It has been a year since the Freedom Convoy began its mid-January/late February 2022 demonstrations in Ottawa and other major metropolitan areas throughout Canada with the professed goal of forcibly changing the government’s vaccine mandates for truck drivers who enter the nation via its Southern border. Canada Unity, an anti-public health mandate group, and several civilians were the architects of these nationwide demonstrations. In December 2021, its founder, James Bauder, called for the resignation of government officials and an end to so-called “unlawful” mask mandates at the U.S.-Canadian border. Tamara Lich, a former affiliate with the right-wing Maverick Party, and Benjamin (BJ) Dichter, a truck driver and podcaster, were the main fundraisers and spokespeople for the following event.
Benjamin Dichter appearing on Tucker Carlson Tonight
Since then, the Freedom Convoy has promoted far-right radicalization within Canadian center-right politics, following a similar trajectory to that of conservatives in the United States (U.S.) after January 6, 2021 (1/6) Insurrection. Indeed, some journalists referred to the convoy as “Canada’s January 6th moment.” However, this path is not preordained, as the Convoy’s history, its principal organizers, the role of standing political parties, and most importantly, the political and legal consequences for it are significantly different from those of the 1/6 Insurrection. These differences could allow the center-right to come back from the brink of near-total alignment with the international far-right.
In the United States, the Republican Party has arguably become a far-right extremist institution. The former President and Republican Party leader Donald Trump’s (and several party members’) involvement in the violent attempt to overthrow legitimate election results has only solidified this transformation. Although the official plans for the 1/6 Insurrection began after Trump’s electoral defeat in November 2020, he and his campaign surrogates had laid the foundation for this Insurrection in the months preceding the 2016 election. On social media, Trump repeatedly claimed that there was “large-scale voter fraud” afoot, implying that Hillary Clinton’s victory would from this deception. He refused to concede should he lose officially.
A more coordinated effort to overturn the presidential election results, primarily via former President Trump’s personal Twitter account, began about four years later when Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 race. Before the January 6 certification of the presidential election, Trump issued several tweets to undermine the legitimacy of Biden’s win and incite his voters to take action (“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild”). Several Republican officials in both the House and Senate played a role in legitimizing 1/6 as well. Approximately 147 Senators and Representatives refused to certify Joe Biden’s electoral victory, citing objections to results from Pennsylvania and Arizona based on alleged “voter fraud.”
In Canada, the nation’s main center-right Conservative Party risks becoming a political standard-bearer for the radical right in the vein of U.S. Republicans. Although the leading members of the Conservative party did not organize the Freedom Convoy, they endorsed participants’ activities during the Convoy demonstrations. Before his election to Conservative Party leadership, Member of Parliament (MP) Pierre Poilievre tweeted a photo of himself at the Convoy that stated, “The trucker I’ve met today have been peaceful, kind and patriotic. I’ve not seen anyone dressed up in blackface or other racist costumes. #TruckersNotTrudeau”. Candice Bergen, the interim party leader before Poilievre’s election, also endorsed Convoy participants’ activities, arguing that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was “gaslighting the protesters, who deserve the chance to be heard and be given some respect.” (She later changed her stance after the demonstrators began blocking bridges at the U.S.-Canadian border, stating that it was time to “stop the disruptive action, and come together.”)
According to Markus Wagner’s When do parties emphasize extreme positions? How strategic incentives for policy differentiation influence issue importance, there are three major incentives for a party to adopt radical political positions: its vote share is relatively small, the extreme position is distinctive from that of other parties, and other parties fail to publicize this shift. Since January 2021, the U.S. Republicans have met all three criteria. Although their vote share is not relatively small (their party is one of two major choices in every election), they do not necessarily need to win the most votes to win an election. For example, the Electoral College assigns a set number of electors based on state population to elect the President. If a candidate wins the popular vote but does not win 270 electoral votes, they lose the election.
Secondly, Republicans’ position in favor of an attempted overthrow of the U.S. government to install a presidential candidate who received fewer votes is certainly distinctive from the Democrats. Within the past two years, the latter party has never openly endorsed and/or played a role in organizing a coup d'état after Donald Trump’s 2016 victory. Finally, the Democratic Party has generally refused to acknowledge the Republicans’ shift into far-right extremism. President Joe Biden has notably claimed that this extremism problem can be attributed to the “MAGA” wing of the party and is not emblematic of a larger problem. The Democratic President’s Department of Justice has also largely ignored the issue, declining to pursue seditious conspiracy charges against the former President and his allies. Therefore, it is exceedingly unlikely that the Republican Party will become moderate in the near future.
Extremist protestors storm the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021
Since the end of the Freedom Convoy in early 2022, Canada’s Conservative Party has (so far) matched only one of Wagner’s criteria. First of all, the Conservative Party received the second-largest vote share in the 2019 election. This status as a party that gains a large vote share is unlikely to change with the next major Canadian election – which, at the earliest, has been estimated to take place in 2024. Secondly, the Conservative Party’s failure to condemn the Freedom Convoy outright is certainly distinctive from its main competitors in the Liberal and New Democratic Parties (last year, both party leaders condemned the incident outright). Finally, it remains to be seen if other parties will publicize the Conservative Party’s shift to the far-right. The exact date of the next major election has not yet been determined, and its prominence as a campaign trail issue will be the first major determinant of this. For now, it is a matter of watching and waiting for this ultimate test of the popular appeal of the Conservatives’ new approach.