Toronto Anti-Convoy Protest Shows the Way Forward

We Need a Mass Labour Response to the Anti-Mandate Movement

by Daniel Tarade

While the anti-mandate siege in Ottawa continued, Torontonians learned of a similar convoy set for the weekend of February 5, 2022. We anticipated thousands of people would converge in Toronto to spread a eugenicist message — that saving the lives of the most vulnerable from Covid-19 is not worth any concession of individual liberties. But frustrated and over-stressed healthcare workers decided to take a stand.

On 24 hours’ notice, a corps of healthcare workers, actively critical of the Doug Ford government’s pandemic response, organized a rally. The spark for this spontaneous act of community self-defence came as Toronto police warned healthcare workers not to wear scrubs into work on Friday because anti-mandate protesters had harassed and abused healthcare workers in Ottawa.

On Saturday, February 5, nurses and doctors decided that they would wear their scrubs and lab coats with pride, and stand up for their community and public health. On that cold day, one thousand people showed up to support and protect healthcare workers. Participating in this effort was Socialist Fightback and a few labour activists, including members of the United Steelworkers, who unveiled a large purple banner that read “Shut Down Hate” to the cheers of the crowd.

Despite foreknowledge of the anti-social mobilization, Toronto labour leaders had no plan to call upon their many thousands of members to defend public institutions from reactionary mobs. Instead, an entirely grassroots effort rallied people and resources, including a sound system and marshals – much needed to take a stand for community safety.

Lacking a strong, coordinated mass labour presence, the route and destination of the progressive forces was entirely dictated by police. They directed our demonstration down side streets and back alleys onto University Ave. south of College Street. This police escort precluded any contact with the anti-mandate crowd on the south lawn of Queen’s Park. It mimicked the advice not to wear scrubs. The government fully admits that the reactionary anti-mandate crowd represents a threat, but it seems incapable of confronting it.

Organizers of healthcare workers, nurses and doctors spoke to a large gathering in front of Toronto General Hospital. They limited their slogans and demands to a denunciation of the anti-mandate reaction. Chants included: Trust the Science, Love not Hate, and We Love Nurses.

During this brief rally in defense of healthcare workers and public health protections, a much larger anti-mandate assembly clustered at Bloor and Avenue, one of the city’s busiest intersections.

Roughly 5,000 anti-mandate protesters and dozens of honking and revving cars and trucks occupied the space. Just as at the Defence of Healthcare rally, Canadian flags were on display, but here too were “Don’t Tread on Me” and “Fuck Trudeau” flags. Anti-fascist organizers identified some of the leaders of this anti-mandate rally as also being involved in the viscous attack on the Hamilton Gay Pride parade in 2019. Members of white supremacist groups, brandishing Nazi and Confederate flags, play a visible role in these anti-mandate events. The most common chant was “Freedom” and “We are not Alone!”

While similarly large marches led by the Palestine Youth Movement in 2021 faced intense police repression, including snipers, dozens of cops on horses, and attempts to confiscate their vehicle, this anti-mandate protest enjoyed the tacit support of a largely idle police force.

Indeed, only one arrest occurred on February 6 — that of an antifascist organizer charged with assault with a weapon, administering a noxious substance (from a smoke canister), and public mischief for walking into the anti-mandate protest at Queens Park while dispersing non-toxic blue smoke. The police also reminded the public “to please avoid the demonstration areas.” Much like in Ottawa, this warning seemed only to apply to counter-protesters.

The budget for the Toronto Police is well over $1 billion, the single biggest expense item in the biggest Canadian city. Yet the police are clearly not the solution. The mandate of the police largely stops with criminalizing the outcomes of poverty and protecting private property. With brutal force, the police organize raids on encampments and land defenders; they harass, abuse, and kill sex workers, disabled people, queer folks, black people, Indigenous people, and the poor. So, when the Ontario NDP (ONDP) and labour leaders call on the police to protect workers, they cede the responsibility of protecting our communities to class traitors who do not live in our communities and who take their orders from the giant propertied masters.

How much more evidence do we need that the police are not on the side of workers? Being imbedded in the racist carceral system entirely prevents police from ensuring safety for workers and oppressed people. The violence that the police liberally employ against Black and Indigenous people is not incidental to the police system. It is integral to how the capitalist class divides the lower classes via a racial caste system. Similarly, xenophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, able-ism, sexism, homophobia, and trans-phobia are used to counter any prospect of unity of the working class and oppressed people. 

