Why Are Canadian Protesters Flying Confederate Flags?

How the Canadian trucker protests became a big-tent rally of Canada’s growing far-right.

By , a public historian and independent journalist originally from Montreal.
A Confederate flag with a truck painted on top of it is shown in front of Canada's Parliament near a sign that says "WE the FRINGE."
A Confederate flag with a truck painted on top of it is shown in front of Canada's Parliament near a sign that says "WE the FRINGE."
A demonstrator carries a Confederate flag while protesting in front of Canada’s Parliament in Ottawa, Canada, on Jan. 29. Dave Chan/AFP via Getty Images

On Feb. 6, Jim Watson, the mayor of Ottawa, declared a state of emergency, calling the degenerating situation in Canada’s capital “the most serious emergency our city has ever faced.”

Over the weekend, several thousand protesters returned to Ottawa for the second weekend of protests in what some demonstrators hoped—and some politicians feared—would become Canada’s Jan. 6. Not unlike the U.S. Capitol riot, the movement has attracted a diverse array of self-described patriots waving Canadian flags alongside Confederate battle flags, swastikas, symbols related to the Quebec sovereignty movement, and QAnon conspiracy banners.

The Ottawa police claim they’ve prevented a Jan. 6-style attack, but the protests—despite some demonstrators’ intent—were never bound to reach that level of violence and cultural hostility. Still, protesters have blocked infrastructure, harassed journalists, attacked civilians, and essentially shut down Ottawa’s city center. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has ruled out negotiations with the protesters, and they refuse to leave until their demands—many of which are unusual—are met.

On Feb. 6, Jim Watson, the mayor of Ottawa, declared a state of emergency, calling the degenerating situation in Canada’s capital “the most serious emergency our city has ever faced.”

Over the weekend, several thousand protesters returned to Ottawa for the second weekend of protests in what some demonstrators hoped—and some politicians feared—would become Canada’s Jan. 6. Not unlike the U.S. Capitol riot, the movement has attracted a diverse array of self-described patriots waving Canadian flags alongside Confederate battle flags, swastikas, symbols related to the Quebec sovereignty movement, and QAnon conspiracy banners.

The Ottawa police claim they’ve prevented a Jan. 6-style attack, but the protests—despite some demonstrators’ intent—were never bound to reach that level of violence and cultural hostility. Still, protesters have blocked infrastructure, harassed journalists, attacked civilians, and essentially shut down Ottawa’s city center. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has ruled out negotiations with the protesters, and they refuse to leave until their demands—many of which are unusual—are met.


Wait, why are hate symbols being paraded on the streets of Ottawa?

The demonstration became a big-tent rally of Canada’s growing far-right after starting as a protest against pandemic measures.

It all began with a Jan. 15 government order that required all truckers crossing into Canada from the United States to either be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 or quarantine for two weeks. (This regulation already applies to Canadian citizens and international travelers entering the country, but throughout much of the pandemic, truckers were exempt from the mandate to lessen supply chain disruptions.) In response, a convoy gathered in Vancouver and drove across the country in about a week, picking up supporters along the way.

Since then, the protest has attracted those opposed to all federal and provincial pandemic COVID-19 measures as well as various far-right and hate groups. Supporters now include neo-Nazis, Canadian supporters of the former U.S. administration, QAnon conspiracy enthusiasts (including Romana Didulo, the self-declared monarch of Canada who has been investigated by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for inciting her followers to violence), and some members of Canada’s Conservative Party and its extremist breakaway, the People’s Party of Canada.


What exactly do the protesters want? 

It’s hard to say, since the convoy has attracted a wide variety of groups, each with their own leaders and agendas. But two main desires stand out: overthrowing the government and scrapping pandemic measures.

Since the trucker convoy departed from Vancouver nearly three weeks ago, protesters have directed violent rhetoric at members of Canada’s government and mainstream media—to the point that Trudeau and his family were removed from their official residence to stay in an undisclosed location. 

Pandemic measures are the other consistent focus. A statement posted to the Facebook page representing the “Freedom Convoy” on Jan. 26 indicated that the group wants the federal government to terminate all COVID-19 vaccine mandates and obligatory contact-tracing in Canada. But Canada doesn’t actually have an obligatory COVID-19 vaccine program: Citizens are encouraged to be vaccinated, and those who aren’t may be prevented from accessing certain services or businesses or working in certain professions, such as the transportation sector, or may be required to quarantine when crossing international borders.

Other demands of the different groups comprising the convoy vary widely. For instance, the organization of the initial trucker convoy is credited to Pat King, a homophobic and Islamophobic conspiracy theorist, Western Canada separatist, and organizer with Yellow Vests Canada—a knockoff of the French gilets jaunes movement whose members support an array of positions, including supporting charging Trudeau with treason, ending all immigration, and opposing the United Nations.


