Earlier this month, Canada began requiring any truckers arriving from the US be fully vaccinated against coronavirus. Those who are not vaccinated – who are believed to constitute less than 15% of the country’s drivers – are required to quarantine for 14 days. Canada has recorded 2.93m Covid cases and 32,600 deaths from the virus.
The convoy, which left Vancouver earlier this week, has more than 275,000 supporters on Facebook, nearly 40,000 supporters on the encrypted messaging app Telegram and has raised C$5.5m (US$4.3m) from 70,000 donations on GoFundMe.
GoFundMe announced earlier this week it had frozen the funds until it could determine with the organizers how the money would be disbursed. One former intelligence analyst said the “speed and anonymity” of the donations has raised red flags.
“It’s not really clear to me how many of those supporters donating online are actually even Canadian. A lot of the donations have been made anonymously and there’s very clearly some activity from foreign countries,” said Jessica Davis, a former intelligence analyst for the Canadian government and head of Insight Threat Intelligence.
“It’s really difficult to get a sense for how many Canadians actually support this versus how many people globally are trying to oppose vaccine mandates and the associated political objectives,” said Davis.
The convoy highlights the way in which public health measures such as vaccine mandates have become increasingly tied to political divisions.
One of the main groups behind the protest is Canada Unity, which has opposed what it says are “unconstitutional” Covid rules. The group recently posted a “memorandum of understanding” to its website, saying that members plan to present it to politicians on Parliament Hill. The group claims that the leader of the senate and the governor general will sign the document to create a governing committee, which they claim would work to revoke the vaccine mandate.
“This document is largely incomprehensible and is completely divorced from our political reality,” said Davis.
Despite such fringe ideas, which have prompted comparisons to the January 6 insurrection in the United States, the convoy has received endorsements from federal Conservative politicians, including the former leader Andrew Scheer and deputy leader Candice Bergen, who called for peaceful protest.
The Conservative leader, Erin O’Toole, who has expressed wariness to vaccine mandates in the past, said on Thursday he would meet with the truckers.
But the group have received endorsements from Donald Trump Jr and Elon Musk. The son of the former US president posted a video on social media supporting the truckers for “fighting against medical discrimination”, while the tech billionaire on Thursday tweeted: “Canadian truckers rule.”
Some Canadian conservatives have spoken out against the mandate, arguing it places a burden on truckers when supply chains are already strained. Some have posted pictures of empty grocery store shelves.
But experts caution that the vaccine mandate is just one part of a “perfect storm” to hit the nation’s food system. Poor weather, highway closures and staffing challenges at grocery stores have also made it difficult to get food on shelves.
“The supply chain is flexible, but it’s also fragile,” said Simon Somogyi, a professor at the University of Guelph who studies the food business and supply chain management.
“The Canadian food system really rides on the back of a truck because of our short growing season,” he said of the C$21bn worth of food imported from the US each year, and trucks play a key role in moving it.
In many way, Covid-19 has exposed the necessity of the trucking system as well as headwinds within the system, including a shortage of drivers.
“At the end of the day, we need more trucks on the road. If everyone came to the table for an honest discussion about this, rather than making political statements, it’d be better for everyone.”