EMERALD PARK, SASK. — It looked, and sounded, exactly what you’d expect of a truck convoy. Dozens of engines belching exhaust, amplified by the frigid prairie air and blowing through the parking lot at Gort’s Truck Wash in north Red Deer. The low rumble as they pulled out onto Alberta’s Highway 2, heading south. Then, an hour and a half later, an eastward turn onto the Trans Canada highway.
The destination, Ottawa. The message, pipelines. The man to receive the message, Justin Trudeau.
Even if nobody’s paying attention in Ottawa, the organizers hope people are paying attention in ridings across the country, and will see — and consider — what Albertans see as economic turmoil and pain that will affect Canadians far beyond the province’s borders.
Thursday was the first day of a planned six-day journey. From Red Deer to just east of Regina; to Kenora, Ont.; to Sault Ste. Marie; to Arnprior; and then Parliament Hill on Feb. 19, where these demonstrators — truckers, salesmen and oil and gas workers — will make themselves and, by default, large swaths of western Canada, heard.
Trucks are adorned with flags, decals and banners airing complaints about open borders, about Saudi oil imports, about the failure of Justin Trudeau’s government to get the Trans Mountain pipeline built. Trudeau must go, they say, though with just three seats in Alberta, one in Saskatchewan and seven in Manitoba, the Liberals hardly have a major presence in the prairies as is. The placards and decals are also directed at the upcoming Alberta election. They call for Alberta premier Rachel Notley to go. Weekend protests have been happening in smaller municipalities across Alberta since December, including some larger convoys and rallies, in a not insignificant show of discontent against the incumbent NDP government. However, many of the protests have taken place in ridings that are already represented by Conservatives.
The grievances are diverse. But for the United We Roll convoy, there’s something approaching focus: This is about the oil and gas industry; it’s about people hurting.
“The carbon tax is killing us, our small town of Bonnyville is curling up and dying,” said Roberta Graham. She was making the trip with her husband and son. “We’ve been told to hang on from our government, from five years ago, many, many people that we know and love up there, that we considered newfound oilfield family have moved, they’ve gone home, bankrupt. They’re not only bankrupt financially, they’re bankrupt emotionally.”
Of course, there’s more to it.
Graham described herself as a proud Yellow Vester, someone who is concerned about pipelines, but also the UN migration compact.
Many involved were wearing yellow safety vests, in homage to French protesters who, last year, rallied against President Emmanuel Macron’s fuel tax and rioted in the streets of Paris. But in Canada, the movement has become affiliated with racism, threats of violence and a range of conspiracy theories about the United Nations. Organizers have been doing their best to say that those people, the radicals, the fringe, are hijacking the movement, but there’s no avoiding what’s associated with the vests, or the fine line between concerns about illegal immigration and outright fear of newcomers to Canada or what hats, on sale Thursday night at a pizza party, declaring “Make Canada Great Again,” look like to many Canadians. It looks like Donald Trump-style populism and fear-mongering.
Still, what the convoy is striving to be about, oil and gas and the carbon tax — this is western alienation personified, gathered in a convoy of big trucks motoring across the nation, running straight through the heart of Canada, from oil country to the seat of political power. Before leaving, the group sang O Canada as the wind chill approached -40. Two pastors prayed, asking through a megaphone for God to open the ears of Parliamentarians and bless the convoy.
As the convoy pulled out — maybe as many as 180 vehicles strong, at this point — horns honking and flags waving, chatter lit up the LADD 2 radio channel, a trucking and petroleum industry frequency.
“Roller, roller, roller,” someone said.
“Damn straight, brother,” said another.
“Let the good times roll,” said a third.
“I’ve got to listen to this s–t all day,” grumbled David Adamson, a life-long trucker, who, hauling a semi-trailer behind him, smoked Du Mauriers and chatted about trucking in that slow Alberta drawl.
The chatter continued: “Trudeau, there’s a storm on the way.”
“Hallelujah, brother,” agreed another convoy member.
