In the last year France has been witness to waves of protest, marches, and rioting. A segment of the population has become alienated and is targeting its frustration at Macron, the elite, and at globalism more broadly. The protesters have various demands but they primarily focus on economic justice, lowering taxes, and relief from financial strain. They feel left behind by the global financial system, they think that the political elite do not care about them, and many feel that they do not have a voice. Whether globalism is really at fault is another discussion to be had. Right now I am more interested in the mindset of these protesters. In this article I want to understand the ideology of the Canadian version of the Yellow Vests. What do the Canadian Yellow Vests actually think? Are they dangerous? And what do they want?
Canada has not had the large protests that we saw in France but I was intrigued to see that some of the same sentiment is starting to take hold here. The Yellow Vest Canada Facebook group is now filled with over 104,000+ members. There is a variety of reasons why someone may want to join this Facebook group but at a minimum it suggests a displeasure with the status quo. For this article I took a deep dive into Canada’s growing Yellow Vest Movement to find out who they are, what they are saying, and what trends are emerging. I interviewed members of the group and sought to understand, from their perspective, why they say that they joined the movement and what they honestly believe and hope for.
Before we get into this article I wanted to frame this piece and explain my purpose. While researching this article I made an honest effort to look at this movement in its best possible reading and to give members the benefit of the doubt. I want the members of this movement to feel that their feelings and viewpoints were accurately portrayed. This is not a “gotcha” project or a hit piece on the movements most abhorrent members. Instead my goal was to try and find real Yellow Vest supporters in Canada, find out what they honestly believe, and then reflect on their actual sentiments and concerns. While condensing a movement of this size into a single narrative is likely impossible, I am confident that I have at least achieved an appropriate and honest attempt to highlight the key themes, grievances, and trends.
The Facebook Group
The Yellow Vest Canada Facebook group is basically everything you might expect it to be. Any social media group of this size will contain a huge variety of members and viewpoints. Some people are using it as a way to vent their frustration with the Canadian government, some are using it to organize grassroots protests and think tanks, some are just trolls posting to enrage or mess with people, some are conspiracy theorists, some are bigoted and racist, some are intelligent and knowledgeable, some are ignorant and misinformed. It would be unfair of me to use the individual comments in this group as a way to characterize the entire movement. People write off the cuff in these types of groups and don’t always portray themselves in ways that they would want the world to see. Sometimes the energy of these online social spaces brings out the worst in people and for that reason I am abstaining from quoting or analyzing any specific comment on the platform.
This is the Description for the Facebook group (the same description is used on the official website as well):
One of the central themes of this movement is that Canada, specifically Trudeau, is acting in the interests of the global elite at the detriment of the working class citizen. There is a nationalist and populist ring to the narrative that sees the globalized world order as a threat to Canadian sovereignty, economic stability, and personal freedom. As the statement highlights, the Carbon Tax is one of the main concerns. However it is clear to me that this goes far beyond the Carbon Tax and is actually about a sense of alienation with the entire perceived Western world order and an uneasiness with the status quo.
A Look Inside
One of the first people that I talked to was Micheal Hurley, a journeyman ironworker from Edmonton. He has had a long and interesting history living across Canada. He grew up in the small mining town of New Waterford in Nova Scotia. He joined the reserves and saw his first tour in 1992 to Yugoslavia as a solider under the UN. Like so many he moved out West for work spending time in both Saskatchewan and Alberta. He worked the oil rigs from 1997 to 2009 until the economic downturn in the region, then became a labourer, and now finally is employed as an ironworker. He has had to leave his hometown due to a lack of jobs, then had to leave his career on the rigs yet again for the same reason. I asked him why he joined the Yellow Vest Movement and he offered me a couple of different reasons.
He told me that he is against the UN Migration Pact and is also against the Carbon Tax. He wants the government to put Canadians first and to “stop killing or destroying all of our energy sectors.” He wants Canada to promote our energy industries and natural resources, rather than hinder them. When I asked him whether we should have similar protests as we saw in France here in Canada he told me that “Our protests are peaceful and that is the way that they should stay.” Michael told me that what he loves about Canada is our democracy, freedom, and when the government listens to its own people. He feels that the current government is not living up to these standards. “Canada had free speech but if you look everywhere now we do not have it, or we are losing it, along with everything else Canada stands for.”
