2. 24. 2022

Building on the Battle of Billings Bridge

Brian McDougall

On Saturday, February 12, fifteen days after the “Freedom Convoy” occupation began in Ottawa, activists from the city’s labour movement, left, and community groups finally responded with a mass mobilization. More than 2000 people attended a rally and march that, despite staying far away from the occupation zone, gave the Ottawa public greater confidence in the possibility of collective resistance to the right. 

The next day, during the Battle of Billings Bridge, more than 1000 people transformed a small action against 30 or more convoy vehicles into a major victory. The battle started at about 9:00 a.m., when 20 local anarchists from the Punch Up Collective and a group of dog-walkers occupied a one-way section of Riverside Drive, trapping convoy reinforcements that were arriving from Cornwall, Ontario. As word of the action spread, labour, left, and community activists rushed to the scene, ultimately holding the street for seven hours. As a precondition for leaving, convoy vehicles were required to take down all their signs and flags.

That direct action on the Sunday never would have happened without the previous day’s much tamer confidence-building mobilization. Saturday’s precedent of collective resistance created an immediate demand for more serious action. Even local NDP politicians who had threatened to publicly oppose the Saturday demonstration found it necessary to turn out on Sunday for photo ops.

The failure of Ottawa’s left to act during the first two weeks of the “Freedom Convoy” occupation is explained by the nature of the far-right movement, the chronic weakness of the city’s left, and previous failures by the left to respond to far-right pandemic provocations.


Origins of an occupation

The convoy movement was ostensibly triggered by truckers’ opposition to a federally imposed vaccine mandate for drivers crossing the border between Canada and the US. While truckers are just as widely vaccinated as other Canadians, and most are waged workers, about 25 percent of them own their own rigs. Alberta’s petty bourgeois truckers, objecting to the imposition of another state regulation upon them, provided the initial base from which the movement rose.

The first convoy vehicles arrived in Ottawa on Friday, January 28. Over that weekend, an estimated 8000-10,000 supporters participated. Most left after two days, but about 400-500 vehicles and their occupants (perhaps 1000 people) remained, transforming the protest into an occupation of the area around Parliament Hill. While most participants lived in their vehicles, some with children, many far-right and fascist leaders stayed in nearby hotels or at a logistics and supply centre that the occupation established near the east-end baseball stadium. 

For tens of thousands of people who live or work in the city centre, the convoy meant constant noise from truck horns, elevated levels of diesel pollution, harassment on the streets and in stores by unmasked bullies, verbal threats and intimidation by people sporting fascist flags and symbols (or tolerant of those who did), and closures of key local businesses and services. Convoy supporters posed a direct and constant threat, especially for women, people of colour, those wearing pandemic masks, Muslims, and others. Their presence made life under Omicron immeasurably worse.


A festival of reaction

Although the vaccine mandate for truckers provided the rationale for the occupation, the convoy’s far-right Alberta organizers – people with previous experience in the 2018 Yellow Vests movement and the 2019 United We Roll pro-pipeline convoy to Ottawa – quickly expanded its scope to become a much broader attack on the government. 

The far-right group Canada Unity issued a public statement (since withdrawn) calling for unelected portions of the Canadian government – the Senate and the Governor General – to assume power, share it with the truckers, and end all pandemic-related restrictions in the country, including vaccine mandates, vaccine passports, and pandemic-related fines. Reminiscent of the 2021 right-wing effort to seize the Capitol building in Washington and overturn the US election result, such a statement was tantamount to calling for a coup. 

In Ottawa, the occupation was a festival of reaction, giving a wide array of far-right organizations (the People’s Party of Canada, Canada Unity, Yellow Vests Canada, Maverick Party, and others) and hardcore fascist groups (Soldiers of Odin, Diagolon, Canada First, La Meute, and others) a chance to meet, recruit, and build for the future. 

Each weekend the occupation grew, bolstered by waves of right-wing visitors from nearby cities and towns. Behind the scenes, logistical support was organized by far-right figures with police or military backgrounds, and financial support coordinated by way of two public fundraising campaigns in the US and Canada.

The convoy movement temporarily united three overlapping but different segments of the right: fascists, far-right activists, and fellow travellers. While the far right wants to build support for a hardcore authoritarian government, the fascists want to build the streetfighting gangs essential to smashing left, labour, and community organizations and destroying capitalist democracy altogether.

The more numerous but less politically sophisticated milieu of fellow travellers included self-employed business people, conspiracy theory-pedlars, and various other grifters, but also some workers, employed and unemployed. These were people not yet fully integrated into far-right or fascist organizations.

Images of the convoy’s foot soldiers partying in front of Parliament Hill, complete with hot tubs and fireworks, dominated media coverage. Keeping the fellow travellers out front helped obscure organizers’ real purpose: to allow fascists and the far right to flex their muscles, build their morale, recruit additional followers, and establish stronger links to their international counterparts.


A dangerous vacuum

The initial level of public support for the convoy’s opposition to new pandemic regulations points to a complex reality many Canadian leftists have not faced up to. Substantial segments of the population who suffered financially during the pandemic – workers, the poor, and small business people – no longer trust the politicians and public health officials who imposed often ill-explained, contradictory, and blatantly self-serving pandemic measures on us. That explains the gap between the high levels of vaccination among Canadians (84 percent of those five years and older are at least double-vaccinated) and the proportion of Canadians (by some estimates, as high as 44 percent) who sympathized with the frustrations expressed by the convoy movement.

