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Small Business Radicalism: The Case of the 2022 Coutts Border Protests (Part two)

Small Business Radicalism: The Case of the 2022 Coutts Border Protests (Part two)

 March 27th, 2024

Jordan House

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This is the second part of a two-part series on small business and the far right in Canada.

A key node of Canada’s 2022 “trucker” Freedom Convoy was the two-week protest and intermittent border blockade at Coutts, Alberta. Like its more prominent counterpart in downtown Ottawa, the Coutts demonstration styled itself as—and was popularly understood to be—a workers’ revolt against public health measures that threatened jobs and livelihoods. While the protests’ initial demand was the repeal of vaccine mandates for truckers, the far-right coalition that formed around the convoy soon took up sweeping—and sometimes confused—demands.

While not a workers’ rebellion, economic interests were central to the convoy movement at Coutts and beyond. Despite the blue-collar aesthetics of high-vis vests, coveralls, and pickup trucks, the Coutts protest (and broader Freedom Convoy) should be understood as part of a small business revolt that is a major driving force behind the rising far right in Canada. Understanding these class dynamics are critical for opposing the growing far right movement.

The three main Coutts protest leaders—identified as “key participants” by the RCMP—were

Marco Van Huigenbos, a Fort Macleod town counsellor, real estate investor, and owner of garage door installation company South Country Doors; Alex Van Herk, a farmer whose Facebook profile lists him as an owner of Durango Livestock, a Fort Macleod feedlot company; and Gerhard (George) Janzen, who appears to be a realtor in Taber, Alberta. All three of the men face mischief charges related to the protest.

The most sensational aspect of the Coutts protest was the revelation of an alleged conspiracy to murder RCMP officers. After deploying undercover officers and obtaining considerably broad wiretapping powers, the RCMP arrested and charged four men in relation to the plot. The “Coutts Four” are Christopher “SlyFox” Lysak, Jerry Morin, Anthony Olienick, and Chris Carbert.

While the media has noted the men’s connections to far-right political organizations, their supporters have lauded them as heros and regular “working class guys.” In fact, like the rest of the convoy, the Coutts Four are disproportionately petty bourgeois. Olienic is the owner-operator of a trucking company and also reportedly owns a small construction company. Carbert owns a landscaping company. Lysak is reportedly an electrician. Morin is a linesman who works in the oil patch. Morin’s partner Jaclyne Martin, who was also arrested in relation to the protest, while not a business-owner, is a salesperson who describes herself as having an “entrepreneurial spirit.” In February 2024, the conspiracy charges against Lysak and Morin were dropped. Both pled guilty to less serious gun charges as part of plea deals.

Other Coutts protest arrestees were Artur Pawlowski, a pastor and well-known right-wing agitator and James Sowery, whose lawyer has described him as “not only a trucker, but also a farmer.” However, not all of those arrested in relation to the demonstrations at Coutts and Milk River could be described as petty bourgeois—other arrestees included a retired teacher and several employees of a Calgary-based lighting company, and a few others whose occupation—and class status—have not been reported.

Besides personnel, business sympathies for the protest were also expressed in other ways. Protestors used the nearby Smuggler’s Saloon bar as their headquarters. Tractors and other farming equipment was highly visible at Coutts (as well as the related protest in nearby Milk River) and several Alberta farmers have filed a lawsuit against the RMCP for damaging their excavators at the protest site. Perhaps the best evidence of broad small-business support for the protest was the seemingly spontaneous mass refusal by tow truck companies to accept contracts with the RCMP and Alberta government to remove the protest vehicles. As laid out in the public inquiry that followed the federal government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act, “the RCMP reached out to more than 80 tow truck companies in Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan. None of the companies contacted were willing to assist in an enforcement action. The RCMP also contacted 25 American tow truck companies, all of which refused to help” (p. 85). In response to this boycott, the government of Alberta had to “procure its own heavy tow capacity using online marketplaces such as Kijiji and Truck Trader” (p. 320).

While representatives of the tow trucking industry emphasized that the refusal to cooperate was driven by fears of lost future business—and in some cases threats from protestors—it was also clearly the case that many operators sympathized with the convoy. After the Emergencies Act was invoked, tow truck operators who assisted police in Ottawa wore green ski masks and covered company logos to protect their identities.

In an interview with the right-wing Rebel News, Coutts protest lawyer Chad Williamson summarized the social base for the protest, which included people from “All industries—agriculture, trucking, trades, we’ve got business owners, we’ve got ranchers and cattlefolk—these are true Albertans.” This appeal to authenticity contains an economic subtext, focusing on producers (or “makers”) who can be counterposed with the “takers”—both elite and underclass. However, it also recalls Stephen Harper’s “old stock Canadians” dogwhistle—which was widely understood to mean native born and white.  

Grasping the economic and class dynamics at play in the far-right movement is critical to effectively opposing it. Many of the common strategies put forward to combat the growing strength of the far right emphasize the need for censorship and augmented law enforcement. Indeed, in the face of a deepening crisis of legitimacy, centrist politicians—both right and left—have primarily relied on increased coercion to manage threats from the right. On principle, this should be cause for concern for those who claim to support civil liberties and human rights.

The political fallout from the invocation of the Emergencies Act has yet to be fully realized—but it is obvious that the transgression of democratic norms by the centrist governments clears a path for future right-wing governments to do the same. Any enhanced policing powers will inevitably be used on other protest movements, regardless of their political persuasion. Indigenous land defenders, environmentalists, Palestinian rights activists, trade unionists, and other progressive forces already contend with increasing attacks on basic democratic rights. The danger of a centrist authoritarianism, justified at least in part by the need to suppress the far right, must be taken seriously. Moreover, there are obvious issues with expanding law enforcement as a response to far right threats, given the extent of far-right sympathies within police services and the armed forces.

A more generally promising set of proposals emphasizes the need for new social and economic policies to stymie the rise of the right. Strategies to tackle inequality—grow the labour movement, rebuild and strengthen welfare state functions—while necessary, are likely to only appeal to some parts of the far-right coalition. Workers, the self-employed, and the smallest employers may understand themselves to stand to gain from things like improved public pensions, universal pharmacare, and other welfare state offerings. However, if current discussions around the Canadian Dental Care Plan are any indication, much bolder policies to tackle the compounding crises in housing, education, healthcare, and other social needs are necessary. While improved social services and programs may peel off some layer of support for the far right, the petty bourgeoisie by and large is likely to experience redistributive social democratic policy designed to tackle inequality as increased taxation and intolerable government regulation —just as it did in the era of the New Deal.

Still, as other commentators have asserted, the labour movement will need to play a critical role in combatting the far right. This is not primarily because, as some even within the labour movement believe, union members are a major force within the far right (although it must be acknowledged that union members, like society in general, are shifting rightward). Rather, the labour movement remains the greatest potential force for social change. However, to fulfil this potential unions themselves will have to transform.


Finally, although much less discussed, is the issue of the oil and gas industry, which must be addressed not only as a technical problem related to climate change, but as a political—and class—struggle. This would require a plan for a real “just transition” for industry workers, and illuminates the urgent need to go even further, and institute public ownership and divestment from the sector. This is the kind of radical action that is required to seriously address the threat of the far right and the conditions that generate it.

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Dr. Jordan House