1419 Letter from Victoria

ESSAY: Letter from Victoria
by Larry Hannant

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Larry Hannant

If I were a baseball player, I’d be rated as a respectable batter if I had an average equal to the percentage of my letters to the Times Colonist in Victoria that get printed. About one in three bypasses the editor’s bullshit filter and appears in the paper.

But from late January to mid-March I was striking out on every pitch, and I’m convinced my slump was not due to dismal diction. I think it’s been my point of view on a clash that galvanized Victoria for weeks.

The vexatious issue was the fruckers’ invasion of the provincial capital. Every Saturday for six weeks beginning 29 January, the city’s downtown and the streets surrounding the BC legislature were jammed with honking trucks and zealots braying “freedom!”

Protesters on Belleville Street in front of the BC Legislature in support of the truckers convoy in Ottawa. Photo by Darren Stone, Times Colonist, February 2, 2022
Anti-vaccination mandate protest at the Legislature, January 29, 2022. Surrey Now-Leader, January 29, 2022

The three-week-long occupation of Ottawa and the week-long throttling of the $400-million per day trade at the Windsor-Detroit border justifiably monopolized the news. So Victoria’s weekly infestation was little known outside of the city itself. Still, if it was ignored nationally, the deluge of fruckers in Victoria was as blatantly intimidating as those in half a dozen other Canadian cities and towns.

Because it’s the home of the legislature, protests are regular events here, and Victorians accept with good humour some inconvenience for a few hours. But this weaponization of a basic means of transportation was nothing normal. The parade south on Douglas Street from up island was a snarling stream of black and red. The former the dominant truck paint colour, the latter a sea of Canadian flags that, in the hands of Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, would have served as a stunning backdrop to a remake of Triumph of the Will.

Protesters in front of the Legislature support the truckers convoy to Ottawa, January 2022. Photo by Darren Stone, Times Colonist, January 29, 2022
Drivers protest COVID-19 mandates in front of the Legislature, January 29, 2022. Black Press Media file photo courtesy Victoria News

The city was paralyzed by torrents of tractor-trailers, dump trucks, run of the mill pickup trucks and vans and platoons of Harley-Davidsons. The cacophony of vehicle horns and air horns, the incessant screams of “freedom” and the discharge of diesel fumes combined to destroy all peace. Misery was the fate for anyone in the residential district of James Bay behind the legislature.

The first mass gathering drew four to five thousand people. As the weeks went on through flawless spring weather, the crowds on the legislative lawn and sidewalks fell but the motorized fruckers only grew in number, audible perversity and stench.

Anti-vaccine mandate supporters on Belleville Street, downtown Victoria, February 2022. Photo by Darren Stone, Times Colonist, Feb. 12, 2022
Anti-mandate convoy with Victoria City Hall above, January 2022. Courtesy Victoria Buzz, February 2, 2022

Trucks are potentially lethal weapons. That’s why speed limits are set for city streets. Powered by a belligerent possessed of an unyielding if ill-defined claim to “freedom,” those using such raging machines to provoke people and force politicians to change laws are little-disguised terrorists.

On the first weekend, I was part of a small demonstration for peace in Ukraine near city hall on Douglas Street on the north end of downtown, nine blocks from the legislature. Unaware of what was in store for the next weeks, we were mildly amused to behold the cavalcade. Used to seeing expressions of anti-vax support in Duncan, Sooke and Langford, through which they’d just passed, the honkies were applauding our signs bearing the slogans “No war on Russia!” “No NATO expansion!” Maybe they couldn’t read, we speculated.

Rally against truckers at Victoria City Hall, February 19, 2022, Larry Hannant at left. Photo courtesy Larry Hannant
Anti-frucker rally, Victoria City Hall, February 19, 2022. Courtesy Larry Hannant

News about the militant tenor of the legislative crowd that day and buoyed by reports about the presence of some brave supporters of public health measures led me to get more active the next week. A couple of friends and I made our way to Belleville Street, opposite the main crowd, with our own signs showing what we thought of the issue. “My Canada includes science,” one friend wrote on her placard. Mine was a bit more provocative: “Jail the trucking terrorists.” We joined a handful of like-minded folks and thought we’d be safe across the street from the fruckers.

