Our bias toward believing that the recent past equates to normalcy is a human trait that does not always serve us well. The ongoing truck protest in Ottawa is not an isolated or atypical event in Canadian history. It may not be a direct echo of the past, but it has parallels.
A cursory examination of this country’s past provides several examples. The 1837 rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada were episodes of violent unrest in which the perpetrators were condemned as unruly, threatening Yankees—and Lount and Matthews were hung as traitors by the government.
That early violence flared up again in 1849, when the legislative buildings at Montreal were burned to the ground, this time by the law-and-order establishment of the day. We have the Louis Riel uprisings in western Canada in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, violent anti-conscription protests in Quebec during the First World War, student protests in Toronto in the 1960s, and more recent road and rail blockades resulting from various environmental grievances.
As a direct antecedent, we can look at the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 and that city’s multi-week shutdown that ended in bloodshed when authorities violently broke up demonstrating crowds. Another close parallel is the Great Depression’s “On to Ottawa” journey of 1935, when unemployed men by the thousands left the work camps into which the federal government had forced them, and hopped trains for the nation’s capital to confront then-Prime Minister R.B. Bennett. Bennett, a cold and disliked Prime Minister, did at least agree to meet with protest leaders, though it resulted in a verbal spat that resolved little. Matters came to a head with a vicious and destructive battle between protesters and police in Regina, after which only a few trekkers continued to Ottawa. Of local note, that group left Ottawa and walked south through Kemptville before hopping trains to disperse. Bennett’s perceived indifference to the widespread suffering of the Depression led to his political downfall later that year.
Through these events run two common threads. The first, is that they result from grievances that take time to fester and are not solely the result of apparent immediate causes. The second, is that those who protest are characterized by their opponents with the most inflammatory and derogatory terms of the day. The “traitors” and “Republicans” of the nineteenth century were the “cowards” and “Bolsheviks” and “foreign agitators” of the early twentieth century, and have become today’s “Trumpists” and “fringe minority.” The political battle for the mind of the public never ends.
We cannot predict how this current situation will end – but we do have past examples offering some guidance. That guidance can be summed up as this: that these events do not signify the end of the world, but do indicate broader trends, and that the cacophony of reactive anger and dismissal clouds our ability to see where these changes may take us as a nation.