Posted on February 20, 2022

The Ottawa Trucker Convoy Is Rooted in Canada’s Settler Colonial History

Taylor Dysart, Washington Post, February 11, 2022

In recent weeks, a convoy of truck drivers from across Canada began arriving en masse in Ottawa. The “Freedom Convoy” traveled to the Canadian capital to protest new vaccination requirements for essential workers crossing the U.S.-Canada land border. The convoy has amassed significant support {snip}


The convoy has surprised onlookers in the United States and Canada, both because of the explicitly racist and violent perspectives of some of the organizers and because the action seems to violate norms of Canadian “politeness.” But the convoy represents the extension of a strain of Canadian history that has long masked itself behind “peacefulness” or “unity”: settler colonialism. It is not incidental that this latest expression of white supremacy is emerging amid a public health crisis. The history of Canadian settler colonialism and public health demonstrates how both overt white-supremacist claims and seemingly more inert nationalistic claims about “unity” and “freedom” both enable and erase ongoing harm to marginalized communities.

Canada, like the United States, has its origins in a settler colonial project. In the late 16th and 17th centuries, French and British families and soldiers began arriving along the east coast of the northern regions of “Turtle Island,” a name used by the Lenape and Haudenosaunee, with other Indigenous nations, to refer to North America. The settlement of Europeans rested on what historian Patrick Wolfe called a “logic of elimination” where Indigenous peoples were displaced or assimilated through genocidal policies.


Less than a decade after Canadian confederation (1867), the establishment of the Indian Act (1876) bestowed upon the federal government sweeping powers regarding First Nations cultural practices, education, health and systems of governance. For example, Treaty No. 6 of 1876, signed between the Canadian state and the Cree peoples of Alberta and Saskatchewan claimed that if “Indians … being overtaken by any pestilence, or by a general famine, the Queen … will grant to the Indians assistance.”

In 1884, an amendment to the Indian Act required First Nations children under the age of 16 to attend residential schools. Many children were forcibly removed from their homes and received physical and psychological punishment for speaking Indigenous languages or practicing Indigenous customs and rituals. Along with these acts of cultural genocide and accompanying physical violence, the dire hygienic conditions of residential schools resulted in alarming rates of tuberculosis contraction until at least the mid-20th century. The horrendous conditions and treatment of First Nations children at residential schools, the last of which did not close until 1997, were the focus of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (established in 2008) and more recent reports of unmarked mass burial sites.


The expansion of the welfare state thus perpetuated the project of colonialism, allocating goods and services to certain residents while maintaining segregation and racial hierarchy. This expanding state also hinged on ideas about individual freedom. Canadian liberalism characterized citizens as “free,” encouraging them through social programs to cultivate autonomy and individualism. Participation in modern Canada and its notions of “freedom” was encouraged, for both settlers and Indigenous populations. But while liberalism underpinned White Canadian prosperity, participation came with extreme costs to individual and collective health and well-being of Indigenous peoples.


The primarily White supporters of the Freedom Convoy argue that pandemic mandates infringe upon their constitutional rights to freedom. The notion of “freedom” was historically and remains intertwined with Whiteness, as historian Tyler Stovall has argued. The belief that one’s entitlement to freedom is a key component of White supremacy. This explains why the Freedom Convoy members see themselves as entitled to freedom, no matter the public health consequences to those around them.

Canada’s history of freedom then, was founded in the unfreedom of Indigenous people. {snip}