Canada border blockades, protests ‘nothing to do with trucking’

Canadian truckers tell Al Jazeera protests against COVID-19 restrictions are distracting attention from real challenges they face.

Vehicles are seen on a street as truckers
A vast majority of Canadian truckers, approximately 90 percent according to the government and an industry group, are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 [File: Chris Helgren/Reuters]

Toronto, Canada – As Canada strengthens its push to disperse so-called “Freedom Convoy” protesters after weeks in the capital Ottawa, trucker Lovepreet Singh Gill says he never had an interest in participating.

While the convoy was billed as a response to mandatory vaccinations for truck drivers crossing the border with the United States, Gill says there are “major issues” in the trucking industry, such as unpaid wages and exploitation of foreign workers, that warrant more attention.

“I wouldn’t call it a truckers’ protest,” Gill told Al Jazeera in a phone interview about the main rally in downtown Ottawa. “It has nothing to do with trucking.”

On January 29, a large group of Canadian truckers and their supporters, numbering in the thousands, rallied outside Parliament Hill in downtown Ottawa to demand the vaccine mandate be rescinded.

A few hundred vehicles have remained in the capital since then in what residents denounced as an “occupation” of the downtown core, with participants in the convoy insisting they would not budge until all COVID-19 curbs are lifted. Blockades also were erected at points along the border, disrupting traffic and commercial trade for days.

Most truckers vaccinated

While some Canadian truckers have indeed taken part in the protests across Canada, denouncing the vaccine mandate as an attack on their personal liberties, most Canadian truck drivers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The Canadian Truckers Alliance (CTA), an industry advocacy group, and the federal government have said approximately 90 percent of truckers are fully vaccinated. “The trucking industry is heavily regulated. We have to get physical tests like eye exams every few years,” Gill said. “Getting vaccinated is no different.”

The CTA has condemned the protests and blockades, with President Stephen Laskowski saying last month that the industry needed to “adapt and comply” with the vaccine mandate.

Police had out information sheets and speak to demonstrators
Police have been criticised for their handling of the main protest in Ottawa [File: Blair Gable/Reuters]

Vaccinated truckers like Gill also have raised frustrations and anger about protest blockades set up at key crossings along the US-Canada border in solidarity with the protest in Ottawa, saying the days-long closures harmed drivers’ livelihoods and left many stranded.

“Around 50 protesters were blocking 200 to 400 trucks” at the border in Coutts, Alberta, where a blockade was lifted earlier this week after snarling traffic for several days, said Gill, who was bringing produce from the US back to Canada with a co-driver when they were stuck at the crossing for nearly three days, beginning on January 29.

“Some of them are not even truckers … they are just locals from nearby areas,” the 28-year-old said about the protesters.

Another truck driver, Kanwal Singh Dhindsa told Al Jazeera that he ran out of food after also getting stuck at the Coutts blockade and had to buy additional supplies. “We were forced to sleep in cars for the whole we are stuck at the border.”

Dhindsa said after three days, he and others were forced to drive their long-hauls to a different border crossing in Alberta known as Carway to enter into Canada, using roads that were not suitable for trucks.

“One friend’s truck slipped into a ditch due to bad weather conditions. He was forced to call a tow truck which cost him $1,500 US,” the Calgary-based driver said. “It was a very difficult time … especially for my wife and three-year-old child who did not know when I would be back.”

Commercial trucks cross the Ambassador Bridge from Canada to Detroit
Commercial trucks cross the Ambassador Bridge from Canada to Detroit, Michigan, February 14 [Rebecca Cook/Reuters]

This week, the federal Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said it arrested 13 people and seized a large cache of weapons at the Coutts blockade. The RCMP said the individuals were ready “to use force against the police if any attempts were made to disrupt the blockade” and four have since been charged with conspiracy to commit murder.

Demonstrators had also blocked the busiest border crossing between the US and Canada near Detroit, the Ambassador Bridge, for nearly a week. The span, which reopened on Sunday after police cleared the protest, is responsible for some 25 percent of all trade between the two countries.