I asked him what types of solutions he would like to see going forward, besides supporting the energy sector, he also suggested holding the government more accountable and the use of referendums on key issues so that Canadians can decide on their own future. He argued that more referendums will give power back to the citizens and that letting “true democracy happen” would lead to the best results.
It was interesting talking to Michael because he is a man who has had a life of economic uncertainty in multiple regions, served in the military under the UN, and saw the rise and decline of oil in Alberta. He is now concerned about the direction that Canada is going in and of the fate of Canada’s energy sector workers. He thinks that the Yellow Vest Movement can help.
Key Canadian Grievances
When I spoke to Michael he brought up some of the many issues that Canada is facing today. There is a strong concern among many Canadians about the changing job market, what will happen to the energy sector (particularly with the oil sands in Alberta), and how Canada will help those who are being left behind. Some Canadians feel that the government needs to either do more to invest in Canada’s oil industry and/or do more to support workers who have lost their jobs. Other Canadians want to see the oil industry put to rest so that we can instead focus on greener renewable technologies. The Yellow Vests would rather see Canada work towards short term economic goals, such as job security for existing industries, rather than make progress towards mitigating the consequences of climate change by creating a new green energy economy.
While I personally think that Canada should invest more in renewable energy I am also sympathetic to the concerns of the oil industry workers. It can be hard to care about climate change when your immediate job security is up the in air. To many in the Yellow Vest Movement, like Michael, they see the changes happening and they are worried. Whether their solutions are reasonable is debatable, but the reason for their frustration is understandable. Trudeau is playing a bit of a rough game in his response to all of this. On one hand Trudeau is doing a significant amount to support Alberta and the oil sector, even to a foolish extent by arguably over paying for the recent pipeline. On the other hand Trudeau is arguing that Canada needs a green plan going forward and that the future is with renewable technology. He ultimately can’t have it both ways and it seems that no one is really content with the direction of Canada’s energy sector. We are lacking a consensus in Canada and the tension is becoming more and more visible. The Yellow Vest Movement in Canada is partially a manifestation of this anxiety.
A Second Look
Another person who agreed to talk to me was Chase O’Reilly. Born and raised in Vancouver, he is currently the co-owner of a media consulting company and is trying navigate a healthy lifestyle in the expensive city. He still supports the Yellow Vest cause but has not attended any protests since February. Many of his viewpoints and arguments were similar to what I had encountered, but talking to him was helpful to more deeply sense the underlying sentiments and ideologies present in the movement. He told me that to him the Yellow Vest Movement was not about the Right verses the Left, but rather it was about the working class protesting globalism, the UN, and the corrupt government. He cited that in France, alongside members of the Right, were the Communists and far-Leftists, claiming that this was not a partisan protest. When I asked him whether violent protests were necessary in Canada as in France he stressed that France was in a “completely different level of desperation.” and that “Canadians don’t need to escalate to violence.”
Chase was engaging and thoughtful, we talked about everything from his love of Canada, to his support of the LGBT, to his complicated love/hate relationship with Trump, and about the future of Canadian society. One of the last things that I asked him was if the Yellow Vest Movement had a unified message, and if so, what this message was. He argued that there are four main goals of the Yellow Vest Movement:
- To hold a referendum on the UN Migration Pact.
- To take Canada out of the UN.
- To scrap the Carbon Tax.
- To implement a Citizen Referendum for more key issues.
It was honestly refreshing to hear Chase give tangible goals and proposals for his ideas. Although I believe he is misguided and frankly wrong about his positions, I value some of his concerns. Furthermore, he taps into the large populist sentiment which is growing across the Western world. Chase had many viewpoints, but much of it boiled down to what he perceived as the people’s sovereignty being trampled on by the global elite. This viewpoint is not unique to Canada.