As socialist writers Judy Rebick and Corvin Russell have argued, the failure of the labour movement and the left to respond adequately to the worst aspects of government pandemic strategies (e.g. to militantly defend the right to refuse unsafe work), combined with the success of anti-public health actions organized by the far right (e.g. anti-vax pickets outside hospitals), undermined the left’s ability to respond to the rise of the “Freedom Convoy”:

This vacuum on the left…is wind in the sails of those who wish to co-opt legitimate disaffection in service of a turn to authoritarian capitalism. It’s not a stretch to say there is no left to speak of on the current political landscape. If organized labour is to have any relevance in the era of COVID, it must mobilize to counter and even stop far right protests around the country, and make aggressive demands that speak to the basic needs of working class people…

Last fall, when opponents of vaccine mandates repeatedly picketed Ottawa’s Civic Hospital, Ottawa labour and the local left failed to respond. Part of a synchronized national effort by the far right, the hospital pickets allowed them to test the water before attempting larger actions. Far-right observers learned they would not be opposed by labour or the left.

Such inaction – against various opponents – is now normal for labour and the left in Ottawa. Although the city is the national headquarters for large national trade unions, the NDP, and left-leaning NGOs, and has a heavily unionized workforce of federal public service workers, it no longer has a living tradition of mass struggle and solidarity. In recent years, unionized federal public servants learned a lesson about the potential irrelevance of trade unions. Starting with the 2016 implementation of a new federal public service pay system, about 80 percent of federal employees experienced years of major pay errors, with many suffering acute financial hardship. Even in the face of a regular biweekly government violation of collective agreements, a situation that continued for years, public service unions refused to consider strike action.

Despite the weakness of the public service unions and other labour organizations, it was a new generation of local leaders in the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) who initiated meetings of local labour and community groups to discuss possible action against the far-right occupation this month. The first such meeting (with 90 community participants) became focused on cancelling an ill-planned demonstration initiated by a few individuals, instead of taking it over and improving it. A subsequent meeting (with about 50 labour attendees) called the first big demonstration against the convoy, identified as a “community solidarity” action.


Fascists out of Ottawa, for good

The “Freedom Convoy” occupation of downtown Ottawa appears to be at its end. By invoking the Emergencies Act on February 14, the government has assumed responsibility for ending the occupation and related border blockades with massive police operations. In so doing, politicians are acting with the full support of big business, the latter having realized that their state initially misread the seriousness of the coordinated national action by the far right. We are likely to see some retooling of the state’s repressive machinery in the months ahead, to prevent future efforts to destabilize governments. 

We also know the far-right and fascist organizers of the anti-vaccine mandate movement will claim victory. For three weeks, they seized control of portions of the national capital, choked off the flow of goods at border crossings, dominated national political discussion, and inspired their global peers. That is a significant accomplishment.  

Ottawa residents are angry. Many have learned for the first time that Ottawa police operate with a double standard for protests: stringent and often violent enforcement of the law for racialized groups and those on the left, but complicity and non-enforcement of laws for white nationalists in hot tubs. The many close ties between the far right and the police helps explain the law-enforcement holiday enjoyed by the convoy’s participants. 

Politicians at all levels have been discredited by their apparent willingness to simply wait out the assault on Ottawa. Trudeau and Ford agreed to crush the convoy movement only because it escalated to border blockades that hurt the economy, and because of the willingness of Ottawa’s residents – organized by Ottawa’s labour movement, left, and community groups – to take direct action. 

The far right’s success this month means many of the groups involved now have more money, better organization, more followers, and far more confidence. If that is true nationally, it is doubly true in Ottawa, where local members of those groups have been able to experience the power that comes from controlling the streets. The long-term impact of the state’s repression of the movement remains unclear.

Will Ottawa’s left and labour forces be better prepared the next time fascists take to the streets? There are some hopeful signs. Unique as the circumstances surrounding the Battle of Billings Bridge were, that experience contributed to an appetite for more direct action against the right. Also, because the previous day’s mass demonstration signed people up for future actions, the Community Solidarity Ottawa coalition now has a list of 1200 people who want to fight the right. Those outcomes point to the possibility of building a new anti-fascist organization in Ottawa, a project championed by a variety of left activists. 

Still, the creation of a new anti-fascist organization cannot be taken for granted. Ottawa’s labour, left, and community activists remain badly divided over basic questions vital to any such effort: single organization versus decentralized network, prioritizing safer demonstrations or less-safe direct action, whether to give veto power over proposed actions to those with concerns about the increased dangers racialized and other marginalized individuals face, and so on. 

In some cases, those disagreements stem from longstanding and well-elaborated political differences about the nature of fascism and the kind of strategy and tactics required to fight it. In other cases, the disagreements may stem from a lack of practical experience organizing against a fascist threat. That is no surprise. Besides the hopeful events of Feb. 12 and 13, there is no recent history of mass anti-fascist organizing in Ottawa. Most recent Ottawa-based anti-fascist actions have prioritized small-group confrontation over winning support from rank-and-file trade-union activists and broader layers of the community.

Many of the disagreements that might undermine the creation of a new anti-fascist organization were aired at online organizing meetings in early February, during sometimes confused debates about what the convoy represented and how best to respond. More recent events, however, have helped push a layer of Ottawa activists to dedicate themselves to building a stronger organizational basis for common action against the next fascist threat. While political self-education, along with much patient debate, will be required if such an effort is to succeed, inescapable evidence of surging mass interest in anti-fascist action should motivate us to press forward – and compel the fragmented elements of Ottawa’s left to work together.

Brian McDougall is a former federal public service union activist, now Adjunct Professor of Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University, and owner of Peoples’ History Walking Tours in Ottawa. He is a lifelong socialist and member of Ottawa’s Spectre Reading Group.