On February 10, just over a week before police finally moved in to evict the nearly monthlong occupation of downtown Ottawa, Manitoba MP Candice Bergen stood up in the House of Commons and asked protesters to go home. “I am asking you to take down the blockades,” said the interim leader of Canada’s Conservative Party. “Protest peacefully and legally, but it’s time to remove the barricades and the trucks for the sake of the economy and because it’s the right thing to do.” While Bergen did take care to reiterate her party’s opposition to vaccine mandates and continued COVID restrictions, the statement still marked a pronounced shift in the rhetoric of Canada’s most powerful right-wing politicians — many of whom had quite openly sought to align themselves with the self-described Freedom Convoy that had spent much of January entrenched in the nation’s capital.
Bergen herself had posed for photos with demonstrators, as had other Conservative MPs, including former party leader Andrew Scheer. Ontario premier Doug Ford, meanwhile, initially offered an effective endorsement, remarking on February 4, “I understand their frustration. . . . If people want to come down and protest, God bless them.” A week later, Ford would declare a provincewide state of emergency, brand the protests a “siege,” direct his attorney general to freeze access to millions in online donations made to the convoy, and make “crystal clear” (in his words) “[that] it is illegal and punishable to block and impede the movement of goods, people, and services along critical infrastructure.”
In parsing the timeline of events, the cause of institutional conservatism’s rather abrupt pivot is thus easily identified and deeply instructive. With key border crossings blocked, what conservative leaders had initially viewed as a venial sort of disruption suddenly became a different species altogether: namely, the kind that frightens markets and business interests and puts profits at risk.
While there are undoubtedly many lessons to be gleaned from recent events in Canada, there’s a useful insight in this particular episode about the limits of so-called right-wing populism and the efforts of various conservative figures to rebrand their project as one aligned with the working class. That isn’t, needless to say, because the likes of Bergen and Ford withdrew support for some kind of organic worker’s movement: boosted by large US media outlets, counting plenty of wealthy people among its donor base, and earning an endorsement from the world’s richest man, the Freedom Convoy was clearly nothing of the kind (even if it did attract some working-class support). The very sudden lurch of its leading figures, however, is nonetheless still a striking demonstration of conservatism’s unyielding deference to markets and unfettered private enterprise.
Since 2016, an assortment of pundits and intellectuals throughout the Anglo-American world has sought to advance the broad idea of a newly pro-worker right. The new conservatism, we are told, will be more populist, more working-class, and, above all else, more willing to directly intervene in and regulate markets than its various post-Reaganite incarnations. As a rhetorical posture struck by right-wing politicians, some versions of it have in fact already appeared in the political mainstream.
Last fall, for example, Canada’s since deposed Tory leader Erin O’Toole campaigned on a series of pro-worker slogans and promised increased worker representation on corporate boards. During his initial run for president, Donald Trump famously appeared to buck conservative economic orthodoxy by taking aim at the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In 2020, Marco Rubio, Jeff Sessions, and a number of other prominent Republican figures signed onto a statement heralding a “conservative future for the American labor movement.” Senator Josh Hawley, meanwhile, has called on the GOP to become “a working-class party, not a Wall Street party” (there are certainly other possible examples).
There’s no denying this style can sometimes be politically effective. The real question, however, is whether it actually signals a meaningful break from institutional right-wing politics as we have known them. In the case of Canada’s Freedom Convoy at least, the answer is clearly a no. Any politician can adapt or co-opt the language of class if they find it useful. But a critical test of a populist, working-class politics comes in its willingness to meaningfully confront, disrupt, or otherwise challenge markets and capital: minimum wage increases are always opposed by business lobbies; unions and strikes antagonize bosses and shareholders; broad public goods and economic redistribution generally mean higher taxes on the wealthy and less private profit.
Given the ultimate aims of its blockades (and its conspicuous lack of attention to key labor issues facing the trucking industry) the convoy may not have represented an authentic working-class movement. Yet in turning against it so abruptly, conservative leaders indirectly revealed that the kind of populist agitation they find tolerable still has more to do with sloganeering and honking horns than running even momentarily afoul of corporations or business interests.