When Haley Wile was planning to attend her first yellow vest protest, she was missing a key component: the actual vest. She’d seen a Facebook post, suggesting protesters at an early-December rally wear yellow safety vests, emulating French protesters.
And so she put out a call to her friends to borrow one. She ended up with three. After attending that rally, held at Calgary city hall, she returned to Red Deer, about halfway between Edmonton and Calgary, and went about founding a local yellow vest chapter. All it took was a Facebook group and an event. She invited her friends to join, and it’s snowballed from there, with weekly rallies in downtown Red Deer.
“The government’s done a really good job at silencing the everyday, average people, and somehow, by putting on a magic yellow vest, we feel like we’ve got a say again. And that’s why our movement’s growing so incredibly quick,” said Wile.
The movement, birthed in rural France in opposition to President Emmanuel Macron’s fuel tax, has hopped the pond and is gaining steam, with numerous Facebook groups, thousands of members strong, and a truck convoy between Alberta and Ottawa planned for mid-February, a show of force in support of the oil and gas industry.
The French protesters — gilets jaunes — rattled the political establishment. Macron’s government backed down on the fuel tax, as protests, which began with blockading highways, escalated to riots in the streets of Paris. At least 10 people have died, according to European media reports.
In Canada, there’s at least one major thematic link to the French protests: the carbon tax. But the Canadian movement also centres around concerns regarding the failure to build the Trans Mountain expansion, and the state of the oil and gas industry more generally. Gerald Huber, 40, whose Facebook post about the yellow vests Wile responded to back in December, lives in Brooks, Alta. — a couple hours southeast of Calgary on the Trans Canada highway — where he owns a welding business.
“I think we all were watching what was happening in France, and I saw the way it brought the country together,” said Huber. “It just kinda sparked in my mind. It’s not like we’re stealing it from them. Sometimes imitation is the best form of compliment.”
And next month, traffic could well be brought to a standstill in downtown Ottawa if truckers succeed in making the cross-country drive, departing from Red Deer on Valentine’s Day, and arriving in Ottawa on Feb. 19. It’s a long drive — but a show of discontent that organizers say can’t be ignored.
But the convoy, pipeline politics and the carbon tax aren’t necessarily what you’d see if you searched for the yellow vest movement online in Canada. Those forums have seen open airing of more fringe and extreme views: there are fantasies about the assassination of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, adherence to conspiracy theories and undisguised racism, all of which pose something of a challenge for those attempting to further relatively mainstream views.
“The addition of these other extremists is risking the credibility of what’s at the core of the movement,” said Barbara Perry, a professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology who researches extremism. “I think they don’t have much to say at all about the oil industry but, again, are using this as a platform to expand their audience.”
It’s not even one group; there’s no obvious leadership of the “movement” and no definitive conclusion about which is the real or representative group or movement. There’s the convoy and its affiliates; there’s a 100,000-strong Facebook group; there are many, many smaller Facebook pages devoted to the yellow vest concept with no obvious link to each other, other than the safety vests, the name and the sharing of some grievances. Indeed, the initial protest that Wile attended — Huber did too — centred around the United Nations migration compact.
I think we all were watching what was happening in France
Wile, 35, who’s working closely with Glen Carritt, the main organizer with the yellow vest convoy, said she was inspired by the movement, watching the protests in France because it showed “people could actually have a voice again.” She attended her first rally in Calgary on Dec. 8, one of the earliest featuring yellow-vest protesters, after seeing it come across her Facebook feed. The vest, for those involved in the beginning, was a way to pay tribute to the French protesters, and show solidarity.
The early event pages for December protests, the Calgary one was created by the Canadian Coalition for Responsible Government — its website pledges to Make Canada Great Again — show some discussion of the vests as a marker, complete with those offering advice on where they can be purchased and sharing links and prices.
Of course, it helped that many people had such safety gear in their trucks already because of their jobs, said Carritt. “They said, ‘You put on your vest and you belong to something.’ And I think Canada attached to that because it was a symbol.”
For Wile and her fellow travellers, hoping to send hundreds, if not thousands, of rigs on a cross-country trip in a show of solidarity with the oil and gas industry — they’ve raised more than $30,000 for fuel with a GoFundMe page — the concerns are mainly economic, from pipelines, to the carbon tax and equalization payments.
“We feel like nobody’s listening to us, and nobody’s working for us,” said Wile. “It might seem silly to people who aren’t part of it, but when you’re part of it, it’s an incredibly emotional experience to feel that somebody else understands your pain.”
The national convoy movement was started by Chris Clayton, 61, a film producer in British Columbia. He saw the truck convoy organized by Truckers for Pipelines that moved through Alberta on Dec. 19 — Conservative Party of Canada leader Andrew Scheer spoke that day in Nisku, just outside of Edmonton — and decided to start up a Facebook group dedicated to the same show of force, just in Ottawa.
“You imagine yourself a politician in Ottawa, they don’t care. They just laugh, they go, let those trucks run around in circles and blow their horns and burn up all this diesel fuel,” Clayton said. “He (Trudeau) can ignore 2,000 trucks in Nisku, he can’t ignore 2,000 truck on the doorstep of Parliament.”
