This would have been in yesterday’s weekly post but I ran out of time, so I only got to it today. It seemed substantial enough to post on its own rather than wait a full six days, so here it is.

Reports are in from Canada. Looks like we got us a convoy. [NOTE: This post has been extensively edited to reflect that what previously was a convoy is now more like an occupation akin to the old ‘autonomous zone’ in Seattle, and conflicting reports about exactly what to make of these protesters commenters have shared with me.]

Many truckers do not like vaccine mandates.

This makes sense. The big benefits of being a trucker are:


In particular, freedom to go and work where you want, when you want.

Even more in particular, freedom to not interact with other humans.

If there’s one group that both has no need of vaccine mandates, since they spend their time alone, and also likely not to take kindly to vaccine mandates, it would be a trucker. As far as I can tell, the whole advantage of being a trucker, other than getting paid for doing something other people don’t want to do, and something something about the joys of the open road, is to have and frequently use full f*** you rights without the need for f*** you money.

Truckers are also both vital to the supply chain and therefore the economy while being in short supply, and also are mostly physically large people in possession of a large number of very large trucks. And those who don’t want to get vaccinated are facing a lot of restrictions that no longer make physical sense:

'I can travel freely through the border, and not be in contact with anyone. Yet I'm locked into my own country right now,' he said. 'I can't go on a holiday. I can't go to a restaurant, I can't go bowling. I can't go to a movie. You know, these are things that it's just gotten out of control.' 

They also are not happy about no longer having an exemption to quarantines and tests for crossing the border if they’re not vaccinated, but that seems like it shouldn’t matter much in practice given the United States won’t let them in unvaccinated at all. Not that any of that makes any physical sense at this point, of course, it’s purely punishment.

It is not terribly surprising that they decided to let their discontent be known and started a convoy to head to Ottawa to peacefully protest, with lots of emphasis on how violence would be counterproductive. Also there’s another group of trucks blocking a border crossing. So of course everyone is loudly supporting the people’s right to peacefully protest for their freedom against government policies that they see as oppressive, whether or not they agree with the protesters.

Except no, of course not, that is so completely not how any of this works. It’s more of a Russel Conjugation. I heroically stand up to oppression, you protest, he’s an enemy of the people. I peacefully protest, you are mostly peaceful, he’s rioting. With one of a very large number of very large trucks. Different versions of that conjugation are appropriate at different times.

Prime Minister Trudeau was having none of it from the start.

In a list of demands, the organizers of the Freedom Convoy are calling for an end to vaccine passports and for the federal government to respect the rights of the unvaccinated.  

Trudeau hit the brakes on their demands. 

'What we are hearing from some people associated with this convoy is completely unacceptable,' he said.

'We know the way through this pandemic is to get everyone vaccinated. 

'The overwhelming majority, close to 90 percent of Canadians, have done exactly that.' 

Somehow getting that last 10 percent vaccinated is ‘how we get through the pandemic’ rather than the 90 percent making a further mandate unnecessary. Ergo, by his logic, Canada will never get through the pandemic. He also presumes that anyone vaccinated must be in favor of a mandate. Even assuming that, among truckers this does not seem all that fringe?

As many as 32,000, or 20 percent, of the 160,000 Canadian and American cross-border truck drivers may be taken off the roads due to the mandate, the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) estimates.   

He refused to meet with them, and he referred to them as racist to justify this. At first I assumed this was purely on priors, but it turns out he was saying some of them were waiving swastikas. At first I didn’t have confirmation of that and assumed it wasn’t that commonplace. I’ve seen multiple sources refer to knowing of exactly one (1) confirmed swastika and one (1) confirmed confederate flag. A commenter claims it’s more than that:

There are significant amounts of white nationalists (the ‘organizer’ is a prominent one) and there are significant amounts of swastikas and confederate flags. In the first weekend, they pissed on the national war monument and defaced statues, because that is going to win them hearts and minds.

They say they aren’t leaving until they meet with the governor-general and the senate and form a new government, which is not how any of this works. I think they said they would settle for hanging Trudeau. They’ve also been digging in.

What ‘significant’ means here is unclear, and it only takes a handful (or in some cases one person) to disrespect a monument or deface a statue, or to be the source for the swastika claim. Some would argue that even one is ‘significant.’ In any case, the charge of racism is being used to treat everyone involved as scum and all claims involved as illegitimate. But I also have multiple commenters saying these were nice folks who would very much not have taken kindly to seeing a Nazi flag, including vouching for this write-up.