NDP and union leaders talk about grassroots organizing, but fall short of doing it despite the fact that their organizations encompass millions of members. Grassroots organizing is the necessary response of workers and oppressed people who have been abandoned by the institutions that are supposed to protect them.

By limiting themselves to being allies instead of leaders, the NDP and union brass set their sights on incremental change to the status quo. This is because the NDP tops treat everything as an election ploy and refuse to engage and mobilize its mass membership in direct action. They instead promise to correct Doug Ford’s mistakes when they may beat him in an election.

The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), with over one million unionized members, maintains an election date counter. On February 6 it read “115 days to the June 2, 2022 election and a progressive government in Ontario.” By refusing to mobilize around anything but a ballot exercise, the OFL tops admit that they are happy to wait four months (in addition to the years they’ve squandered already) to do anything while people die amidst the scandal of record corporate profits. Rather than organize mass action now and use that to build support for the upcoming election as a secondary tactic, the OFL and ONDP hold their members and constituents hostage to the “anything but Conservative” mantra, where any demand for a political program based on fundamental justice, rather than small reforms, get poo-pooed as not sufficiently popular to ensure electoral victory.

That observation may seem abstract, but staffers for sitting MPPs in the ONDP Legislative caucus privately admit that they steer clear of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli apartheid because the issue might hurt their electoral prospects.

Back in December, Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada, and MPP Randy Hillier, a former member of the Ontario Conservative Caucus and staunch defender of the anti-mandate convoy, planned a rally on the X University campus, where a statue of Egerton Ryerson, racist architect of residential ‘schools,’ once stood. It was toppled and beheaded during the summer of 2021 by Indigenous leaders. That so-called Freedom Rally intended to oppose any vaccine mandates and denounce the plan to change the name Ryerson University. It’s not an accident that the struggle against public health protections was amplified by denying the reality of ongoing Indigenous genocide, which includes a disproportionate health impact on Indigenous communities.

Students from Socialist Fightback and Socialist Action organized a United Front rally with support from anti-fascist groups, socialists, union locals, and Indigenous leaders. While Bernier and Hillier cancelled their rally amidst an investigation that uncovered a white supremacist plan to attack counter protesters, the weekly anti-mandate march still attempted to pass through X University Campus. There they faced a wall of marshals donned in reflective vests and a crowd of one-hundred chanting supporters behind them. A grassroots community effort forced the anti-mandate protest, with its white supremacist partisans, to turn sharply down a side street. We kept us safe.

There was even more community support for the Defence of Healthcare Rally held on February 5, with many of the same organizations in attendance, but it’s clear that the anti-mandate protest grew much more than did our side. To the extent that defense of workers from reactionary mobs is ignored by mass labour organizations, anti-mandate protesters are led and supported by petit-bourgeois reactionary forces.

While the bosses and bankers make record profits, oppressed people, workers, and even the petty bourgeoisie suffer. Of course, the petty bourgeoisie did not suffer as much as workers and oppressed people, but their class comforts took a hit.

We saw the origins of this reactionary turn against any public health protections in small businesses that defied orders to lock-down or reduce capacity. With the economic downturn, neoliberal governments abandoned not only workers and oppressed people but also reduced the relatively high subsidies they provided to the privileged upper crust of small business owners. Some may focus their attention on systemic reasons why the government prioritized supporting billionaires over the poor, or even mere millionaires. But it is evident that a growing body instead reacts against the few public health protections in place and demand an end to any restrictions on business.

They insist: No lock-downs. No capacity limits. No mandatory masking. No vaccine mandates.

Given that we know that the poorest people and the most racialized neighbourhoods suffer greater numbers of Covid-19 cases, and since disabled and elderly people are more likely to die of Covid-19, the unrelenting push for an elimination of all public health protections amounts to eugenics. It is social murder.

As noted by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, “many groups are particularly vulnerable to negative impacts from COVID-19 precisely because their economic, social and cultural rights, their rights to equality and Indigenous rights have not been effectively protected or realized in Ontario and Canada over many decades.” We need to affirm the right of all people to life!