Who’s supporting all of this? 

The protesters have the support of far-right figures in Canadian politics, both from within the Conservative Party, the main opposition party, and from the upstart, far-right People’s Party of Canada. Mainstream Canadian conservative politicians and provincial premiers—such as Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, former Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer, and interim Conservative Party leader Candice Bergen—have tested the waters of publicly supporting the protesters.

They have also received support from libertarian and right-wing U.S. figures, such as Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Rep. Lauren Boebert, and former President Donald Trump, who recently called Trudeau a “far-left lunatic.”

And 32 percent of polled Canadians said they “have a lot in common with the protestors and how they see things,” according to a Feb. 3 poll conducted by Abacus Data. People’s Party of Canada voters indicated the greatest level of support for the protesters (82 percent), followed by Green Party voters (57 percent) and Conservative Party voters (46 percent).

The protest also generated more than $8 million through GoFundMe before the funding platform decided on Friday to suspend distribution of funds, stating the protest had become an occupation, which violates its terms of service. This quickly drew the ire of U.S. Republican Party figures, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who promised an investigation into GoFundMe. The protest has since raised an additional $3.5 million in two days using a different crowdfunding site.

Although there’s no demonstrable evidence that the majority of the funds are coming from outside Canada, Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly believes a significant amount originated in the United States. Suspicion of foreign interference and financial support in powerful protest movements is a common trope in Canada: Over much of the last decade, conservative politicians and news media have suggested, also without evidence, that foreign funding was driving anti-pipeline protests and Canada’s environmental activism. This time around, the normally level-headed Canadian media establishment has even engaged with the prospect: The host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Power & Politics recently asked Canada’s public security minister if Russia could be responsible for the protests. (The minister declined to engage in speculation.)


Has there been any fallout for politicians tied to the protests?

So far, the protests have resulted in only one big political casualty: Erin O’Toole, the leader of the Conservative Party, who lost his job in a Feb. 2 leadership review.

Although O’Toole’s leadership had been threatened since losing the 2021 federal election, according to one source who asked to remain anonymous, the Ottawa protests accelerated efforts to remove him from his role. O’Toole was a moderate conservative who campaigned on a centrist platform to attract a broad mandate to govern, but his efforts failed to appeal to Canadians and left him increasingly isolated from his party’s base. Bergen, a fellow party member who is now the party’s interim leader, apparently attempted to encourage O’Toole to support the protests. Ultimately, he caved despite his misgivings, but his statement—which was delayed and fairly mild—failed to shore up support. (Bergen, herself, apparently said there are “good people on both sides” of the protests and has come under fire for sporting a “Make America Great Again” hat in the past.)


Protests have been going on for nearly two weeks. Have police tried to stop them?

Despite a week of blaring horns, illegal camps, the illicit distribution and stockpiling of fuel, and the occupation of various locations around Ottawa, among other violations of municipal laws and public order, the Ottawa police have done little to control the occupation or enforce the law.

The police’s first substantive effort to take control of the situation came on Sunday, 10 days after the occupation began, when heavily armed police moved into an Ottawa baseball stadium being used as a staging ground for the protests. The police removed some vehicles and at least one tanker filled with gas as well as arrested two people, but since then, the police’s response has been largely hands off.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has also been conspicuously absent from what’s happening in his province’s second-largest city, having stated that the responsibility of policing rests with the municipality. On Feb. 7, the Ford government indicated it would be billing the federal government for provincial police resources sent to Ottawa (something retired Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Chris Lewis said has no historical precedent and is unlikely to happen). Ontario’s solicitor general claimed the province had sent 1,500 provincial police officers to assist the Ottawa police, but the latter said only 100 additional officers had been deployed.

Analysts have pointed out that far more peaceful Indigenous demonstrations in recent years were met with overwhelming police aggression. Just consider how the police and conservative politicians responded to Indigenous blockades defending traditional Wet’suwet’en territory that led to nationwide solidarity protests in February 2020. Two years ago, Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers went to northern British Columbia with dogs, helicopters, and tactical teams to dismantle those protests, arresting dozens of protesters. This time around, Sloly has said he “didn’t want to provoke the protesters” and equated Ottawa residents’ desire for the protests to end with a “societal desire for the pandemic to end.” Meanwhile, Conservative Party leadership hopeful Pierre Poilievre, who was vocal in his support of using police to dismantle the 2020 blockades, has been seen working the crowds at the Ottawa protests.

Taylor C. Noakes is a public historian and independent journalist originally from Montreal.

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