We were in for a frightful surprise. The fruckers swarmed over Belleville Street, quickly surrounding us. I came away nauseated both by the hateful mob and by what I regarded as an abandonment of the city to it. Determined to alert the city to the outrage, I wrote the following letter to the editor of the Victoria Times Colonist (TC).

They were screaming “freedom,” but their real agenda was crushing democracy.

Last Saturday I stood with a dozen souls daring to exercise our right to free speech in the face of hostility and threats from the anti-vax vigilantes.

I was carrying a sign reading “Jail the trucking terrorists.”

The message wasn’t popular. But terrorism is exactly their weapon. Truck noise bludgeons and intimidates people, and the truckers who are ravaging Canadian cities understand that fellow citizens are suffering. Like any smug torturer, they prolong the agony in long displays of masochistic glee.

More than a few big guys on Saturday issued me a mandate to clear out. I had to warn one to keep his hands off me as he grabbed my arm. Some clapped their hands loudly behind my ears. In the sunlight I could see the spittle fly from the ranters circling me.

After an hour we decided that safety required a retreat. The bellicose advocates of “freedom” had gutted ours.

Oh, and police protection for dissenters beset by a hostile mob? Nowhere to be seen.

But they weren’t the only elements of a civil society notable by their absence.

Where was the New Democratic Party, whose leader the freedom posse are promising to depose, in blatant contempt for democratic elections?

Where were the city’s mayor and councillors, whose efforts to make Victoria a livable, green enclave of sanity in a disintegrating world are being publicly defiled?

Where was the Green Party, and environmentalists in general, who might wish to venture a word of criticism about the flagrant spewing of fossil fuel by logging trucks and other rank polluters descending on the city from hundreds of kilometers distant?

Where were the unions, whose members working in hospitals have been harassed for performing their essential, life-saving services?

Where were the provincial public servants, whose most prominent member, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, is also on the herd’s hit-list?

Where were the residents of the long corridor from Uptown Mall to James Bay, whose lives have been disrupted by blaring horns, roaring engines and Harley-Davidson hogs?

Where were the democrats when they took over our city?

Anti-trucker rally, Victoria City Hall, February 19, 2022. Courtesy Larry Hannant
Protesters in front of the Legislature in support of the truckers’ convoy, January 2022. Photo by Darren Stone, Times Colonist, February 1, 2022

The TC is a family paper, so I left out one of the curious details about the crowd that was slightly racy. That was the woman who circled the knot of guys surrounding me, repeating a slogan I hadn’t heard from anyone else in the crowd: “Vax-free is sexy.” Since I was the oldest guy there by about four decades, I figured she wasn’t trying to pick me up. Still, the absence of that salacious anecdote didn’t get my letter published in the TC.

I attached the unpublished letter to an email I circulated widely that week in an attempt to animate a more spirited response from democratic Victorians for the following Saturday. The stalwarts from the Communist Party planned a rally against the fruckers outside Victoria City Hall, so I sent out an electronic notice about the event and put up close to 75 posters around the legislative district. Another activist distributed leaflets at the commercial heart of James Bay inviting people to the rally. We alerted all of the progressive city council members – rumour has it there are four.

Demonstrators on Belleville Street, Victoria, January 29, 2022 against pandemic-related mandates in Victoria. Black Press Media photo via Tofino-Ucluelet Westerly News, February 4, 2022

We were met by a wide range of sentiment – solidarity, fear, excuses and sectarianism. There were thumbs up for the posters reading “Trucking bullies get out!” and “Rally for public health, safe streets, democratic values.” But we heard more than a little reluctance to have anything to with an open confrontation. And some condemnation for working with the Communist Party, which I shrugged off.

On 19 February some 50 activists spilled out onto Douglas Street in front of City Hall, intent on standing against the descending fruckers. But a contingent of Victoria police made sure we knew we would be arrested if we blocked traffic for any length of time. For the better part of two hours an array of leftists, including communists and anarchists, some health-care advocates and Pride stalwarts – but no city councillors – did our best to tell the fruckers that their intimidation was not welcome.

