A group of truckers has garnered millions in fundraising dollars from droves of supporters as it drives across the country to protest vaccine mandates, despite the vast majority of big-riggers having been jabbed and one expert warning of ties to conspiracy theories.
Setting off from Vancouver on Sunday, the "Freedom Convoy" had raised more than $3.6 million from some 47,600 donors — about $76 per donor on average — by Monday evening in support of truck drivers poised to converge on Ottawa this weekend, according to the campaign's GoFundMe page.
The fledgling fleet is demonstrating against the federal requirement that essential workers — truckers included — be vaccinated if they want to avoid a 14-day quarantine after crossing the border from the United States. The rule came into effect Jan. 15.
Harwil Farms Mobile Feeds, whose 12 drivers deliver feed to farms and livestock to slaughterhouses in southern Ontario, donated $5,000 to the convoy, making it among the top contributors.
Owner Wendy Metcalfe said she believes vaccination is unnecessary.
“It doesn't seem to be working very well, does it? You've got people that are double, triple vaxxed, and they're still getting the Omicron,” she said.
“I’m definitely against the mandates, and I’m way more than skeptical.”
Research from studies in the U.S., Germany, South Africa and the United Kingdom indicate vaccines are less effective against the Omicron variant than earlier strains of the virus, but also that booster shots beef up antibodies to reduce the chance of symptomatic infection, severe illness or death. A third dose is also at least 90 per cent effective at preventing hospitalization for COVID-19, including for Omicron, according to a study released Friday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Some organizers and associated groups in the campaign behind the protest convoy appear to have links to conspiracy theories and far-right ideologies.
Tamara Lich, a lead organizer of the convoy, was heavily involved with the yellow vest protests in 2019, a global movement that claimed to represent the economic concerns of its members but also devolved into Islamophobic rhetoric and anti-immigrant views.
Lich is also currently listed as secretary for the Mavericks, the fledgling political party formerly known as Wexit Canada that advocates for Western Canada's independence or constitutional changes benefiting the West. She did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
The protest's Facebook page also includes a cross-posted video from Patrick King, one of the organizers of Wexit and the yellow vests who has also been called out in the past for espousing misinformation about COVID-19.
The convoy's Facebook page directs members to the "Canada Unity" site, which shows a number of associated organizations within the movement. One is Action 4 Canada, which has webpages devoted to the dangers that "political Islam" poses to the Western world, and the health harms of 5G wireless technology.
Peter Smith, a researcher with the Anti-Hate Network, said the movement is very similar to developments in the pro-pipeline United We Roll convoy in 2019.
"There are definitely people within that group who have a heart-in-the-right-place mentality, but it is a movement that is heavily informed by conspiracy theory, and is being organized by people who have a history of engaging with these groups," he said.
"You are a couple clicks away from blatant conspiracy theory — not something that's just a little bit on the edges, but quite significant."
A slew of semis rolled through Calgary early Monday morning, though not all may not be bound for Ottawa as some truckers aimed to show solidarity for a few hours rather than 3,500 kilometres. Other groups such as a Montreal contingent are slated to leave on Saturday at 7 a.m. for a 200-kilometre trip — at far lower cost in food and fuel.
Despite the money and effort invested into the convoy, trade associations expect Ottawa to stick with the mandate for cross-border truckers, as well as an upcoming requirement that all federally regulated workers get vaccinated. A deadline has not yet been set.
Reese Evans, general manager of Evans Trucking, said 14 of his 36 drivers who typically haul lumber across the Alberta-Montana border are unvaccinated — and largely out of commission following the vaccine mandate. His outfit donated $5,000 to the campaign.
“We as a company don't believe that the government — that it's their right to tell people what they should or shouldn't be doing with their bodies,” he said. “That should always be an autonomous decision for each individual person.”
Evans said the new rule, in conjunction with the U.S. decision to bar unvaccinated Canadian truckers from entering the country as of last Saturday — Canada has the same policy toward American drivers — would only exacerbate supply shortages and price hikes.
The funding support for the convoy suggests broad popular support, he said, though public opinion polls since August show a vast majority of Canadians back vaccine mandates for essential workers.
On Saturday the Canadian Trucking Alliance condemned protests on roads and highways. But Evans said planned demonstrations near border crossing points across the country this weekend are safe and legal.
“Nobody is stopping on the highway with their vehicles and crossing the roads,” he said.Rather the protest convoys will see semis “just moving very, very slowly in a big circle … parade-style.”
Vashty Dansereau, a kinesiologist who lives outside Calgary, woke up early Monday to see the truckers off at 7 a.m. — part of a wave of sign-wielding supporters who turned out in several cities along the route.
"I think the goal is just to be heard, because what I'm finding is that there's only one side of information out there," said Dansereau, who said she donated to the convoy because she is "skeptical" of the vaccines.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 24, 2022.
Christopher Reynolds and Erika Ibrahim, The Canadian Press