The linked-to thread about digging in is also worth checking out, it’s got pictures (so it clearly did happen) of cranes and portable toilets and other things they’re constructing in the streets, and the map I saw earlier no longer applies, they’re blocking off downtown Ottawa.

This all gives different context to a widely-circulated cartoon from a cartoonist at the Washington Post calling a peaceful protest against restrictions on movement ‘fascism.’ You can be raising valid points about unnecessary restrictions, and yet also some of those same people can also be things one can label fascist for other reasons. And you can use that to not have to address the complaints. Exactly how much of one versus the other is impossible to say, but if it was a ton of the vile stuff we would have a lot more photographs.

My best guess based on all of them together is that most of the protesters who came for the weekend were there to protest unnecessary restrictions and hand out free pizza, but a small minority of the ones who stuck around after are somewhat different and have views the weekend crowd very much would not endorse.

Trudeau also said this, which is kind of chilling to the extent it’s talking about the vaccine mandates, not as chilling to the extent it was referring to hanging Trudeau or actual overthrow of the government, depending on the true ‘list of demands.’

“The small fringe minority of people who are on their way to Ottawa who are holding unacceptable views that they are expressing do not represent the views of Canadians who have been there for each other, who know that following the science and stepping up to protect each other is the best way to continue to ensure our freedoms, our rights, our values, as a country,” Mr Trudeau has said.

Opposition to mandates being an ‘unacceptable view’ is quite the unacceptable view of its own. That’s not how democracy is supposed to work. But demands to hang the prime minister do qualify, especially given the person talking is the prime minister.

Here is the Premiere of Saskatchewan expressing some of the vaccine-related ‘unacceptable views’ and pointing out that the rules don’t make any sense in terms of physical prevention of Covid.

Trudeau later felt the need to move his family to an undisclosed location due to security concerns. Jordan Peterson’s video is great to listen to simply because of the glee in his voice and is also so much better with the Canadian accent.

Eight days after arrival of the convoy in Ottawa, the police left them along for days, and now they’ve dug themselves in blocking access to downtown. As a result, there are headlines about how using the military to end the protest is ‘not in the cards right now.’

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that sending in the army to end the anti-vaccine mandate and anti-government protest that has paralyzed the nation’s capital for nearly a week is “not in the cards right now.”

“One has to be very, very cautious before deploying military in situations engaging Canadians,” the Liberal Party leader said during a virtual news conference. “It is not something that anyone should enter in lightly. But as of now, there have been no requests, and that is not in the cards right now.”

All of this, especially the ‘but,’ is exactly the thing you say right before sending in the military gets added to the cards. How are the headlines so consistently some form of bullshit? It’s uncanny.

When I read this quote from The Washington Post I thought it was about the vaccine mandates, and thought it sounded like not letting citizens protest decisions they disagreed with.

“Having a group of people who disagree with the outcome of an election, who want to go a different way and bring in an alternative government, is a nonstarter in a responsible democracy,” Trudeau said.

This sounded like it was calling the protesters rebels potentially guilty of treason, which seems like quite a bit much except insofar as they are demanding the separation of the head from the head of state. That would be a good reason to draw a distinction with other protests:

Several Conservative Party lawmakers, including former party leader Andrew Scheer, have cheered the demonstrators. When Indigenous groups blockaded railroads in support of an anti-pipeline protest in British Columbia in 2020, Scheer criticized Trudeau for caving to “radical activists” and for not pushing the police to end the “illegal” protests.

Still, even the ambiguity here is chilling.

In any case, if the statements above aren’t the thing you say right before or as the act of putting military action on the table, this definitely is:

Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly, under criticism for his response to the protest, said Wednesday that “there may not be a policing solution to this demonstration” and that he and other commanders were “looking at every single option, including military aid to civil power” to end it.

I love that they are citing elements ‘from the United States’ as a reason to potentially justify action against the protest. Tough but fair.

While the number of demonstrators in the city totals roughly 250 people — down considerably from the thousands who gathered over the weekend — hundreds of vehicles, including big rigs, are still blocking critical arteries in the downtown core.

Police say they expect more demonstrations this weekend. They say a “significant” element from the United States has been involved in organizing and funding them.

Also this:

Several local officials have called it an “occupation.”

And a human rights advocate explicitly saying ‘we are at war’ and calling for military action.

