Dispatch

The view from the ground.

How Trudeau Botched the Trucker Protests Response

The Canadian prime minister’s low-profile approach harmed confidence in his leadership at home and abroad.

By , a journalist in Calgary, Alberta, and the founder of Btchcoin News.
Trudeau is seen speaking, wearing a suit.
Trudeau is seen speaking, wearing a suit.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau comments on the truckers protests during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, on Feb. 14, the day he enacted the Emergencies Act. Dave Chan/AFP via Getty Images

CALGARY, Canada—On the morning of Feb. 18, more than a thousand police officers from across Canada moved into the streets surrounding the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa. Within days, they arrested and dispersed hundreds of participants of the so-called Freedom Convoy of anti-vaccine and far-right conspiracy theorists, who had occupied Parliament Hill for three weeks to protest pandemic measures, harassing residents and local businesses as well as inspiring similar occupations in capital cities worldwide.

Yet amid one of the largest law enforcement operations in Canada’s history, in a moment of incredible tension and division, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was absent from the public eye. He did not hold a press conference, host a livestream, or make any media appearances. His only communication was a late-night tweet ensuring his government’s commitment to “do whatever is needed” to restore public order and protect Canadians.

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s adage “never let a good crisis go to waste” may be trite, but in an age of political polarization, sound, unifying, and accessible communications have never been more necessary—especially when public safety is at stake. And in Trudeau’s case, the convoy crisis did not just “go to waste”—it actually harmed confidence in his leadership, both at home and abroad.

CALGARY, Canada—On the morning of Feb. 18, more than a thousand police officers from across Canada moved into the streets surrounding the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa. Within days, they arrested and dispersed hundreds of participants of the so-called Freedom Convoy of anti-vaccine and far-right conspiracy theorists, who had occupied Parliament Hill for three weeks to protest pandemic measures, harassing residents and local businesses as well as inspiring similar occupations in capital cities worldwide.

Yet amid one of the largest law enforcement operations in Canada’s history, in a moment of incredible tension and division, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was absent from the public eye. He did not hold a press conference, host a livestream, or make any media appearances. His only communication was a late-night tweet ensuring his government’s commitment to “do whatever is needed” to restore public order and protect Canadians.

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s adage “never let a good crisis go to waste” may be trite, but in an age of political polarization, sound, unifying, and accessible communications have never been more necessary—especially when public safety is at stake. And in Trudeau’s case, the convoy crisis did not just “go to waste”—it actually harmed confidence in his leadership, both at home and abroad.

Although some outside observers might be surprised by Trudeau’s relative lack of communication, it aligned with the low-profile strategy he established from the first days of the occupation. Trudeau waited until Jan. 31, three days after thousands of vehicles and trucks had arrived and begun to harass Ottawa residents, to respond to the protesters—some of whom flew Confederate flags and displayed swastikas—by condemning them on Twitter. (He’d also tested positive for COVID-19 during this period but tweeted he was feeling well.)

The next day, the prime minister held a distanced press conference at his home, where he condemned the racism on display at the protests. “To anyone who joined the convoy but is rightly uncomfortable with the symbols of hatred and division on display, join with your fellow Canadians,” he said. “Be courageous and speak out. Do not stand for, or with, intolerance and hate.”

The words were forceful, but for many, they came too late. By waiting so long to address the fears of Canadians concerned about the protests, Trudeau was already on the back foot.

From the convoy’s beginning, citizens had valid concerns about far-right violence or a repeat, in a sense, of the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection. February polling showed 64 percent of Canadians considered the protests a threat to the country’s democracy. In times of crisis like this, leaders should “act early and act more fully,” said Brett Bruen, a former Obama administration communications strategist who teaches crisis communications at Georgetown University. “You have to talk in personal, emotional terms—people experience crises emotionally.” Yet although Trudeau is known for campaigning and discussing policy with emotion and empathy, he missed the opportunity to connect with worried Canadians in those crucial early days and to show, rather than tweet, that he was working on the issue.

In the two weeks that followed, what few communications he did issue were generic—reaffirming, for instance, the importance of vaccines. Then, on Feb. 14, Trudeau made his boldest move yet: He enacted the Emergencies Act for the first time since its creation in 1988 to give law enforcement more power to fine and imprison protesters. Finally making himself more visible, he made statements in the House of Commons and held a press conference to justify employing the act in straightforward, uncharacteristically stern rhetoric. Yet all media interviews were conducted by his cabinet ministers, whom average Canadians have little familiarity with. That’s typical during regular policy rollouts, but the fact that he wasn’t out in front during a national emergency led to right-wing outlets capitalizing on a narrative that he was “hiding.” 

Trudeau’s approach to shaping the election around a singular, controversial issue had its risks.

Trudeau clearly found himself between a rock and a hard place, attempting to balance how to de-escalate the situation while also condemning an occupation sowed by far-right and white supremacist groups. It would have been impossible to please everyone, but his absence from the spotlight only made the situation worse, especially with such a divisive issue at the heart of the protests: vaccine and public health mandates.

