With the “Freedom Convoy” occupation of Ottawa into its second week, Feb. 5 saw sympathy convoys hit several other cities across Canada. At the same time, opposition to the right-wing thuggery seen at the convoys is building up, and working class Canadians are starting to push back with counter-demonstrations.
Fightback was present at three of these counter-demonstrations, calling for a bold, working class, socialist response to the far right, and to the pandemic.
On Saturday, Feb. 5, Fightback joined several hundred people at an anti-hate counter-demonstration at Ottawa City Hall. Over the past week, far-right elements of the “Freedom Convoy” have harassed workers for wearing masks, forced several workplaces to close and even smashed the window of a coffee shop for having a pride flag displayed. These and other incidents have provoked the anger of many Ottawa residents, who are ready to get organized against the far right. Some of the main chants included “Whose city? Our city!” and “Hate has no home here.” A few members of the convoy entered the demo, attempting to provoke the attendees, but they were expelled without any trouble.
The size of the counter-demonstration was considerable, especially given the deliberate sabotage by the labour leaders over the previous days. Instead of supporting the demonstration, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) Ottawa local executive attempted to cancel the demo and dissuaded others from attending. They condemned the demo as being unsafe for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour). As Fightback members explained at the PSAC meeting, by discouraging attendance, they contributed to weakening the demo and making it more unsafe! Despite this attempted sabotage, hundreds of people still came out. This shows the contradiction between the willingness of the working class people to fight, and the labour leadership’s unwillingness to take action. If the labour organizations had promoted the demo, it undoubtedly would have been even larger, and even safer as a result!
There was a massively positive response to a Reddit post made by the main organizer of the anti-hate demo, which shared Fightback’s article on the scandalous sabotage by PSAC. Many commented in support of holding another counter-demo, asking, “When’s the next one?” This shows a continued willingness to fight. What is needed is a bold labour leadership that is willing to mobilize for workers’ control of health and safety, as this is the only way to truly end the pandemic.
The capitalists and their representatives in government have continuously put profit ahead of lives since the pandemic began. Penny-pinching politicians like Justin Trudeau and Doug Ford have refused to implement the key safety demands like smaller classroom sizes, mass hiring of nurses and adequate paid sick leave. Instead, they have thrown the working class into chaos with mismanaged lockdowns. Millions have lost loved ones, jobs and incomes. Unfortunately, the leadership of the NDP and trade unions have failed to fight for improved working and safety conditions. In their absence, the right wing has mobilized the anger in society. It is the inaction of the labour leadership throughout the entire pandemic that has created the conditions for the “Freedom Convoy”.
On Saturday, Feb. 5, a spontaneous counter-demonstration was organized in Vancouver to defend the hospitals from an anti-vax convoy whose route would have taken it past several hospitals. Following events in Ottawa, where an increasingly violent occupation seriously threatens the well-being and safety of workers and oppressed people, there is an enormous reserve of anger at the far right and a desire and willingness to stand up for health-care heroes.
At its peak, there were around 250 people at the counterprotest; this despite the fact that it was hastily organized the day before on social media, largely on the r\Vancouver subreddit. Fightback Vancouver attended with five comrades and were the largest organized left group there. In ordinary times, a serious organizing effort would be necessary to get a rally of 250 people together in Vancouver, but we are not living in ordinary times. There can be no clearer indication of the deep reserve of support for health-care workers among the vast majority of working people, that so many are willing to take up the call to defend the hospitals even with minimal organization.
This also speaks to the failure of the trade unions to take a lead in defending health-care workers and service sector workers from the far-right mob. If 250 people will show up to stand up to the far right on the basis of a Reddit post the day before, then there is no question that if the nurses’ union were to organize a counter-protest in advance and put out an open call to the public—trade unionists, non-unionized workers, students, etc.—it could easily draw out thousands.
The counter-demonstration in Vancouver was unique in that there was a direct standoff between supporters of the convoy and counter-protestors. For a time, counter-protestors on bicycles were able to block the route of the convoy. This was another demonstration of the willingness to take militant action against the far right. Likewise, it is also something that would have been far more successful had unions, with their experience setting up picket lines, been involved.