Populism On The Rise
The Yellow Vest Movement is populist by definition. It is a “people’s politics” which frames the enemy as the global elite. In this moment, political groups within countries are showing resistance to what they perceive as an over step by global institutions such as the UN or WTO. Something like the Paris Climate Agreement is inherently globalist, its opponents would suggest that this type of agreement, which is set up by the elite, is infringing on their sovereignty and is harming the individual economies of nations. The logic in Canadian populism is something like this: the global elite are acting in their own interests, politician’s like Trudeau are working for the global elite, Trudeau is implementing policy in alignment with the global elite, the people of Canada do not share the interests of the global elite, Trudeau is not acting in the interest of the people, therefor Trudeau is an enemy.
Some form of populism has always been around in politics but recently there has been a surge in populist politicians and parties. Populism on its own is not partisan, both the Right and the Left can be equally populist. In the US, both Trump and Bernie Sanders, miles apart in ideology, are populist politicians who do not trust the global financial or political system and instead claim to represent the interests of the working class. In general though, in modern times, populism is more a trait of Right Wing politics. This is largely because the ideas on offer for many of the world’s current problems are global in scale and solution. For example, climate change is an inherently global problem and it’s solutions generally require global cooperation and governance. The Right in most countries is not aligned with the science of climate change and does not prioritize policy to mitigate the consequences and/or to reduce carbon emissions. The Left in this case is aligned with the science and wants to implement global policy to enact change. The Right views these globalist policies, like Carbon Credits and Taxes, as an unnecessary infringement on their sovereignty and in turn their politics become populist in resistance.
The danger of populism is that it is easy for groups to get swept up in political fervor. Demagogues who claim to speak for the people but in actuality are either pursuing their own interests or are simply dishonest can rise to the top of these populist waves. Trump, the sketchy billionaire living in a literal room made of gold on top of Manhattan claiming to speak for the working class in the rust belt of America, is a good example of this. Trump was, and is, completely out of touch with the difficulties facing much of his voter base which is currently suffering from a variety of problems ranging from job insecurities to an opioid epidemic. Trump’s voter base is angry at what they perceive to be the cause of their misfortune, the global liberal elite. When Trump began to hum this tune, he convinced, and frankly conned, millions of people into thinking that he would be their populist voice. Trump managed to tap into this anger and he then turned their genuine concerns into a vehicle for his own egocentric interests. The resentment and anxiety found within populist movements is usually justified, but the perceived source of the problems, and the solutions to be sought, are often misguided.
Fortunately, Canada is not America. Our version of populism is much more restrained and reasonable compared to what is going on down South. The Yellow Vests in Canada, while similar in many ways to the populists in the States, are not the same thing. So far my experience has been that the viewpoints are more diverse and less radicalized, although many of the nationalist and anti-liberal sentiments remain.
Immigration & Racism
The topics of immigration, refugees, Islam, and race I originally left out of this article when I posted it on September 2 2019. The only thing that I included was a throw away line that from my experience the group was “anti-immigrant and anti-refugee”. This sentence received pushback and one of the admins of the group, JD Doyle, albeit aggressively and with foul language, convinced me to reexamine this part of the article. The reason that I had left this section out originally is that from my experience the Yellow Vest Canada group did not have a unified position on immigration and race. Some members are clearly racist while others are not at all. Some members are hateful towards Muslims while others have reasonable concerns about terrorism and integration. From my experience, the group is generally against mass immigration and would prefer to stop, or to reduce, the amount of refugees coming into Canada.
The movement itself is not racist, however some it’s concerns and values are in alignment with people who happen to be racist. This complicates analyzing the group because it’s hard to sense the intention of some posts and comments. The majority of the group seems to have concerns about immigration in relation to economics, integration, and a strain on the social safety net. You could argue that these fears are unfounded and lack evidence, but they are not racist. However when a subset of the group is in fact racist this makes it difficult to separate legitimate concerns from the fear-mongering bigotry. Anyone analyzing the group should take note that nuance is required to understand what someone is truly saying or intending. Some who seem well intentioned are not, and some people who seem racist simply aren’t.