Indeed, vaccine mandates were politicized long before the convoy—during the federal election campaign last September. According to Janice Stein, founding director of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, Trudeau justified calling for an election by saying he wanted enough support for vaccine mandates. As a recent editorial in the Line aptly put it, Trudeau used “vaccination mandates as a baton to whack the Conservatives over the head in order to secure electoral victory.”

“Vaccine mandates were politicized as soon as they became the ballot question—and that has come back to haunt the prime minister,” Stein said.

In a sense, Trudeau got his way, adding just one Liberal seat to the House of Commons. Most mandates are under provincial health jurisdiction, but post-election, Trudeau was able to require employers in federally regulated workplaces—including the public service, banking, and transportation sectors—to mandate vaccination policies for their employees.

But Trudeau’s approach to shaping the election—and thus the branding of his leadership—around a singular, controversial issue had its risks. As February polls show, 46 percent of the population, though disapproving of the convoy’s extremist tactics, support some of the underlying policy-oriented goals of convoy participants, such as repealing vaccine mandates and ending lockdowns or mask mandates. That number rises to 61 percent among Canadians ages 18 to 34.

And Trudeau’s Liberal Party doesn’t know how to talk to that large percentage of conflicted Canadians. Instead, it’s falling prey to classic polarizing rhetoric. “They’re now comfortable playing on societal cleavages and engaging with the culture war,” said Sanjay Jeram, a politics professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. (This is an approach, Jeram noted, that the rival Conservative Party has taken since 2015, with its promises to combat “barbaric cultural practices” in unsubtly xenophobic terms and unsuccessful attempts to ban niqabs at citizenship ceremonies, among other platforms.)

Seven years after winning office, it is now Trudeau’s party stoking further polarization. For example, on Feb. 16, when Conservative politician Melissa Lantsman, who is Jewish, questioned his use of the Emergencies Act, Trudeau responded by asking how she and her party “can stand with people who wave swastikas … with people who wave the Confederate flag.” In Canada, it’s rare for politicians to explicitly go after the supporters of a rival party in such sweeping, extreme terms, and the prime minister’s statement was condemned by Jewish activist groups and media commentators for framing the entire Conservative Party as condoning hate symbols.

Political leaders cannot successfully engage a population in times of crisis when they “lump people who are generally supportive of lifting mandates in with Nazis,” said Greg Lyle, a pollster and former advisor to Canadian prime ministers and premiers. And although that may not have been the full intent of Trudeau’s remarks, that small sound bite circulated widely—perhaps due in part to a lack of other statements from Trudeau on the crisis—to the detriment of his reputation: Around a quarter of Trudeau’s Liberal base, according to Lyle, has disapproved of how he’s handled the crisis.

To be sure, many of the convoy’s organizers have well-established extremist far-right and white supremacist ties. But, as Lyle noted, it’s still possible to “speak to the underlying concerns” of sympathizers fatigued by pandemic restrictions while encouraging them to distance themselves from undemocratic and racist organizers. The goal, according to Lyle, should ultimately be to restore confidence in government and its ability to protect citizens from extremism through such communication.

On that end, Trudeau needed to be seen more by Canadians—and earlier. In polarizing times, centering messaging on the real, human impact of a crisis can promote unity. Trudeau had an opportunity to prove his leadership by steering the conversation toward everyday Canadians. But he didn’t have conversations with the vaccinated truckers unable to work because of the border blockade, the Ottawa residents up at night due to the convoy’s honking, or the Ottawa small business owners whose storefronts were vandalized. Instead, he let his cabinet ministers largely do the talking, and when he did speak, critics accused him of vilifying many Canadians.

Amid a crisis that captured international media attention, this absence left a communications void that was ultimately filled by domestic critics and even foreign figures looking to advance their own populist branding. Instead of hearing from Trudeau, the public heard from figures like divisive right-wing U.S. politicians Sen. Ted Cruz and former U.S. President Donald Trump, who praised the convoy and called for similar ones in the United States. (These have now been planned, without much success, throughout the country.)

For now, it’s unclear how Trudeau’s handling of this crisis will affect Canadians’ confidence in their government long term. The Feb. 18 police action was successful—the final convoy in Ottawa was cleared, as were the border blockades, with little violence—a credit to Canadian institutions’ ability, albeit belatedly, to get the job done.

At least from a global perspective though, the crisis—and Trudeau’s relative absence—has tarnished Canada’s image abroad. “Canada is normally seen as our saner northern neighbor, and somewhat immune from the populist politics and the polarization of the U.S.,” Bruen said. “I’m not sure about that anymore.”

Claire Porter Robbins is a journalist in Calgary, Alberta, and the founder of Btchcoin News. She has worked as an aid worker in the Middle East and in strategic communications for a United Nations peacekeeping mission.

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