A scene in Ottawa, ON during the February 2022 trucker convoy
As described in multiple news reports, the so-called trucker convoy that held the capital city of Canada captive for three weeks was a separatist-fueled plot engineered by right wing extremists, and the Canadian Trucking Alliance was wise to disavow it from the start. As rumors build of a similar assault on Washington, D.C., it seems reasonable to expect the American Trucking Associations (ATA) to take a similar stand. They have not, and the reason is not hard to find.
The convoy descended on Ottawa at the end of January. It was billed as a Canadian grassroots action spearheaded by ordinary truck drivers, though many of the participants were not professional drivers and a significant amount of funding has been traced to donors in the U.S.
By February, companion actions also spilled over to block U.S.-Canada border crossings, resulting in a significant disruption of commerce between the two nations.
Under the name of the “Freedom Convoy,” the organizers sought to characterize the weeks-long takeover of the Ottawa city center as a peaceful, constitutionally sanctioned act of civil disobedience, in protest of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for truck drivers crossing the U.S.-Canada border. Many participants worked to present a joyful, child-friendly atmosphere, complete with dance parties, community food kitchens, hot tubs and bouncy castles.
However, the mass deployment of diesel-spewing engines and ear-splitting horns for days on end in neighborhoods where people live, work and go to school was not peaceful in any meaningful sense of the word. The Canadian Anti-Hate Network is among those identifying the action as the work of race-based right wing extremism, an observation supported by the Nazi and Confederate symbolism on view among the demonstrators.
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In addition, a connection to religious extremism has surfaced, along with a linkage to persons and groups involved in the violent, attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021.
Writing for Religion Dispatches last week, historian Thomas Lecaque summarized media reports exploring the connection to religious extremism as it relates to the “Jericho March” movement, which is characterized by vehicle convoys and other street actions aimed at choking off and subduing a perceived enemy.
“The elements of spiritual warfare – repeatedly deployed by Christian nationalist groups before in service of Trump and elsewhere – on the borderline of where it crosses over into physical violence, the Jericho Marchs, the violent commentary supporting it, the prayer, the shofars, the echoes of J6 expressed from abroad and divorced from the actual Canadian context – these are a symptom of a broader problem,” Lecaque wrote.
On January 22, the Canadian Trucking Alliance challenged the Canadian activists on grounds of road safety, issuing a powerful, public statement to discourage professional truck drivers from participating.
“The Canadian Trucking Alliance…does not support and strongly disapproves of any protests on public roadways, highways, and bridges,” CTA stated. “CTA believes such actions – especially those that interfere with public safety – are not how disagreements with government policies should be expressed.”
Rumors of a copycat trucker convoy in the U.S. have been circulating for weeks, and Fox News is now openly encouraging drivers to descend on the nation’s capital in force. The ATA has had ample opportunity to follow the CTA lead, but as of this writing they have not.
The reason is clear. To the extent that the “trucker protests” cite vaccine mandates as their raison d'être, ATA itself has added plenty of fuel to the fire.
Last fall, ATA lead a coalition of other stakeholders challenging the Biden administration’s November 5 COVID-19 prevention order, which required companies employing 100 or more workers to impose a vaccine mandate or impose regular testing.
The ATA case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued a stay of the Biden administration order on January 13. That same day, ATA’s president and CEO, Chris Spear, issued a public statement applauding the decision.
“ATA has won a tremendous victory on behalf of the trucking industry and workers and employers everywhere,” Spear said. “Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court validates our claim that OSHA far overstepped its authority in issuing an emergency temporary standard that would interfere with individuals’ private health care decisions.”
Coincidentally or not, an organized fundraising campaign for the Canadian “Freedom Convoy” launched just two days later, on January 15, as an account on the GoFundMe online crowdfunding platform.
GoFundMe terminated the account in February, charging it with violating terms of service. The trucker convoy organizers then transferred their campaign to the self-described Christian crowdfunding platform GiveSendGo, thereby lending another angle to the religious affiliation noted by Lecaque and others.
Somewhat ironically, as a result of the Canadian blockades ATA’s support of the anti-mandate movement has brought it into direct conflict with one of its own key policy positions.
In recent years, ATA has drawn attention to the lack of space for truck parking as a critical issue for the industry, costing millions in lost wages and employer expenses as drivers wait for legal parking spots, or park in unsafe or legally restricted areas.
The spectacle of hundreds of truck drivers and their allies choosing to park illegally in the Canadian blockades could have convinced ATA to put that issue on the back burner temporarily, but it did not. On February 18, even as Canadian law enforcement was finally taking action against the blockaders, ATA fired off a long, detailed and tone deaf letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, in which it demanded that the agency “address the nationwide shortage of truck parking capacity.”
“The truck parking shortage has plagued the trucking industry for decades, and the consequences of insufficient capacity are as wide-ranging as they are severe,” ATA argued, emphasizing that “the scarcity of truck parking spaces across the country decreases safety for all highway users, exacerbates the industry’s longstanding workforce challenges, contributes negatively to driver health and well-being, diminishes trucking productivity, and results in unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions.”
Perhaps “somewhat ironically” is an understatement. The aggressive use of vehicles by Canadian truck drivers and their allies in Ottawa has strengthened the case for prohibiting vehicles from city centers altogether, let alone allowing any scramble to find more places for trucks to park. It will be interesting to see how Secretary Buttigieg responds to that letter.
The letter also addressed the lack of parking spots in relation to another key ATA policy issue, the ongoing shortage of drivers.
“In the context of the trucking industry’s longstanding workforce challenges, the shortage of safe truck parking is a significant source of stress for drivers and is a major factor contributing to the industry’s retention problems,” ATA stated in the letter.
Clearly, the activity in Canada did nothing to help matters relating to driver retention. In addition to making a good case for restricting the ability of truck drivers to park in cities, the behavior of participants in the blockades could discourage young people – especially people of color – from considering a career in an industry that tolerates unsafe, illegal and disruptive behavior.
In that context, it is worth noting that practically all of those involved in the Canadian blockades were white, even though at least 25 percent of professional trucker drivers in Canada are South Asian and other people of color.
ATA’s continued silence on the trucker convoy in Canada will also undercut at least three of its public relations initiatives, one of which is its longstanding “Share the Road” safety education campaign for non-truck drivers.
ATA has also created another public outreach initiative called “America's Road Team,” which aims to “serve as a rallying point for the spirit of professional dedication and teamwork needed to deliver America's freight safely, securely and on time.”
“Professional truck drivers actively represent their industry daily on the nation's highways. They are an untapped resource in spreading the trucking industry's message of safety, essentiality and professionalism,” ATA explains, though it may have to modify that language if and when the U.S. convoy gets under way.
A third initiative, “Tomorrow’s Truckers,” is a recruitment campaign focusing on high school students, by exposing them to the “numerous benefits to becoming a professional truck driver” at career days and other school events. By its continued silence, ATA is tacitly endorsing the idea of a U.S. convoy. They will have to clarify that “benefits” does not include massing with other drivers to terrorize an entire city.
Some of the organizers are already deploying language meant to stir fear. In an eerie echo of the Jericho March movement, one organizer has threatened to shut down the heavily traveled Beltway that encircles the outer perimeter of Washington like a “giant boa constrictor,” a threat amplified by Fox News and other right wing media.
It's not too late for ATA to speak up. If it chooses to remain silent, perhaps some of its leading sponsors, including the Volvo Group, will step up and disown those who use their vehicles as weapons.
Image credit: Kirk Slow via Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.