Blockades at the Canadian border and protests “nothing to do with trucking” | News on the coronavirus pandemic

Toronto, Canada – As Canada steps up efforts to disperse so-called ‘freedom convoy’ protesters after weeks in the capital Ottawa, trucker Lovepreet Singh Gill says he has never had an interest in participating.

While the convoy was touted as a response to mandatory vaccinations for truck drivers crossing the border into the United States, Gill says there are “major issues” in the trucking industry, such as wages arrears and the exploitation of foreign workers, which deserve more attention.

“I wouldn’t call it a trucker 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 cancellation of the vaccination mandate.

A few hundred vehicles have remained in the capital since then in what residents have denounced as an ‘occupation’ of the city center, with convoy participants insisting they will not move until all COVID-19 curbs would not be lifted. Blockades were also erected at points along the border, disrupting traffic and trade for days.

Most truckers vaccinated

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

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

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

Police have been criticized for their handling of the main protest in Ottawa [File: Blair Gable/Reuters]

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

“About 50 protesters were blocking 200 to 400 trucks” at the border in Coutts, Alta., where a blockade was lifted earlier this week after blocking traffic for several days, said Gill, who was bringing goods back from the United States. in Canada with a co-driver while stuck at the crossing for almost three days, starting January 29.

“Some of them aren’t even truckers… they’re just people from nearby areas,” the 28-year-old said of the protesters.

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

Dhindsa said after three days, he and others were forced to drive their long journeys to another border crossing in Alberta known as the Carway to enter Canada, using roads that were not suitable. to trucks.

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

Commercial trucks cross Canada's Ambassador Bridge in DetroitCommercial trucks cross Canada’s Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, Michigan on February 14 [Rebecca Cook/Reuters]

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

Protesters had also blocked the busiest border crossing between the United States 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 around 25% of all trade between the two countries.

Authorities are also preparing to disperse protesters on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced this week that he was invoking the Emergencies Act for the first time in the history of the country to give its government additional powers to suppress the protest.

Far-right organizers

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

Confederate and swastika flags were seen at the group’s first major rally in Ottawa last month, stoking concern, particularly among racialized people in Canada.

Kulpreet Singh, founder of the South Asian Mental Health Alliance (SAMHAA), said South Asians make up about 20% of truck drivers in Canada – and many industry players have expressed their sense of alienation through the symbols of hatred displayed during demonstrations.

“First, the real challenges facing truckers from marginalized communities are not represented,” he said, “but to make matters worse, hate speech and symbols are prevalent in the protests.” SAMHAA has held online fundraising days as part of the “Freedom Convoy” rallies to support those it has called “Canada’s real struggling truckers.”

“Truckers have legitimate grievances with the government,” Singh said. “The far-right white nationalist figures behind the convoy don’t speak for themselves.”

This was echoed by others in the industry, who argued that the pressing issues facing many truckers in Canada have not been addressed by the protests.

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

“In British Columbia, if you are a strawberry picker or an apple picker, there are specific guaranteed rates. There’s nothing like it for truckers,” Gagan Singh said from Vancouver. “There is not a single question about this real problem from these people [protesting in Ottawa],” he added.

Wages, workplace abuse

A months-long investigation by the Toronto Star newspaper published in December found that more than 4,800 complaints had been filed by long-haul truckers over unpaid wages and other work-related abuses with Employment and Development Social Canada, a federal agency.

According to the Star, the number was 12 times higher than “any other federally regulated industry”, although truck drivers make up “less than a fifth of that workforce”.

In recent years, truckers as well as labor rights groups have taken to the streets to register their complaints. Last July, an Ontario-based truck driver protested over unpaid wages at 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, truckers demonstrated outside the offices of Cargo County, a trucking company based in nearby Mississauga, demanding tens of thousands in unpaid wages and illegal deductions.

Gill, the Edmonton trucker, also noted that foreign workers and international students face an even higher risk of exploitation in the industry. He said employers often try to make deals with workers to waive wages or pay a fixed amount to provide them with a labor market impact assessment – ​​a document that allows companies to hire workers. foreign workers.

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

“It’s totally illegal…but in many cases drivers have little choice,” Gill said. “They are afraid to speak up so as not to jeopardize the prospects of renewing their work visa or their pending application for permanent residence in Canada.”

Rajean Hoilett, spokesman for the advocacy group Workers Action Center (WAC), told Al Jazeera that a number of truck drivers reported facing threats of eviction when they attempted to speak out at work for being sent on “long labors in dangerous conditions without rest”.

“Due to the lack of enforcement of labor rights by governments, poor working conditions and misclassifications have now become the norm in the truck driving industry,” Hoilett said in an email.

And despite all the attention the “Freedom Convoy” protests have received, Dhindsa said he doesn’t think they will divert the conversation to the more pressing issues facing truckers in Canada.

“I haven’t seen a lot of politicians or people in the media discussing it at length,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that he believed the problems in the industry would persist long after the protesters returned. .

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