By the time the convoy ended its first day — around 9:30 p.m. Saskatchewan time — about half that convoy had bailed; not everyone could take the time off to drive cross-country. Glen Carritt, the organizer of United We Roll, estimated around 70 vehicles had made it to Regina. They were expecting a few dozen more to depart Friday morning, and to pick up even more as the convoy crossed Manitoba and into Ontario. And, in Ontario, a convoy from Newfoundland, estimated Thursday at 50 strong, would be joining up with them. Workers from Newfoundland have long had a significant presence in Alberta’s petroleum industry.
It may not seem like a lot, but in an election year, that dozens of blue collar workers took the time to drive across the country says something about the depth of the grievances. Those who turned out felt a mixture of enthusiasm and disappointment; plenty of people were there, but some had hoped to send a stronger message with kilometres of trucks travelling in unison.
But there were plenty more people who couldn’t join the convoy, but were there in spirit or out to support in some other way. Donations rolled in to the GoFundMe page as the day wore on; it sits, as of Friday, at more than $79,000. On the side of the highway in Maple Creek, Sask., roughly halfway between Calgary and Regina, Kelly Keil waited, in his black Dodge pickup. He had diesel fuel, for anyone who needed it. A few took him up on the offer — he guessed he handed out 75 gallons.
“I can’t make my own trip down to Ottawa myself, so I figured that, the fuel I would burn, I may as well hand it off to somebody else,” said Keil. “It’s just a little part that I figured I could do and try to help out I guess.”
He wasn’t the only one showing support; some 20 vehicles were congregated near Maple Creek. All along the route, supporters stood by the side of the road. Through Medicine Hat, just shy of 300 kilometres east of Calgary, at least 35 people waited, on a bridge, at the side of the road. Many wore yellow vests, waving flags and posters. Even as night fell, even as the temperatures careened below -20 C, even in, by any definition, the middle of nowhere, supporters waited and waved, their camera phones out. And Ken Husband, a trucker and oil worker from Strathmore, Alta., who first made his way to the patch in 1979, yanked on the cord to his horn, blaring it as the convoy rolled past.
“This used to be booming,” Husband said earlier in the day, gesturing, in Brooks, Alta., at a lot with scattered and unused heavy equipment.
Husband has done a lot in his life — from plowing highways to working in the oil industry to driving trucks. Lean, with long grey hair, and a bushy moustache, wearing blue jeans, a collared shirt, bandana and cowboy boots, smoking Player’s cigarettes, he looks exactly like what he says he is: a rubber boot cowboy.
It’s a cowboy lifestyle, basically, for oil and gas roughnecks. Living hard, out in the middle of nowhere, in pursuit of a bit of cash. Except instead of riding a horse and herding cattle, you’re slogging around in the muck working in a mine or drilling for oil.
When the oil industry was doing well, he’d work in Fort McMurray. When it wasn’t, he’d take the six-figure pay cut and drive a truck. He’s got kids; his son plays hockey and baseball. He said he worries a bit about his mortgage, about the cost of living and how it seems harder and harder to afford everything, with little relief in sight.
It’s there — in the midst of the latest in Alberta’s boom-bust economic cycle — that this protest has its origins. Although, it’s not quite that simple; this time, as with the grievances that rattled confederation in the early 1980s, the years of Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s National Energy Program, there are complicating factors. Something feels different, compared to previous busts, though it’s somehow similar to 40 years ago, with Alberta hurting and the sense that politicians, and many other Canadians, are watching with a collective shrug.
The carbon tax particularly irks rural Canadians who don’t have the option to take the bus or who depend on heavy machinery for work. Then there’s the cancellation of the Energy East pipeline and Northern Gateway. And that the Trans Mountain expansion project, halted last summer by a Federal Court of Appeal ruling, doesn’t seem any closer to being built.
On Saturday, Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer will join Saskatchewan premier Scott Moe in Moosomin, near the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border, for a pro-energy rally. It’s a salient issue. January polling from the Angus Reid Institute found that about two-thirds of Canadians saw the lack of pipeline capacity in Canada as a crisis. Even in Quebec, the only province without a majority to agree, 40 per cent considered it a crisis.
