EDMONTON—A long line of truckers and their supporters carved its way through Alberta and parts of Saskatchewan on Monday — along roads at times dotted with hundreds of cheering protesters — as the procession continued an eastward journey that is set to end in Ottawa this weekend.
The convoy, dubbed the “Freedom Rally” and carrying a controversial message opposing vaccine mandates, had left British Columbia on Sunday in hopes of reaching the capital Saturday.
The total number of participants is, at this stage, difficult to estimate, as truckers and other protesters join along the way — some just for a short time and others pledging they won’t leave Parliament Hill, once they get there, until mandates keeping the unvaccinated from eating at restaurants or working certain jobs are done away with.
It’s a protest has been extensively organized with the help of established conservative activist networks, such as the western separatist and pro-pipeline movements, and they’ve raised millions of dollars through an online fundraising campaign.
The convoy is not sanctioned by all truckers. The Canadian Trucking Alliance came out against the protest over the weekend. Almost 90 per cent of Canadian truckers have already elected to get the vaccine.
However, a vaccine mandate that came into effect this month for truckers crossing the Canada-U.S. border has become a flashpoint in a broader movement opposing COVID-19 restrictions that has been brewing for more than a year.
Unvaccinated and vaccinated truckers who oppose mandates are animated about the border mandate due to its restrictions on what they describe as their freedom and predicted effects on the supply chain.
As of Jan. 15, Canadian truck drivers need to be fully vaccinated or they will have to undergo a two-week quarantine upon crossing into Canada.
Carrie Tompkins, a Strathmore, Alta., trucking vet with more than 30 years of experience, said having to go into isolation would cleave off half a trucker’s wages for the month.
“I myself had to get vaccinated in order to keep my truck driving jobs, and I don’t think I should have had to get vaccinated,” the short-haul trucker said. “As far as the truck drivers go, they’ve been delivering groceries and other products for the last two years without vaccination.”
Tompkins joined the convoy for awhile on Monday as it made its way through Strathmore, just east of Calgary.
She said it took about 40 minutes for the lineup of large trucks, personal vehicles and business vehicles — decorated with flags and protest signs — to make its way through the small town. She said she saw significantly more than 200 vehicles in the line, but added it’s hard to know how many will make it to Ottawa later this week as supporters have weaved in and out of the convoy with their own vehicles showing support for short distances.
“The drivers are discouraged and angry,” she said.
Sean Tiessen, a trucker from Grand Forks, B.C., was one of the early participants in the convoy, who started driving Sunday in order to get to Ottawa on time.
“The camaraderie, it’s mind-boggling,” Tiessen said while driving through the Prairies near Medicine Hat. “There are people at the stops, they’ll come and they’ll offer you food (and ask) do you need any parts, and washer fluid?”
Driving through Salmon Arm, B.C., on Sunday, Tiessen said, it felt like the whole town was out cheering them on. A local paper reported that hundreds of town residents took to the streets with signs and Canadian flags.
Tiessen estimates the trip will cost him $2,500 in gas each way, but he says making his point is worth the money, and he plans to keep protesting at Parliament Hill until he reaches his goal.
“My goal is that they drop all mandates, all discussions of mandates,” he said “Respect our freedoms and let everybody get back to work.”
Before people such as Tiessen became involved, the idea of the convoy appears to have come together through an alliance including a TikTok-using trucker, a western separatist and some of the oil and gas organizers who organized a 2019 convoy to Parliament Hill in support of pipelines.
Trucker Chris Barber, of Swift Current, Sask., who uses TikTok under several different user names, including BigRed1975 and ChrisBarber1975, has used the platform to post about his opposition to COVID-19 restrictions, including the border mandate that affects truckers.
One of his videos, about an Ontario trucker about to lose her job because of the mandate, was seen by Tamara Lich, an Alberta woman who works as the secretary for the western separatist Maverick Party.
Lich told right-wing interviewer Marc Patrone that she saw the videos, and was able to connect with both Barber and some of the pro-pipeline activists who worked on the 2019 United We Roll campaign.
Together, they all started social media pages and a fundraiser.
The United We Roll organizers took the lead on organizing schedules and locations for the convoy, informed by the 2019 effort.
Lich set up the GoFundMe, which started with $30,000 in donations on Jan. 15, and, as of Monday afternoon, had raised more than $3.5 million from almost 27,000 people.
In an interview with the Star, Barber said it’s been overwhelming to watch the donations pour in, and that the help of the United We Roll organizers has been invaluable.
“It all came together in one big piece,” Barber said. “This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this before, so having the organizers from the last convoy has been great.”
Barber said he doesn’t think Lich’s Maverick Party affiliation has anything to do with the convoy, which opposes mandates all across the country, but added that it makes sense to him that some western Canadians feel alienated from the rest of Canada.
And he’s thrilled that non-truckers have joined the cause, too. While speaking with the Star over the phone, he paused to honk in response to what he said were people waving on the side of the highway.
“It’s just the truckers that started this, Canadians have just joined with us,” he said.
Joining the truckers in protest was Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who tweeted photos of empty grocery store shelves sent from “across Alberta” and said he was “on the phone with U.S. Governors this morning who share my concerns.”
“We are working on a joint letter to the president and the prime minister, urging them to use common sense, end the policy that has taken thousands of trucks off the road,” Kenney said Monday.
While Conservatives are pressuring Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to cancel the mandate for truckers, saying it puts Canada’s supply chain in jeopardy, Trudeau has defended it, saying that the opposition is “fearmongering” about empty store shelves.
The country’s largest trucking federation, meanwhile, has denounced the protests and encouraged truckers who want to speak out against the mandates to “hold an organized, lawful event on Parliament Hill or contact their local MP.”
As many as 26,000 of the 160,000 drivers who make regular trips across the Canada-U.S. border will likely be sidelined as a result of the vaccine mandate in both countries, the Canadian Trucking Alliance and the American Trucking Associations have said.
Some 30,000 trucks roll across the border each day hauling nearly $850 million in freight, according to 2020 figures from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
With files from The Canadian Press
Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen
Kieran Leavitt is an Edmonton-based political reporter for the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @kieranleavitt