As a self-declared “Freedom Convoy” of truckers opposed to a federal vaccine mandate made its way through the Toronto area en route to Parliament Hill on Thursday, the president of one trucking organization said the convoy’s original message has been hijacked by far-right or extreme rhetoric.
“We’re seeing signs calling our government communists and Nazis and comparing [the mandate] to the Holocaust. And if you’re comparing this to the Holocaust, you need to educate yourself,” Mike Millian, president of the Private Motor Truck Council of Canada told CBC Radio’s Metro Morning.
What began as a group of truckers against the cross-border trucking vaccine mandate has amassed the support of groups broadly opposed to public health measures in general, with some even calling for a Canadian version of the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol.
In Vaughan, Ont., truckers were met by crowds of supporters, some with no connection to the trucking industry, but who came out to voice their opposition to pandemic public health measures.
But while many in the crowd held signs against the mandate, some appeared to be more on the fringe, holding signs like: “Join or Die” and “Liberty or Death.” One supporter was seen draped in the flag of the far-right group the Proud Boys.
Last Saturday, the U.S. barred unvaccinated Canadian drivers from entering the country, mirroring Canada’s border restrictions for American truckers.
On Tuesday, Ottawa doubled down on its mandate, saying truckers and the wider industry have had months to prepare for the new rule. Travellers have been subject to such a rule since the fall.
LISTEN | Why some truckers are against the mandate:
Metro Morning8:16As “Freedom Convoy” makes its way across Canada, one trucker explains why some of his colleagues are against vaccine mandate
Millian said his organization is against vaccine mandates for truckers on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, but not for the reasons many in the convoy might be.
“Truck drivers are isolated in their jobs, haven’t been associated to spread, and we can’t afford to damage our supply chain any more than it is,” he said. “But this convoy seems to have morphed into a kind of protest against all vaccine and COVID-related shutdowns.”
He said he believes there are many in the convoy just trying to exercise their right to peaceful protest, but added that unless the messaging around it changes, it’s unlikely to win the support of the broader public.
WATCH | Drone video shows protest convoy rolling into Toronto area:
What some truckers, supporters had to say
Speaking to CBC News as they rolled eastward through Vaughan, however, some truckers said they believed the convoy is exactly what’s needed as the pandemic stretches into the two-year mark.
“It’s overwhelming. The country needs this. It’s about time,” said participant DeAndre Mahadeo. “This is what brings the country together.”
Doug Wagg had a similar sentiment.
“By God, it’s bringing a lot of people together,” he said. “Now we’re really feeling some appreciation in what we do. It’s not an easy life, let me tell you that.”
He said the vaccine mandate is “totally wrong.”
“We got our vaccines when we were kids,” he said. “It was a one-time deal.… We have an immune system for a reason.”
Stephanie Saunders, a nurse who turned out to watch the convoy from the side of the road, said she’s anti-vaccine, anti-mandate and that her job is at risk.
“All of it, it needs to go. We need to have our livelihoods and our dreams and everything that Canada was founded on.… And God himself will help us through that.”
Kelly Staring, a single mother of one, also came out to show her support. She says she was fired from her job with Toronto Water for failing to report her vaccination status by the prescribed deadline. By the start of this year, the city had fired 461 employees for failing to comply with its mandate.
Asked why she felt it was important to demonstrate, Staring said: “To make sure they know not everybody on this side is a bad person. I’m a good person.”
Staring added she contracted COVID-19 in March 2021, along with several of her colleagues, but all of them survived and are healthy today. Staring said she isn’t convinced of the need to vaccinate.
“I just haven’t received the information that I need yet to feel confident in that decision.”
Other truckers push back
Other truckers, like Andrew Marr, in London, Ont., are less sympathetic. Marr says he’s had three COVID-19 jabs and sees the mandate as “fair.”
“[Truckers have] known for almost two years that we were going to have to go through this sometime or another,” he said.
Marr said he considers the battle against COVID-19 to be a collective effort.
“If drivers have that much pride and want to sit home, then so be it.… We’ll get the job done. If we have to hire more drivers, fine,” he said.
The Canadian Trucking Alliance and the American Trucking Associations have said up to 26,000 of the 160,000 drivers who make regular trips across the border are likely to be affected by the mandate — roughly 16 per cent.
The Canadian Trucking Alliance has said it strongly disapproves of the demonstration.