Freeing Canada from colonial freedom

Canada’s so-called ‘Freedom’ Convoy movement is not un-Canadian – it is a grotesque reflection of the Canadian state itself.

Freedom Convoy in Ottawa, Canada
Protesters of the Freedom Convoy gather as truckers continue to protest in Ottawa, Canada on February 09, 2022 [Kadri Mohamed/Anadolu Agency]

Widely depicted as an “un-Canadian” aberration, the “Freedom” Convoy movement that recently terrorised cities across Canada – purportedly to protest against pandemic restrictions – is a grotesque reflection of the Canadian state itself.

Political leaders denounced the convoy’s “illegal occupation” of the national capital, Ottawa: a city that occupies unceded Algonquin territory, as the government’s own “land acknowledgement” admits.

Politicians deplored convoy members’ defacement of the “sacred ground” of the Ottawa war memorial – even as the state’s own assault on sacred Indigenous lands and waters proceeds apace, enabled by Canadian court rulings excluding Indigenous claims from religious freedom rights.

Pundits decried the convoy’s “co-optation” of “peaceful” Canadian symbols like the maple leaf flag, flown alongside Nazi and Confederate emblems. This is the same maple leaf that adorns the forces of Canadian state violence, from the soldiers who tortured a Somali youth to death in “Canada’s forgotten Abu Ghraib moment” 30 years ago, to the police officers brutalising Indigenous land protectors in the present.

“Occupying, making the lives of the people who live there unbearable, and holding the government hostage” are not novel tactics invented by the convoy, as some liberal critics have suggested. Rather, this is settler colonialism’s longstanding modus operandi against the Indigenous nations it has aimed to supplant. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), for instance, originated as a paramilitary body to “clear the plains” of its original inhabitants, including by deliberate starvation to coerce relocation onto reserves.

Some right-wing American convoy supporters have been calling for the United States to “invade” Canada; as left-wing commentators previously issued satirical calls, during the Trump era, for Canada to “invade” the US. Across the political divide, there is a common erasure of the fact that both the US and Canada are already invaded – states built on stolen Indigenous lands, and stolen Black and Indigenous lives.

The metastasis of Canadian-inspired “freedom” convoys across Western states such as the US, New Zealand and France continues a long tradition: the transnational trade in techniques of domination between “white men’s countries” (as they once proudly styled themselves).

For example, there is evidence that Canada’s anti-Indigenous reserve system was a blueprint for South Africa’s apartheid, which in turn was a model for Israel’s bantustanisation of Palestine. “White Canada” immigration policies were inspired by “White Australia” and “White New Zealand” policies, which also informed anti-Asian exclusion laws in the US.

While non-white immigration to Canada was overtly restricted until 1962, American Ku Klux Klan members were not only welcomed but accorded asylum from prosecution for violent crimes. In the 1920s and ’30s, rates of Klan membership were higher in some Canadian cities than in neighbouring American states – although the Canadian Knights of the KKK distinguished themselves from their allegedly “lawless” American brethren by affixing maple leaf insignias on their white robes.

Then as now, the fetishisation of Canadian “civility” – pervasive in commentary on the convoy – serves as a mask for white supremacy. The exemplary conduct of the Klansmen in Canada was praised at the time by Canadian police, politicians and media, which hailed the “non-violence” of their cross-burnings, the “orderliness” of their kidnappings, and the “courteousness” of their “white justice”.

The recent spectacle of Canadian police and military figures supporting, schmoozing, and sympathising with convoy participants thus perpetuates another tradition – the public-private partnership in upholding the racial order of the settler state.

From the 16th-century Spanish “discoverers”-qua-demolishers of the so-called New World to 17th to 19th-century genocidal American militias and “slave patrols”: colonial sovereigns have long deputised private settlers to enact violence against the colonised and enslaved.

Though some of the “excesses” of deputised violence are disciplined – particularly those that threaten the profitability and reputability of the colonial enterprise, as did the convoy – the underlying hierarchy of being is preserved intact.

And so, Canadian police and security agencies have looked away as white supremacist groups amass arsenals, while Indigenous, Muslim and Black communities are intensively securitised and surveilled.

Canadian courts have exonerated settlers who kill Indigenous “trespassers,” while Indigenous nations are criminalised for the non-violent defence of their own ancestral lands.

The “Freedom” Convoy was permitted to “occupy” Ottawa and other cities for over three weeks – despite having proposed the overthrow of the Canadian government – while Indigenous, Black and homeless peoples’ resistance to state brutality has been crushed with an iron fist.

