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Rolling Thunder is a Go
How Ottawa's War Memorial is becoming a symbol of polarization and division
Back in January 2022, Canadian truckers occupied Ottawa’s downtown area to protest covid-related health measures, especially the requirement to show proof of vaccination to cross the US border.
That snowballed quickly.
Truckers travelled from all corners of Canada to make their voices heard on parliamentary hill. That resonated and other groups joined forces. Citizens also felt compelled to converge and denounce Covid mandates.
What started off as a curiosity became a massive and long-lasting movement that paralyzed Canada’s capital.
Since the broadly mediatized removal of that occupation by police forces, many of the measures were removed, but still the whole thing left a stain.
And that’s how in late April another group of protesters rallied in Ottawa to “bring dignity back” to Ottawa’s War Memorial which had been fenced up during the Trucker’s Convoy back in January.
Motorcyclists gathered, Canadian flags were flown and chants of “Freedom” resonated again in Ottawa.
But what’s the story behind the War Memorial, why did it get politicized and became a symbol of polarization?
As a resident of the Ottawa region, the trucker’s convoy started off as an oddity for most of us. A distraction in the grim day-to-day of Covid infection waves.
I was hearing of those crowds of people participating during the weekends and finally made up my mind that I actually had to see this for myself.
I already knew that the movement had been somewhat highjacked by other groups that might have broader (and sometimes more extreme) objectives than the original protesters. But that became quite obvious as we pushed our way in a really dense crowd of protesters and hearing some of the speeches given on a stage right in front of the Canadian parliament.
The atmosphere was at the same time festive… and a little hostile. It was loud, crowded, it smelled of gazoline and I have rarely witnessed a display of such a wide array of flags. People were settled to stay for a long time. And there was a lot of tension with local residents. Some Ottawa residents testified to how they’d been bullied for just walking in their own neighbourhood wearing a mask.
But regardless of how hostile a minority of the protesters were, what became an illegal occupation of downtown Ottawa soon became quite polarizing for the whole of Canada. There were those that supported the protester’s demands and those that felt that enough was enough, that those protesting for their freedom were doing it at the expense of others.
In the middle of that turmoil, the War Memorial became a contested site between protesters and police forces. Local police accused some protesters of desecrating the war memorial. Which led to protesters removing the fences raised around the memorial and pledging that they would protect the monument themselves.
That confrontation polarized sides even further. To the point that it would lead to another rally of protesters months later.
Freedom Convoy Aftertaste
The trucker’s protests left a bad aftertaste in the mouth of all who were involved:
Ottawa residents for having been kept awake, bullied and on the edge during those long weeks.
Protesters for not having been heard and taken seriously by Trudeau, most of the political class, the medias and ordinary citizens.
Ottawa police for having been caught off guard by what they eventually treated as an occupation.
The governments (including provincial ones) for failing to properly justify their public health policies.
The ordinary citizens for being further divided by an unprecedented situation.
Amongst the protesters, supporters, and also in the general public, the invoking of Emergency Act was perceived as a government overstepping its authority. Here is a government that represents the elites and is trampling Canadian freedoms.
That aftertaste combined to the events at the War memorial mobilized some veterans to symbolically restore the dignity of that monument.
Rolling Thunder is a go
That’s Neil Sheard, one of the Rolling Thunder organizers who is speaking on the « Live from the Shed » Youtube channel, one of the most prominent channel during January’s trucker’s convoy. He represents a group of veterans, Veterans for Freedom who are mobilized to defend Canadian freedoms.
Here’s Neil again explaining what Rolling Thunder is about?
Veterans fought for Canadian’s freedoms and the War Memorial is a symbol of that. Its fencing during the Trucker’s protests was an affront on that symbol and its dignity should be restored. That’s to be the main mission of the Rolling Thunder.
Alongside the Rolling Thunder rally, other events were planned without formal coordinating between organizers. That’s why the Veterans for Freedom organizers eventually felt like they needed to distance themselves from the Freedom Fighters who were to hold a protest on the same weekend, but with a different agenda.
Now that we have the context and an introduction to who parties involved, here’s a diagram that summarizes the dynamics at play during Rolling Thunder.
As the motorcyclists rolled in Ottawa, their mission and message got somewhat lost in the mix of events that took place at the same time, by groups that might hold some similar views, but that didn’t necessarily agree on demands and actions.
What was a show of respect to war veterans got associated by the medias and the general public to a more radical political position defended by Freedom Fighters, as well as other peripheral groups.
And that surfaced the bad aftertastes that were left in the mouth of all concerned by the January’s protests. Just seeing Canadian flags in the video below instantly triggered many, as can be read in their comments.
That can also be seen in the most popular hashtags from tweets captured during those events. Some of those hashtags are just representative of how polarized people now are in regards to the « Freedom Convoy » movement.
All in all, the protests were more restrained, better contained by the police, with organizers that had more specific goals than just occupying downtown Ottawa. But regardless of its size, it was in direct continuity with January’s trucker convoy and with similar narratives, it seems to have contributed to further polarization of the population.
As for the original goal of brining dignity back to the war memorial, the context might not have been ripe for such a peaceful act to take place. The wounds probably weren’t totally healed in the general population. And the presence of protesters and discourses that resembled the first act of the Freedom Convoy movement surfaced raw emotions.
Which probably did not not lead to the welcomeness that was expected. It unfortunately probably had the opposite effect.
By politicizing a highly symbolic monument for Canadians, where showing more reverence to that monument would equate to how much a group of person is attached to individual freedoms - that probably didn’t ring positively to those who felt that this was just another power move made by the same organizer of the Freedom Convoy.
The Freedom Convoy movement with this latest Rolling Thunder episode reminds me of the Black Blocs during the alter-globalization protests back in the early 2000s. Here was a radical group of left leaning protesters who wanted to take down capitalism through violence. Their tactic had (and still is) often been to infiltrate protests that would have been otherwise peaceful. And of course, media focused on violent acts and public perception only remembered those acts.
Not saying that this is what happened with the Trucker’s Convoy and the Rolling Thunder. But it’s true that public perception witnessed violence and focused on the more radical elements. That only feeds more polarization and division, not constructive dialogue.
None of that is good for democratic resiliency. None of that builds positive social forces that helps us unite further and evolve our public institutions.