Earlier, the truckers were blocking off the Parliament Building and a few other blocks. Plus, in what is hilarious to us because we’re not there and don’t have to suffer through it, constant honking of all of their horns, although I believe never after 6pm. Now their numbers are reduced enough that the horn issue at worst less bad, but they’ve moved to another phase and are blocking off downtown. That’s not something that can be allowed to continue for long.

Normally, if it was already down to 250 people out of thousands (and in the original ‘estimates’ of course, tens of thousands), it would seem like one does the same thing one does with most protests and waits for everyone still involved to get tired of it and leave. Normally it doesn’t take that long. But this time, we have strong evidence that they’re physically digging in, and this isn’t some off-to-the-side zone can be written off for a while, there’s too much economic damage. Assuming my source is accurately reporting the scope of the problem, if the police can’t handle it, someone’s going to have to, and soon.

This is a strange example of Bounded Distrust. This kind of event can allow you to learn what the rules of engagement are for various players at this time by watching what they say. American sources if anything are downplaying the right-wing angle and treating Trudeau’s remarks as pure attempts to stifle legitimate descent, even if they don’t point out this is what they are doing. One comment suggests that this is because they prefer to paint the American far-right as special, which makes at least some sense.

My presumption is that this convoy will not end up having a substantial influence on Canadian policy once it is cleared out, and that it will probably get cleared out without much trouble once the government decides to do so. Pissing off and punishing people like these truckers was the whole point to begin with, so them protesting isn’t a sign that the policy isn’t working, although it is a sign it worked a little too well. The tide was already turning against restrictions, so many should be lifted soon, even if the vaccine requirements hang on for a while. And I’m confused whether this would even make those get lifted faster or slower on the margin.

There are reports that an American Trucker convoy is coming and I’ve seen pictures claiming one in Germany and elsewhere as well. I don’t expect much to come of those either, but I will be interested to see Biden’s reaction, especially in terms of rhetoric. If he echoes Trudeau’s statements, I’d expect that to become quite the thing, whether or not he is indeed facing a similar situation.

Alas, in addition to disputes about what happened factually, we know even less about the counterfactual in such situations.

This seems to have taught police a lesson. Protest is one thing, but when people are starting to fortify in massively economically disruptive ways, that’s the time to realize this won’t go away in reasonable time on its own and step in and say enough, before it gets far more dangerous to do that.

This weekend is going to see more convoys going to Toronto and Quebec City. Thankfully, both Toronto and Quebec seem to have learned a lesson from the utter failure of leadership in Ottawa and are taking steps to prevent them from digging in, so we will have to see how this goes.

Mostly I see this as creating clarity around the response to protest. Trudeau was remarkably direct and honest with his perspective. One place these events might turn out to matter is that there will always be a next time. There will be those, on various sides, who will be happy to show us the receipts from this round.

In hindsight, after way more detailed edits than I want to ever need to make on a speed premium post, it was a mistake to go this deep into the question, as regardless of which details are correct the questions being examined are a lot less about Covid-19 a lot more about a partisan political battle. I learned from doing it once, but I’m going to strive to not do it again.

Thus, I am committing to not editing or commenting further unless I discover clear and meaningful factual errors.

New Comment
18 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:41 AM

If the economic disruption from the convoy locking down Ottawa requires a quick end to that protest, doesn't that apply also to the disruption from the Covid lockdowns?  You have written eloquently about the folly of much of the world's Covid policy, about how the FDA Delenda Est and the extra abuses perpetrated on children as a result of indefensible decisions on the part of politicians.  You have called for change repeatedly, and as far as I can tell, entirely sensibly.  

How, in your model, does change happen?  Existing leaders do not have an incentive to improve policies in the absence of their victims creating such an incentive.  Perhaps the leaders responsible can be voted out in the next round of elections, but how much damage, economic, social and medical, is needlessly caused in the interim?  

If a rapid end to the protests is needed, the Canadian government can quickly lift the restrictions.  While legislation is often slow, it seems unlikely that they would be incapable of repealing these laws quickly if they actually wanted to.  Economic disruption to Ottawa is obviously regrettable, but you seem to be striking a much more urgent tone regarding this disruption than regarding the disruption the world has faced over the past two years.  

I notice I am confused.