Authorities also are moving to disperse the protesters on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week announced he was invoking the Emergencies Act for the first time in the country’s history to give his government additional powers to quell the demonstration.

Far-right organisers

Experts also have pointed out that the “Freedom Convoy” was organised by far-right activists who have espoused Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and other hateful views – with some observers accusing them of using the trucker vaccine mandate merely as a pretext.

Confederate and swastika flags were seen during the group’s first large rally in Ottawa last month, fuelling concerns, especially among racialised people in Canada.

Kulpreet Singh, founder of the South Asian Mental Health Alliance (SAMHAA), said South Asian people account for about 20 percent of truck drivers in Canada – and many in the industry have expressed feeling alienated by the hate symbols on display during the protests.

“Firstly, the real challenges faced by truckers from marginalised communities are not represented,” he said, “but to make matters worse, hate speech and symbols are widespread in the protests.” SAMHAA organised an online fundraiser days into the “Freedom Convoy” rallies to support those it called “Canada’s real, struggling truckers”.

“Truck drivers have legitimate grievances with the government,” Singh said. “The far-right, white nationalist figures behind the convoy do not speak for them.”

That was echoed by others in the industry, who have argued that the pressing problems many truckers face in Canada have not been addressed by the protests.

A spokesperson of the United Trucking Association of British Columbia (BC), on Canada’s west coast, told Al Jazeera that, for example, there is a need for a “legislated rate” for truckers – or a minimum wage specific to the industry.

“In BC, if you are a strawberry picker or apple picker, there are specific guaranteed rates. There is nothing similar that exists for truckers,” Gagan Singh said from Vancouver. “There is not a single question about this real issue from those folks [protesting in Ottawa],” he added.

Wages, workplace abuses

A months-long investigation by the Toronto Star newspaper published in December revealed more than 4,800 complaints were filed by long-haul truckers for unpaid wages and other work-related abuses to Employment and Social Development Canada, a federal agency.

According to the Star, the number was 12 times higher than “any other federally regulated sector”, despite truckers making up “less than a fifth of that workforce”.

In the past few years, truck drivers together with workers’ rights groups have taken to the streets to register their complaints. Last July, an Ontario-based truck driver took his protest about unpaid wages to his former employer’s home in Brampton, Ontario, demanding more than 5,500 Canadian dollars ($4,300) in owed wages.

A few months later, in late October, truck drivers protested outside the offices of Cargo County, a trucking company based in the neighbouring town of Mississauga, demanding tens of thousands in unpaid salaries and illegal deductions.

Gill, the trucker from Edmonton, also noted that foreign workers and international students face an even higher risk of exploitation in the industry. He said employers often try to strike deals with workers to forgo wages or pay a set amount to provide them with a Labour Market Impact Assessment – a document that allows companies to hire foreign workers.

A protester stands in front of police officers, who stand guard on a street after Windsor Police said that they are starting to enforce a court order to clear truckers and supporters who have been protesting against coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine mandates by blocking access to the Ambassador Bridge
Many protesters have called for an end to all COVID-19 restrictions in Canada [File: Carlos Osorio/Reuters]

“It is totally illegal … but in many cases, the drivers have little choice,” Gill said. “They are afraid to speak up in order to avoid jeopardising the prospects of renewing their work visas or their pending application for Canadian permanent residence.”

Deena Ladd, executive director for the Workers’ Action Centre (WAC) advocacy group, told Al Jazeera that a number of truckers have reported facing threats of deportation when they have attempted to speak out at work for being sent on “long jobs in dangerous conditions with no rest”.

“Due to the lack of enforcement of labour rights by the governments, poor working conditions and misclassification have now become the norm in the truck-driving sector,” Ladd said in an email.

And despite all the attention the “Freedom Convoy” protests have received, Dhindsa said he does not feel they will shift the conversation towards the more pressing problems truckers face in Canada.

“I haven’t seen many politicians or people in the media discuss it extensively,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that he believed problems in the industry will continue long after the demonstrators have gone home.

Source: Al Jazeera