Leaving the rally, I framed in my mind one of the oddest features of the action and sent this letter to the TC:

I was one of the folks standing outside Victoria City Hall last Saturday with signs reading “Bullies not welcome.”

In the face of that message, the mantra of many of the occupants of the trucks was “We love you!” Then they gunned their engines and sped down Douglas Street, horns blaring.

I ask: If you love us so much, why don’t you show us some respect? Stop your belligerent crusade to intimidate the people of Victoria.

I struck out again.

Protest in front of the BC Legislature on March 5, 2022, against pandemic health measures. Photo by Darren Stone, Times Colonist, March 10, 2022
James Bauder. Courtesy Rumble via CTV News Victoria, March 10, 2022

The next days and weeks were frustration personified, as we struggled to put together a more permanent group to organize ongoing resistance, along the lines of community solidarity coalitions in Ottawa, Toronto and Calgary. But things took a new turn during a Zoom meeting on the evening of 23 February. One participant suddenly observed: “I suspect we’ll be talking about a different issue now. Russia has just invaded Ukraine.”

While it did derail us, the catastrophe in Ukraine did not dissuade the fruckers, who, of course, were gunning their engines for their own precious freedom. In fact, an ominous new turn came as James Bauder, the instigator of both the 2019 and the 2021 convoys out of Alberta, decided that Victoria needed to feel the same Christian love he’d lavished on Ottawa.

On 10 March the impending march of the Botherites sent me to my computer to write another letter to the TC.

A TC news article says the goal of “truckers” descending on Victoria on Monday is “to protest vaccine and mask mandates.”

In fact, this and other convoys organized by James Bauder were never about health measures. He has seized on government efforts to stem the tide of a worldwide pandemic in order to advance a long-established far-right agenda.

Bauder was instrumental in organizing the United We Roll convoy from Alberta to Ottawa in 2019, a full year before the COVID-19 virus took hold. That grab-bag of Alberta separatists, oil-industry shills and opponents of environmental regulations accomplished little except to hone their skills at raising money through online donation sites.

Then, in early 2022, seeing the opportunity presented by an international health crisis, Bauder put together another convoy. This time the goal was nothing so small as crushing the carbon tax. In a sweeping Memorandum of Understanding Bauder and his collaborators called for an overthrow of Canada’s democratically elected government, to be replaced by a junta of the governor general, the senate and, not surprisingly, a contingent of Bauderites.

Bauder openly declares that this bid to intimidate Victoria is unrelated to any health mandates. He told a reporter last weekend that Victoria was his target because it’s “a very intense, deeply rooted NDP-Liberal stronghold down there. And they’ve had their way for too long.”

In short, the convoy’s goal is to destroy democracy in the name of “freedom.”

A letter writer to the TC has proposed that Victorians should occupy the streets to prevent this far-right takeover. Bravo!

When that letter was rejected, I sent another along the same lines the following day. It too, was spiked by the TC letters editor.

James Bauder somewhere in Canada, early 2022. Courtesy Canada Unity, Facebook, via the Daily Hive/ DH News

Meantime, complaints from James Bay residents fed up with the fruckers’ harassment and hatred had reached a crescendo. After six weeks of sitting on the sidelines, public officials suddenly found their voices. Mayor and council reassured Victorians that “We are all working hard to avoid an occupation like the one we saw in Ottawa.” B.C. Solicitor General and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth also issued a public appeal that “protest is allowed in this country” but “occupations are not.” Local MLAs and Victoria’s NDP member of parliament, Laurel Collins, chimed in with the same message.

The crowning touch, however, came on 12 March, when Premier John Horgan delivered a slap to the Botherites, telling them to stop harassing Victoria and “get a hobby.” Horgan’s dismissal of a threat to democracy, attributing it to rowdies with too much time on their hands, sent me back to my computer to try once more to dent the TC’s defences.

B.C. Premier John Horgan tells the “freedom” raiders to “get a hobby.”