I asked JD Doyle for his perspective on immigration and he wrote: “Our Yellow Vest members have nothing against immigrants as long as they are good honest people who will respect our women and children and pull their own weight. Immigrants must be vetted on an individual basis (not together as an ethnic group) to reduce ANY risk to our Canadian women and children. Yellow Vests are looking to avoid having a military blunder by allowing terrorist cells to sneak into the country and we want to stop any known violent criminals or sex offenders from becoming a safety risk. Properly vetted immigrants are welcomed by the Yellow Vests and are necessary to a healthy economy. We can possibly learn new things from different cultures as well if everyone is willing to share their info and techniques with each other to improve the world. But Yellow Vests frown heavily upon shitty violent criminals being allowed into Canada to cause unnecessary crime.”
He continued, “As for refugees, the Yellow Vests would prefer that we end all wars and to make sure that refugees get help in their own countries. They can come to Canada to visit on vacation in times of peace or they can relocate here because they dream of being a Canadian but they shouldn’t have to come out of necessity. Since terrorist groups such as ISIS have gone on record stating that they will be sneaking trained terrorists into Canada via refugees, the Yellow Vests are adamant that all refugees be vetted as well to avoid the Trojan Horse effect. Nice immigrants who are happy to work hard and assimilate to Canadian values are welcome. We are only looking for future fellow countrymen, we are NOT looking for any groups or individuals trying to push their culture, religion, or any violence on our citizens by socio-political means, out of fear, or by force. All immigrants must respect our country’s women and children, AND their own, on our land, as well respect our culture. This does not make us racist or xenophobic. This makes us friendly but firm. We have love to give but we want no trouble. The UN should have absolutely NO say as to who comes and goes in Canada.”
From this, Doyle is clearly not against all immigration and is not a racist. However it does show that he is skeptical of the current immigration system and has some anxiety about terrorists sneaking into Canada. Whether he is right or wrong to have these concerns is up for debate, but it shows that these ideas are complicated. If we are going to tackle these difficult topics and find a way to work together, it will require patience, clarity, and nuance.
So Who Are The Yellow Vests?
The Yellow Vests in Canada are a broad group containing many different ideologies and viewpoints however there are some notable trends:
- There is a significant anti UN sentiment
- There is generally a denial of climate change
- Members are generally against mass immigration and against taking in more refugees
- They are extremely opposed to Carbon Taxes
- They are worried about losing jobs in the oil industry
- There is significant conspiracy thinking and skepticism of established narratives
- There is a fear that Canada’s economy is precarious and heading towards disaster
From what I have researched the group is not dangerous and does not call for violence. However they are pretty pissed off and we should pay attention. When they show concern for losing jobs or the health of the economy it’s easy to be sympathetic. When they post anti-immigrant memes or deny climate science it’s easy to laugh at them. However it’s important to not trivialize or belittle this group. We can’t just wave off the nonsense and hope for the best, it didn’t work with Trump, it didn’t work with Brexit, and it might not work in Canada.
While I would argue that the Yellow Vests are quite misguided and misdirected it is also true that some of their grievances are perfectly legitimate and deserve recognition. If mainstream politicians don’t take them seriously, then it will give rise to a politician who will. Canada is not the US and the Canadian Yellow Vests are not Trump supporters, but if the deck is reshuffled then they probably could be. Canadian politicians need to come to terms with the fact that a segment of the population is populist and has serious concerns about the direction of the country. Whether those concerns are justified is besides the point, the reality is that the resentment exists and ignoring the problem will likely not make it go away.
The Canadian elections are approaching. Whether Canadian’s feel united or divided is dependent on how we communicate and acknowledge each other’s viewpoints and grievances. Nobody wants Canada to descend into political chaos and nobody wants the partisan divide which is gripping the US to drift up North. Together we can build a more reasonable and unified Canada but it requires understanding, patience, and a commitment to work with our political opponents. If we lean towards cooperation and communication, working to understand and learn from one another, rather than divide and hate, then we just might be okay, and maybe this upcoming election wont have to suck. Just maybe.
By Daniel Govedar
Published Sept 2 2019. Edited Sept 9 2019.