The role of the police was clear in the standoff. Five people were arrested, all counter-protestors. While the police are more than willing to arrest counter-protestors who have assembled to protect the hospitals, no action was taken against the anti-vax convoy, not even against drivers who tried to push their way through pedestrians. This continues the permissive and even encouraging attitude of law enforcement towards the far right that we have seen in Ottawa, and contrasts strongly with the brutality of law enforcement in dealing with Indigenous land defenders. We cannot rely on the police to defend health-care and service sector workers. The workers must take this initiative themselves.
Union leadership is also needed to give these counter-protests an independent, working class character. There are some who oppose the convoys with support for the governments of Trudeau and John Horgan. But it is the government of the capitalists that has aggravated the pandemic with half-measures designed to protect profits over lives. People are right to be angry with the government, but it is a question of where that anger is directed. A strong labour leadership, with socialist demands, would be capable of directing that anger away from the conspiracy theories and bigotry of the anti-vaxx movement, and towards a struggle against the capitalist class. We cannot rely on the state to protect the working class from either the virus or from the far right.
Lisa Kreut, chairperson of the Vancouver General Hospital (Facilities) Local of the Hospital Employees’ Union, said of the demonstration:
“We saw from the convoy, and the counter protests here in Vancouver, that regular people want to be engaged, but what we really have in our labour movement is a deficit of organizing and hope. The counter protests here in Vancouver were organized practically overnight using free online tools, and connected with community members in ways that were heartfelt, created meaningful change, and built connections in the community. People literally came out of their homes and onto the street to push back the convoy. Imagine what we could do if we put the organizing power and resources of the labour movement; our funds, organizers, volunteers, offices and tools into assisting or facilitating further actions around supporting healthcare workers and fighting back against intolerance and hate. Actions like this could not only help the community, but give union members the hope and sense of stewardship. Whether it’s making quorum at a local meeting, negotiating at the bargaining table, fighting grievances or exerting political influence, an engaged membership who has a sense of pride and hope is the most powerful tool we have. A small investment in organizing now, on a subject our members are passionate about, will be returned to us in dividends in every other way we organize and negotiate.”
On Feb. 5, the so-called “Freedom Convoy” came to Toronto to protest at the provincial legislature. As Queen’s Park is close to six major hospitals, there were fears that health-care workers would be harassed and routes to hospitals would be cut off. These fears were reinforced by the behaviour of the Ottawa convoy, and of the actions of other anti-vax protestors in recent months. In response to fears of harassment, police advised health-care workers not to wear clothes that identified them as health-care workers, and basically told them to sneak into work. Outraged, a group of rank-and-file health-care workers organized a counter-demonstration.
With only a day’s notice, approximately 500 people attended the counter-demonstration to support health-care workers. Fightback participated with a contingent of 50 people. Our demands for the funding of health care and against the profits-over-people approach of governments resonated with participants who chanted along with our slogans during the march to Hospital Row.
The official focus of the rally was on ensuring that access to health care was not compromised. However, many people were there due to their political opposition to the convoy. Fightback brought the perspective that it is the capitalists’ half-hearted attempt to deal with the pandemic, downplaying the recent surge of deaths, that has given rise to the convoy movement. People see the inconsistency in pandemic measures, and are naturally frustrated. In the absence of left-wing leadership fighting back against the capitalists, this mood of anger has been captured by the right.
Those we spoke with at the counter-protest easily agreed with this analysis. There is a recognition that behind the misguided and confused convoy supporters, there is a greater enemy. Indeed, in addition to signs generally supporting health-care workers and vaccines, there were signs at the rally that spoke to broader issues, such as calling for an end to Bill 124, the public sector pay cap that keeps the wages of health-care workers scandalously low.
The lack of leadership from the left and the labour movement was apparent in the fact that health-care workers organized Saturday’s counter-protest without any backing from their union. The counter-protest was successful, given how quickly it was put together. But if the labour movement had used its vast resources and mobilized behind it, it could have easily dwarfed the 3,000 convoy supporters gathered at Queen’s Park. That there has been no mass mobilization from the unions is shameful.
That Fightback was able to mobilize a contingent of 50 with a day’s notice, behind socialist demands, is the result of our serious approach to organizing. If we want to successfully oppose right-wing demagogy, we need organization. If you agree, we appeal to you to join us!