A Moment for Canada’s Far-Right, Still Struggling for Support

The truck convoy protests in Ottawa and several provincial capitals represent an unexpected show of strength for the far right and populist right factions at their helm.

Those movements have, in years past, not made nearly as many inroads to the mainstream as their American and European counterparts have.

It is too soon to say, political experts caution, whether this indicates that the right-wing populist wave has now fully arrived in Canada.

But the protests’ sudden surge, coming amid a wider backlash to pandemic-related restrictions, illuminates the far right’s unique and potentially changing role in Canadian political and cultural life, as well as the challenges and opportunities facing it.

“The biggest misconception about this, even within Canada, is that extremists have infiltrated the movement,” said Stephanie Carvin, a former national security official in Canada who now teaches at Carleton University.

In reality, she added, “this was an extremist movement that got mainstream attention.”

The organizers are mostly fringe activists, rather than truck drivers, an overwhelmingly majority of whom are vaccinated.

One organizer, Tamara Lich, was a senior member of a splinter party that has advocated secession for Western provinces, until resigning her position last week. B.J. Dichter, who was listed on the convoy’s official fund-raiser alongside Ms. Lich, has said that “political Islam” is “rotting away at our society like syphilis.”

Pat King, who is listed as an official contact for a regional group involved in the protest and has been a prominent champion of the protests online, has called Covid a “man-made bioweapon” and claimed that international financiers seek to “depopulate the Anglo-Saxon race.” He has said of lockdowns, “The only way that this is going to be solved is with bullets.”

This influence — and the inspiration and financial aid from some within the American far right — is hardly hidden at the protests. Pro-Trump and QAnon signs are frequently visible, as are figures like Romana Didulo, a Canadian QAnon activist who has called for military executions of doctors who vaccinate children.

The activists have sought for several years to organize protest convoys, according to a report co-authored by Dr. Carvin. They first found success in 2019, when 100-some trucks swarmed Ottawa over energy policies, though the protesters’ message drifted into opposition to immigration.

But the 2019 protest, like other such efforts, mostly failed to gain traction.

“You did have far-right populism — historically it was there — but it was isolated,” said Jeffrey S. Kopstein, a Canadian political scientist at the University of California, Irvine.

Canada’s populist right has lagged, Dr. Kopstein said, in part because the typical drivers of such movements — cultural polarization and white racial resentment — are less prevalent in the country than in other Western nations.

The country’s large and politically well-organized immigrant populations mean that both major parties see greater gain in courting immigrants than in cultivating white backlash.

The nature of the country’s electoral system also empowers party officials over grass-roots activists, which makes it harder for populist outsiders to win. And relatively low polarization means that party affiliation has not become, as in other countries, a matter of hardened identity, which can feed the us-versus-them absolutism that privileges hard-liners.

As a result, Canada’s Conservative leaders have neither embraced nor been co-opted by the more extreme elements in their base to the same degree as some other right-wing parties.

“One of the reasons they’re descending on Ottawa is they’re having trouble taking over parties and winning elections. And so they go to this other method,” Dr. Kopstein said of the populist right.

And because the movement mostly lacks formal party structures or mainstream media outlets, its leadership falls to fringe charlatans like Ms. Didulo, who calls herself Canada’s rightful queen. Such leaders are free to be more extreme but also tend to be less strategic.

Canada’s populist right, though homegrown, is also heavily influenced by its far more numerous and better-resourced American counterparts. This helps provide the movement with energy and direction, though often in ways that hinder its influence in Canada, where Donald J. Trump is deeply unpopular.

But rising impatience with pandemic restrictions have provided an opening. A slight majority of Canadians want to lift such rules, polls find. This hardly indicates a broader shift to the right. But it may be why one in three express support for the truck protests, which are the most visible show of opposition to lockdown measures.

Even a brother-in-law of Jagmeet Singh, who leads a prominent left-wing party, gave thousands of dollars to a convoy fund-raiser, though later sought to revoke it, saying he had not understood the group’s “true nature.”

Still, support for the protests has declined, polls show, as locals in affected cities have come face-to-face with far-right flags and ralliers.

The Canadian populist right went through a similar cycle in the mid-2010s, when its influence spiked amid a backlash to Muslim immigration before receding without having secured meaningful political gains.

But in years since, populist movements across the Western world have continued to rise and to coordinate across borders, helping to aid their Canadian counterparts’ slow but steady growth.

In a demonstration of this effect in action, a number of American political and media figures, including Mr. Trump, have forcefully endorsed or promoted the trucker protests. Americans are thought to have provided much of the $8 million raised online for the convoy.

And there is another change: Canada’s Conservative Party, after a difficult year, may be rethinking its longstanding practice of isolating conservative fringes.

Party officials recently ousted Erin O’Toole, the party leader, in part, they said, for insufficiently embracing the truck protests.

The new interim leader attracted controversy last year when a photo surfaced showing her wearing a Make America Great Again hat. Several Conservative lawmakers have since visited the protests in support. One was photographed alongside Mr. King, the white nationalist and conspiracy theorist, though later issued a statement condemning “any violent rhetoric.”

In some ways, support for the protests seems to reflect public opinion oscillations related more to the pandemic than to the far right.

When Canada held elections last September, public opinion here, as in many countries, favored left-wing policies that promised vaccine mandates and other government interventions. Mr. O’Toole, heeding this, tacked left on climate and social issues, while distancing himself from anti-vaccine voices who fled for the fledgling People’s Party.

But as winter months have compounded the burden of pandemic restrictions and as patience amid the milder omicron variant wears thin, attitudes have shifted.

In Canada, as worldwide, opposition to pandemic rules is strongly associated with the political right, and especially its more populist wings, which thrive on backlash to institutions and experts. Conservative leaders have surely noticed the new energy among anti-lockdown groups, as well as the People’s Party rise to 13 percent support from 5 percent.

What effect this has on Canadian politics is, to a greater extent than in most Western systems, up to party leaders. Unlike in European systems that allocate seats proportionally to vote share, Canadian elections, like those in the U.S., create two dominant parties, meaning that political outsiders cannot easily win power without capturing one of those two. But even a committed grass-roots movement cannot overtake a party here through primaries as it can in the United States.

Conservative leaders had toyed with embracing Trump-style voices during the prior populist surge of the mid-2010s, but ultimately sidelined them instead. It remains to be seen whether they will now change course, though coming party elections to replace Mr. O’Toole will give a hint.

But even if the trucker protests do recede, their show of strength has won them demonstrable support abroad, including financial support, and has established large communities online that could fuel future activity. Though to what end they might use these resources remains hard to foresee.

“We haven’t normally seen this in modern Canadian politics,” Dr. Carvin said. “We are really in uncharted territory.”

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