Trying to steelman your position, one could say that perhaps the disruption to Ottawa is more intense than that produced by the government lockdowns (is this true?), or that allowing policy to be so sharply influenced by a subset of the people is dangerous to the rule of law, and would cause more problems later, regardless of any benefits in the short term.  But this still doesn't seem plausible, to the best of my ability to judge plausibility and moral consistency.  The policies implemented during this pandemic were murderous, as you yourself documented quite brilliantly.  Do you believe that the convoy is doing even a tiny fraction of the harm of banning the vaccines for most of 2020, actively interfering with Covid testing or locking down the entirety of Canada (and most of the rest of the world as well)?  Yet while you noted (correctly, as far as I can tell) that such regulations should be lifted, I never saw such urgency as "[this is] the time to realize this won’t go away in reasonable time on its own and step in and say enough".  One could say that the truckers saw the disruption of the Canadian economy and are doing exactly that.

That sounds a lot like the defenses of the social justice protests as a 'health emergency' a while back. And when I think about your argument, it basically implies that the Canadian government has no right to stop anyone from doing almost anything except perhaps physical violence. I don't think one mistake or failure implies another, or that it would be reasonable to expect the government to allow it.

It's reasonable in some situations to say that the government has indeed lost legitimacy (something akin to the 'mandate of heaven') and of course there has to be a sufficient level of failure/malevolence by a government where it is justified to attempt to overthrow it via increasingly illegal and disruptive (even lethal) means depending on what's happened, whether or not it was elected, but if one goes down that road one accepts the consequences. 

Maybe it also depend on how the aftermath of those 2y of covid will play out, if there will be credible investigations on the proportionality of the measures and judicial or at least political consequences for the people who decided to implement them, if we will be back to normal as if nothing had happened with those 2y not even mentioned in 10y, or if instead narrative is that the west was saved by its visionary leaders and great pharmaceutical sector, so let's do more of the same, just to be ready, you know. As you said in the bounded distrust analysis, the times they are a-changin, and the old rules no longer apply. 2y ago i would have agreed. Now i feel a lot of sympathy to those truckers from the other side of the atlantic, because the option 3 is not a parody, it's on the table, clearly.

Do you believe that the Canadian government has a special moral status akin to the Mandate of Heaven or Divine Right of Kings, such that they may take actions that would be considered immoral in any other context?  Quod licit Jovi, non licit bovi?

Where does the idea of legitimacy come from?  Every state has claimed legitimacy, and every criminal would if they believed anyone would take their claim seriously.  What separates legitimacy from special pleading?  

The obvious answer would be Schelling points.  Someone needs to uphold the law, and if just anyone is permitted to, there is a risk of clashes between people with different views of the law, and a risk that people will commit atrocities while claiming the sanction of the law.  This is a common argument against vigilantism.  One could further strengthen the Canadian government's case by appealing to unity of command:  it is better to have one mediocre plan that everyone enacts than ten brilliant plans which fail to be implemented because no one could agree on which one to try.  Unity of command is essential, and it requires common knowledge of who decides the plan.  Even if they are not very good at it, being the Schelling point for coordination creates a genuine reason to follow that coordination, so long as doing so is beneficial.  

So long as doing so is beneficial.

But if the justification for according Ottawa special privileges is that doing so will produce better results for Canadians, then the limit of those privileges is the point at which the government's actions are net harmful.  It's one thing to support uses of government authority that you believe will benefit the people.  It's quite another to support government authority because you believe the government inherently has the right to control people.  Your argument implies that so long as a "legitimate" government does not cross the line into a certain degree of incompetence or evil, it has the right to dictate people's actions regardless of the consequences.  It's worth noting that that's a much stronger claim than is usually made for government!  Plausible arguments for government usually center around some mechanism whereby the state is supposed to produce better results than liberty:  correcting market failures, solving coordination problems, enforcing cooperation on prisoners' dilemmas.  The argument that the state is allowed to produce worse results, yet still be justified, is much harder to carry.  

You do, of course, note that a loss of legitimacy can occur.  But that raises two questions.  First, why would we tolerate harmful policies under a "legitimate" regime if we have the option of improving them?  It feels as though there is an implication that this is a binary, that reform through popular force can only come at the cost of losing all benefits of the government, and thus that it ought only to be considered when the state is net negative (or whatever other criteria you consider to lose it its putative legitimacy).  But why would that be the case?  One could draw a parallel to the Civil Rights Movement, which quite sharply altered policy without eliminating the benefits of the rule of law.  