It’s a cute line, but cute doesn’t cut it when it comes to what is clearly a surge of extremism.

As one zealot on a convoy website put it: “Horgan: this is my new hobby.”

And for James Bauder, who’s been instigating convoys since 2019, it’s his perpetual hobby.

Health measures have been eased, yet Bauder persists in assaulting Victoria with noise, diesel and disruption. This Bauderite intransigence reveals that health measures are nothing more than a pretext for an assault on democracy.

Bauder bluntly states that this invasion is retribution for how its citizens vote. Victoria is his target, he said on 6 March, because it’s “a very intense, deeply rooted NDP-Liberal stronghold.”

How dare we vote as we choose!

Security intelligence experts have long warned that Canada faces a rising threat from right-wing extremism. The zealots’ weeks-long occupation of Ottawa and their throttling of key economic corridors have only emboldened them.

Engaged citizens intent on defending democracy need more than just glib political putdowns.

Four days later I’d decided my efforts had been futile – zero for five in letters about an urgent public issue. But I got a surprise on 16 March. The letters editor had taken pity on me and published my last letter.

Beginning in mid-March, responding to the rising chorus of citizen complaints about the fruckers’ intimidation, Victoria Police began to adopt new tactics. They set up roadblocks on the periphery of the legislative precinct and the James Bay neighbourhood, effectively preventing the diesel deluge from inundating the compact district. Despite their howls about a “police state,” the Botherites had full access to the legislature. What really irked them was that they had to park several blocks away and walk. Within a week, they were motoring north to Campbell River in search of new prey.

Seeing the new direction from authorities, I think I understand why my letters to the Times Colonist were consistently rejected and why, finally, one punctured the paper’s defences. The message of the first four had been that since the powers-that-be had abandoned the city to the anti-democratic bullies, citizen activists must step up to bar them. That was not a message the city’s mainstream press wanted to be heard. Only when I turned from that line to point to the premier’s limp politics was my message acceptable.

Canada has been galvanized by the historic events of January-February 2022. In two of the cities that suffered the worst extremist onslaughts — Ottawa primarily, but also, paradoxically, Calgary — impressive strides were taken towards citizen resistance. Particularly outstanding was the defiance constructed in the Beltline district of south-central Calgary. Besieged for two years — that’s right, years, not months — Beltline stood up, proclaiming the message “This is a hate-free zone!” No one should lose sight of the significance of that statement and why the Beltline district was singled out for torment, with Calgary City Police on 12 March actually serving as the shock troops for the fruckers and attacking Beltline residents trying to bar entry to their community.

Beltline is the gay village of Calgary. What’s gone down in Calgary is gay-bashing by diesel truck.

There’s worse still to come. We should cast away any illusion about a return to civility. Extremists have been strengthened inestimably. John Horgan’s pathetic bleat to “get a hobby” will be swept away by a tide of intransigence if the province contemplates a return to any serious public health rulings. And imagine the fury that will erupt if the province ever decides that a human future for our planet requires even so much as a curtailment of diesel crusading over Vancouver Island.

What to do? Consider writing a letter to your local newspaper, if you have the stamina.

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Larry Hannant

Larry Hannant thrills to the hunt for history in the everyday, suspects that the only route to the conquest of Berlin is over the Stolperstein Pass, subscribes to Vincent Scully’s warning that “Everything in the past is always waiting, waiting to detonate.” He’s the author of All My Politics Are Poetry (Victoria: Yalla Press, 2019, reviewed here by Natalie Lang). His most recent book is an edited collection titled Bucking Conservatism: Alternative Stories of Alberta in the 1960s and 1970s (Athabasca University Press, 2021). Hannant taught aspects of human rights history for years at BC universities and colleges and is engaged in writing an anti-imperialist history of human rights. Editor’s note: Larry Hannant has also reviewed books by Pitman Potter, Suchetana ChattopadhyayEve LazarusChristabelle Sethna & Steve HewittKate Bird, and Serge Alternês & Alec Wainman for The British Columbia Review, as well as an essay, I’m not your man: Norman Bethune & women.

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The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

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