Too busy with other projects, Clayton said, he’s handed over the organization of the convoy and management of fundraising to Carritt, 53, a first-term local councillor in Innisfail, a town of 7,000 about 120 kilometres north of Calgary.
Carritt had hoped that there could be unity between the yellow vest convoy and another that was being planned, by Rally 4 Resources. That unification never happened, though, with Rally 4 Resources organizers pointing to “very extreme opinions” among yellow vest supporters as a reason to shy away. That convoy, though, has since been cancelled. The yellow vests still plan to go ahead, Carritt said, having secured permits, reached out to police and premiers and settled on a route. “We just want to work, we just want our oil industry to stop having a bad name,” said Carritt.
Yet, the largest Canadian yellow vest collection online isn’t the convoy’s.
We feel like nobody’s listening to us
It’s another group, with 100,000 members on Facebook — though it’s unknown how many are Canadian, or are real or are even active in the movement. The posts on that page show a litany of grievances, from the legitimate concerns about carbon taxation and the oil and gas industry to deeply fringe conspiracy theories about one-world government and the United Nations.
“The presence of conspiracy theories are actually fairly common in any sort of political group that’s tending towards the extremes, as I think the yellow vests are,” said Jessica Davis, the president of Insight Threat Intelligence, and a Canadian security expert.
Global News reported earlier this month that Facebook was reviewing threats against Trudeau on the Facebook page and that the RCMP was aware of them. (The Post reached out to the group’s administrator, identified as Tyler Malenfant, though it’s unknown whether or not that’s a pseudonym, and some moderators of that group, and some of the other yellow vest groups, seeking interviews. The requests were not returned.)
Those chatterings frustrate Wile, who says the group is run by a “total hooligan.” She added, “We all avoid it like the plague.” The convoy vets its members, knowing that any fringe politics will be exposed and discredit the group, and Carritt said eight volunteers work around the clock to police inappropriate conduct online on their Facebook page.
“It is just so frustrating that that one page has completely damaged our reputation,” Wile said. “There’s a big difference between being a keyboard warrior and somebody who actually puts on the vest and puts themselves out there.”
Certainly, the convoy organizers see themselves and their grievances as the legitimate manifestation of the yellow vests. But it’s by no means clear that they have the upper hand on the political narrative or on the issues seizing demonstrators. James Brown, 47, a trucker who’s involved with the yellow vests and the convoy in Windsor, Ont., rattled off a litany of reasons why those in his neck of the woods are protesting — from sovereignty to the carbon tax. “People are sick and tired. They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore, with corrupt, elite governments forcing policies that are against the values of the people,” he said.
Davis said it looks to her like the yellow vest movement is struggling and fracturing, seeking coherence. And, to her, it’s not clear what the true underlying grievance is.
“I know a lot of it has to do with pipelines, because there is a large segment that is pro-pipelines and there’s a large segment that’s very anti-Trudeau,” she explained. “But I’m not really sure what the — is it job losses, is it dissatisfaction with economic conditions? I think the pipelines and the Trudeau (stuff) are more symptoms of the broader discontent.”
And then there’s the outstanding question of what it actually means, politically, for Trudeau and his government or politics leading up to the next federal election. It’s not like the yellow vest protests, so far, are enormous shows of solidarity, explained Davis.
“They’re by no means huge demonstrations. We definitely saw bigger demonstrations for Unist’ot’en and Wet’suwet’en,” she said.
Indeed, the protests aren’t enormous. But they’re happening, every weekend, in gatherings across Canada, and some of the grievances are shared across Canada. Recent polling from the Angus Reid Institute, for example, shows that roughly 60 per cent of Canadians believe the lack of pipeline capacity is a crisis. Perry, though, said in some parts of Canada, the yellow vest protests are straightforwardly about immigration, and “really not that distinct from what we’ve seen in terms of the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim protests and rallies.”
The convoy organizers describe illegal immigration as a “backburner” issue, though it comes up in interviews repeatedly. Huber, who’s involved with the big yellow vest Facebook page, but isn’t an organizer with the convoy, said it’s an animating issue for yellow vests; Brown described it as the straw that broke the camel’s back. All maintain the protesters are not anti-immigrant or racist.
And, they insist the movement isn’t about violence, either.
“We have absolutely no ambitions to be like France at all, with setting things on fire, getting all violent the way they do. We want a completely peaceful movement and that’s it,” said Brown.
Still, video posted to Twitter on Jan. 14 shows a yellow-clad protester swinging a baton at other people in Hamilton; in Edmonton on Dec. 15, punches were thrown between yellow vest protesters, and counter-demonstrators, in Churchill Square downtown. At a Parliament Hill anti-immigration protest on Dec. 8, where some wore yellow vests, one Ottawa man was arrested for allegedly assaulting a Mountie; eight others were arrested and given trespass notices, the CBC reported.
“You have no idea how important it is for us to keep a positive, inclusive, loving, Canadian, freedom message, and we will work tirelessly to keep that,” said Wile.
Wile went so far as to say the convoy isn’t even explicitly conservative: “We are non-partisan, so if the next government comes in and they do the exact same thing, we’re a united front, and we will combat them as well. We want people to feel like they have a voice, that’s just as simple as it is.”