And second:  we have seen senseless restrictions on masking, testing and vaccination.  These then morphed into requirements for all three, even in situations where this made no sense as epidemiology.  We have seen the economy disrupted, the medical system disrupted for anything other than Covid (one of my best friend's grandmothers died in 2020 because the hospital refused to let her in after she took a dangerous fall...), the supposed benefits of quarantine completely ignored when it was politically convenient during the BLM riots, Paxlovid slowed without reason, and a complete disregard for the public in the middle of a lethal pandemic.  This has indisputably contributed to a catastrophe that has claimed over 20 million lives.  Where is the line, if this didn't cross it long ago?

It isn't enough for the government to become net harmful.  It has to be worse than the cost of moving to a new government.

Sure.  But protesting, even disruptive protesting, does not have to result in regime change.  Also, there's a high cost if the government knows it can get away with arbitrary harm. 

Indeed. That's why covid end game is so important. It will signicantly affect what liberal democracy really means (which is very much what governments can go away with, plus relative strenght of various other power centers). This continuously change, but sometimes much more rapidly, like after sep 11, or during those last 2 covid years. I hate the direction of most of these changes since 30y (berlin wall falls...), and those last 2y are especially bad.

And yet the history of protests specifically involving trucks frequently does lead to coups.

The most brutal way of understanding a pandemic in economic terms is to view humans as "widgets"

  • lockdowns can be thought of as recalling a defective product
  • the value of humans is marked down, leading to an economic crash
  • through a mixture of vaccination and infection, we create covid-proof humans. Some of the non-covid-proof humans die. In order to avoid the law of diminishing returns we need lots of different production methods. The hot mess of vaccination/restrictions being loosened to get more people infected is a feature, not a bug
  • eventually most humans will be either dead or covid-proof

Please somebody write a parody of the eponymous CW McCall song.

In all seriousness though, I can't agree with you that vaccination isn't important for driving an 18 wheeler. In part it's our own fault with our collective messaging, implying that the only threat to public safety posed by the unvaccinated is that they are more likely to infect you. In fact, CDL's in most countries require annual physical exams and licensees are required to demonstrate that they have a number of chronic conditions under control: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, allergies, epilepsy - to name a few. We simply can't afford to have truckers at risk of lapsing in their concentration.

A few years ago a British insurance company did a study comparing the effects of "having had too much alcohol" and "having a cold." study%2C conducted by the,concentration while behind the wheel.

Finally, one of the cardinal symptoms of Covid, loss of smell, is very much germane to safety on the road. Yes, we do absolutely want truck drivers to be able to smell smoke. And gas leaks.

Also - civil unrest involving truck drivers played a non-trivial role in bringing down Salvador Allende's government. That was 1973, oil prices were soaring everywhere, and the stuff described in the movie and the song you reference was happening simultaneously in the US - and it helped to bring down Jimmy Hoffa. It also played a role ushering in better regulation of pension funds and self-funded health insurance plans. My dad would not have a guaranteed pension right now if it weren't for the convoys of 1973.

Before adding regulations, we should check that our existing regulations are doing what they claim to. I know a rural surgeon whose bread and butter is truckers whose diabetes is not under control. Maybe this is a sign that this is a good target for a paternalistic rule, but maybe it's a sign that the rule doesn't do anything. 

It never used to be regarded as overbearing or paternalistic to have medical exams for truckers.

Yes, truckers are slaves. That is exactly what they are protesting. The question is whether they should be.

If the purpose of the rule is to protect the truckers from gangrene, then it is paternalistic, no matter how people regard it. I am not necessarily against paternalistic rules, but I am strongly against rules that are mislabeled, and thus impossible to audit. If it is to protect other drivers from drowsy truckers, it could be a nonpaternalistic public health rule. But if the truckers have such uncontrolled diabetes that they have gangrene, it seems unlikely that the rule is having any such effect. Probably it is exists purely to harass truckers.

Um, no. Rules requiring truckers to keep certain health issues in check (or not have them in the first place) are to prevent accidents involving trucks. Because accidents involving trucks can end very, very badly. Because trucks are enormous.

Well, let's just go in a circle. As I said in my first comment, before we create new rules, we should check whether existing rules do what we claim they do. 

Yes, they do what they claim to do because the insurance companies and underwriters have been tracking this stuff for decades. Physical fitness for operating heavy machinery is essential for public safety.

FWIW, my friend who lives in downtown Ottawa sent me this link, written by a neighbor he knows personally.  (It's an account of him meeting some of the truckers parked on his street, who are nice people and considerate.)  My friend went down to meet them too, and confirms this account.

I live a few miles from downtown and so haven't seen what's going on personally.

Do you think a policy of mandatory booster vaccination is now less likely or more likely after the convoy?