Vince Fonteyne, from Edmonton, said he needs the Trans Mountain expansion in the ground sooner rather than later. He supports infrastructure development and immigration, with a caveat.
“We need to have resources to help pay for all this,” he said.
And that means a vibrant oil and gas industry.
The convoy was pulled together in a matter of weeks, going through a handful of iterations, changes in leadership and controversy over its aims and affiliations with the right-wing Yellow Vest movement. In the beginning, there were two convoys, one a Rally 4 Resources convoy, the other, the Yellow Vest convoy. But on Jan. 14, the Rally 4 Resources convoy was cancelled after organizers rejected joining forces with the Yellow Vests out of concern over “very extreme opinions.” Then, just weeks before the Valentine’s Day departure, the Yellow Vest convoy split in two. One kept its Yellow Vest branding, under the original founder, C.J. Clayton, a filmmaker from British Columbia; the other was headed by Carritt, a town councillor in Innisfail, Alta. His convoy, when it separated, purported to focus fairly explicitly on the oil and gas industry. But, shortly after that, in late January, the Yellow Vest convoy folded. That left Carritt’s United We Roll convoy as the last one standing.
“It’s been a lot of work,” he said Thursday evening. “I’ve been workin’ 20 hours a day to make this happen.”
Just around the corner, 70 or so convoy members and Yellow Vest protesters were enjoying a pizza party inside Great Plains Auctioneers in Emerald Park, Sask. They all made it this far, through the ups and downs of the convoy organization, an admittedly confusing organizational process on Facebook and hours of streaming across the country.
“It’s been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, you know, with how much support we’re going to have, and how it’s gonna go and with all the convoys starting and dropping off, it was just phenomenal to see all the support,” Carritt said.
Carritt has been emphatic, repeatedly, that there’s no space for radicals in this convoy. He’s preached politeness and professionalism. Husband agreed, pointing to the Yellow Vest movement, how there were some who talked about hanging Trudeau.
“You can’t say s–t like that nowadays,” he said.
Of course, the question remains, just how much this protest is going to matter, if this will somehow get politicians to listen, or get pipelines built. Maybe it won’t. But at a minimum, Husband figured, people will notice.
“Every town we go through, people are going to be talking about it, pro or con,” he said.
Husband’s a pretty practical guy. He’s given these issues a lot of thought. But, he wondered, how do Albertans make people in other parts of the country care? He pointed to Oshawa, where folks worry about the closure of a General Motors plant. The country, Husband figured, might just be too big for these issues to animate everyone. And, more candidly than many, he admitted he doesn’t have the answers.
“We’re all rubber boot cowboys,” he said. “A lot of the issues are way bigger than the average person can understand.”
Husband is a Maxime Bernier supporter, “100 per cent.” He thinks Kenney is “not a dummy,” and was — and is — a huge fan of the former Wildrose party leader Danielle Smith. Asked about some of Bernier’s recent controversies, Husband shrugged it off — not because it doesn’t matter, but because there are things a person likes about a politician, but nobody with a busy work and family life can keep track of everything they do.
“You gotta eat, breathe and sleep it,” he said. “Because of our approach, we don’t understand all the issues. We’re opinionated without all the information.”
He doesn’t say it like it’s a bad thing — that’s just the way it is, and anyone who seems to have all the information has got blinders on.
The convoy members might not be wonks, but they’re passionate. Clearly, too, are their supporters, braving the cold to wave them by.
“That hit home with me, that made me proud to be Canadian,” Fonteyne said. Tina Clark, standing with him at the pizza party, agreed: “That was very overwhelming.”
And, as the party drew to an end, Carritt stood before the crowd. Some were wearing “F–k Trudeau Make Canada Great Again” toques. They cheered for Carritt, who’s brought them this far.
“We’re fighting for Canada, right?” Carritt said.
“Yeah!” they yelled back.
On their way out, Husband and Adamson lit a couple cigarettes and headed off to their trucks, where they’d be spending the night.
But first, they swung by the Boston Pizza for a beer — a pair of rubber boot cowboys, making the trip cross-country.
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