Day one of the Ottawa convoy blockade, January 29, was the fifth anniversary of the Quebec mosque shooting: a manifestation of the systemic Islamophobia inscribed by state “war on terror” practices exposing Muslims to expulsion, torture and death.

Day 12, February 9, marked four years since the acquittal of Gerald Stanley for killing young Cree man Colten Boushie, who was shot point-blank by Stanley in the back of his head – part of the ongoing assault on Indigenous lives in Canada, whether by the quick violence of a bullet or the slower violence of dispossession and poisoning of waters and lands.

On February 19 – convoy day 22 – South Sudanese refugee Latjor Tuel was shot to death by Calgary police while in mental distress at a bus stop, for refusing to drop “weapons” that were actually a retractable cane he needed to walk with, as well as a small knife.

Year after year, Canadian police kill Black and Indigenous people in grossly disproportionate numbers, largely with impunity (only four percent of police killings between 2000 and 2017 resulted in criminal charges and 0.4 percent in convictions): a reminder that the policing and prison system now being pitched as the “solution” to white supremacist aggression is simply another side of the same sword.

Two weeks ago, Canada’s temporary “state of emergency” in response to the convoy was lifted. But the permanent and in many ways more draconian regime of counterterrorism – reserved for use primarily against the racialised and colonised – remains firmly in place. As philosopher Walter Benjamin observed, for the oppressed, “the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule”.

Under the emergency measures, convoy participants complained that they were treated “like terrorists” and placed under “martial law”. Never mind that the government did not, in fact, use the military against them – as it has repeatedly to subjugate Indigenous opposition to corporate depredations (Kahnawake and Kanesatake in 1990, Gustafsen Lake in 1995, Elsipogtog in 2013), without any “emergency” declaration required.

Nor did the government deploy counterterrorism’s extensive array of “exceptional” state powers – “pre-crime” prosecutions, entrapment operations, no-fly lists, terrorist entities lists, counter-radicalisation programmes, reverse bail onuses, constitutional rights breach warrants (authorised by secret court hearings), suffocating peace bond conditions, security deportations – applied against Muslim communities en masse, including children, since the “war on terror’s” launch.

Convoy donors whose bank accounts were temporarily frozen have now been unfrozen, resurrecting them from claimed “social death”; while Muslim charities like IRFAN have languished on the terrorist entities list for almost a decade for the “offence” of making medical donations to Gaza, impeded by the listing conditions from challenging the listing in court.

Unlike Indigenous land defenders, convoy members were not shackled and held in dog kennel-like cages; forced to appear in court stripped down to their underwear; or subjected to orders authorising police to “use as much violence as you want,” including lethal force, and “arrest everyone,” including elders and children – as RCMP officers were instructed in 2019 against the Wet’suwet’en contesting pipeline construction on their territories.

Under colonial rule, children have not been deterrents to state violence – as were the convoy’s child “human shields” – but targets of state violence: as testified by the thousands of unmarked graves of Indigenous children that continue to be uncovered outside Canada’s former “residential schools,” the genocidal institutions for which the term “final solution” was originally coined.

Yet in the inverted reality of colonial modernity, White supremacist movements paint themselves as the victims of racism, colonialism and genocide. “Freedom” Convoy organiser Pat King, for example, has warned of the supposed project to “de-populate the Anglo-Saxon race” because they have the “strongest bloodlines” – echoing the American slaveholders of previous centuries who protested their “enslavement” by anti-slavery laws.

“Modern western thinking goes on operating through abyssal lines that divide the ‘human’ from the ‘sub-human,’” legal theorist Boaventura de Sousa Santos writes. “The legal and political civility on this side of the line is premised upon the existence of utter incivility on the other side of the line … The negation of one part of humanity is sacrificial, in that it is the condition of the affirmation of that other part of humanity which considers itself as universal.”

Under this paradigm, “universal” concepts of freedom have, in reality, been “white freedom,” as historian Tyler Stovall has shown: a self-granted prerogative to dominate, colonise and exploit.

However, those consigned to the “sub-humanised” side of the abyssal line continue to remember, imagine and breathe life into other understandings of what it means to be free.

Current struggles across the country that now calls itself Canada – to defend Indigenous laws and territories, to defund and abolish police, to dismantle the abusive counterterrorism apparatus, and to direct resources towards the protection of human and other-than-human life instead – articulate visions of liberation and justice beyond the artificial horizons imposed by the settler state.

Because a “freedom” constricted to choosing between different faces of oppression – Canadian colonialism or American colonialism; liberal racism or conservative racism; the terror of the convoy or the terror of police – is no freedom at all.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.