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Trucker protests over COVID mandates fuel Canada's growing far-right

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Truckers in Canada who are protesting pandemic restrictions have opened up a new front in their blockade. They've moved in on a third point along the U.S.-Canada border. The White House said yesterday that the blockade is posing a risk to the U.S. auto industry's supply chain. The demonstrations are drawing people with different grievances, and the flags people carry tell some of that story. There are a lot of Canadian flags, but also spotted - some U.S. Confederate flags, even swastikas.

Stephanie Carvin was a security analyst for the Canadian government, and she is now an associate professor of international relations at Carleton University in Ottawa. Thank you so much for being with us this morning.

STEPHANIE CARVIN: Hey. Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: So protesters say this is about strict COVID rules in Canada that are hurting their livelihoods - the requirement that truckers have to be vaccinated to cross the border and mask mandates and COVID passports. Explain what kinds of groups have now been folded into this movement?

CARVIN: Well, it's interesting. It's not so much that these groups have been folded in, it's that they're at the very core of the movement. In fact, the organizers themselves are extremists. They have expressed, you know, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and conspiratorial worldviews. And this isn't even their first attempt at a convoy. They've been trying to organize something like this for years that kind of amplifies their anti-government views. So I think that we need to be careful. And, you know, there's definitely some extremist groups that have joined onto this. But in reality, I think what we're looking at is something like a spark that lit a powder keg within the wider Canadian population.

And just for some context to your listeners, Canada is coming out of its fourth severe lockdown, unlike other countries. We have had to have vaccine mandates. We've had mask requirements. And, in fact, we've actually shut down our economy for the fourth time. People are tired.

MARTIN: Right. So you're saying those tired people are actually joining up with a movement that has its roots in some extremist ideologies.

CARVIN: Yeah, I think that's actually correct. I think, you know, where the success of this movement has been is that it framed its - basically, its movement around the issue of just kind of being tired with the pandemic. And honestly, that's understandable. Like I said, we're all tired of this. I'm tired of this. Fifty-four percent of Canadians have indicated that they are ready to move on in terms of learning to live with COVID in the way other countries have. And that's not an unintelligible argument. But my concern is that, you know, this has now moved beyond the mandates. And, in fact, we have seen mandates lifted in some provinces this week. But the protests continue, and the blockade of the border in Alberta continues.

MARTIN: Has the Canadian government failed in recognizing these threads in its own society earlier?

CARVIN: You know, this is a really good question. Increasingly, the national security community has identified what we call ideologically motivated violent extremism - that's separate from, say, religious-based extremism - as the main source of violent extremism in the country. And, yeah, so, I mean, this has been fairly well-known for some time.

When this group announced that it was coming to Ottawa, authorities still seemed to have treated it as if it was just kind of a normal, average political movement. I mean, Ottawa is a national capital. It's not unlike Washington or London. There are a lot of protests that happen here. But we've never had anything like this. But we shouldn't be surprised that we're effectively seeing an extremist-led movement turn to extremist tactics. There's going to be a lot of questions as to why, you know, this aspect of the protest was ignored.

MARTIN: Ottawa's police chief, I understand, has asked for more police - still hasn't gotten them. I mean, what's your take on how the government is just responding from a security point of view?

CARVIN: It's - honestly, it's mind-boggling. It really is astonishing. I mean, Ottawa is a very bureaucratic city, and maybe this - old habits are dying hard here. The fact is that no level of government, whether it be municipal, provincial or federal, seems to want to take responsibility for this. And we often see our leaders tweeting that they're having phone calls and making arrangements and sending officers, but we haven't seen it on the ground. There is a reluctance to even just hand out parking tickets. It's just a real, honestly baffling kind of collapse of authority.

MARTIN: Several Canadian provinces have said they're going to ease pandemic restrictions in coming weeks. But given everything you just said about the roots of this movement, do you think it's going to bring an end to the protests?

CARVIN: I don't think so. Like I said, at its heart, this is a movement that is anti-government, and there is some concern that, you know, even if you appease them, they're not necessarily going to go home.

MARTIN: Former Canadian government analyst Stephanie Carvin. We reached her on Skype. Thank you so much for your time and perspective.

CARVIN: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.