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The Ottawa trucker protest is rooted in extremism, a national security expert says

A man carries a Confederate flag during the protests in Ottawa in January. Along with Canadian flags, signs and flags with extremist views have been seen at the demonstrations.
Dave Chan
AFP via Getty Images
A man carries a Confederate flag during the protests in Ottawa in January. Along with Canadian flags, signs and flags with extremist views have been seen at the demonstrations.

Massive protests by truckers opposing pandemic precautions continue to ensnare traffic in Canada. Authorities are increasingly wary of the extremist views on display during the demonstrations, which some have dubbed the "Freedom Convoy."

The drivers have been blocking major metropolitan areas in Ottawa, Ontario, for over a week and are becoming increasingly raucous, calling for the lifting of health regulations as well as a regime change in the country. Protestors in tractor-trailers and other vehicles have been running their engines and honking their horns day and night in the densely populated area. There are also hundreds of protestors on foot.

Ottawa City Councilor Matthew Luloff toldMorning Edition that hate symbols and acutely anti-Semitic writing have been seen at the rallies. Along with Canadian flags, some protestors have also been showing off U.S. Confederate flags and swastikas.

"Some of the most well-known radicals in this country have now descended upon the capital. Some of them are calling for violence. Some of them are threatening individual politicians," said Luloff.

Some of the protestors have legitimate concerns, noted Luloff. But what's driving those using the protests to push hate?

In fact, extremist groups are at the core of the movement, Stephanie Carvin, a national security expert, tellsMorning Edition. Carvin reports groups with conspiratorial beliefs, anti-government and bigoted views have been trying for years to organize a convoy, but vaccine mandates helped to finally give their plan enough momentum in Ottawa.

"In reality, I think what we're looking at is something like a spark that lit a powder keg within the wider Canadian population," Carvin says.

Carvin notes fatigue for mitigation measures is at an all-time high as many places in Canada come out of a fourth round of major lockdowns for COVID-19 prevention, unlike many other countries — including the U.S. — which have not had consistent lockdowns.

Those fatigued with lockdown-induced economic and social struggles resonate with the trucker protest's messages against COVID-19 mandates, even though at its core, the movement's roots are firmly based in violent extremist ideologies, Carvin explains.

When NPR's Emma Jacobs visited the protests in Ottawa and interviewed demonstrators, a man who's part of the self-appointed security for the protests' areas pushed his way into the interview.

"It's a civil war between the government and its people," he explained. He didn't give his name.

From a security perspective, Carvin reports authorities don't want to take responsibility for the protests. Law enforcement has been confiscating protesters' fuel and calling for additional police forces.

"There's a reluctance to even just hand out parking tickets. It is a baffling kind of collapse of authority," says Carvin.

Even as Canada lifts coronavirus mandates in some areas, the protests may not end due to their anti-governmental nature.

If the protests spread across the United States,authorities worry they could further crumble supply chains and potentially disrupt the upcoming Super Bowl and State of the Union address.

This story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nell Clark is an editor at Morning Edition and a writer for NPR's Live Blog. She pitches stories, edits interviews and reports breaking news. She started in radio at campus station WVFS at Florida State University, then covered climate change and the aftermath of Hurricane Michael for WFSU in Tallahassee, Fla. She joined NPR in 2019 as an intern at Weekend All Things Considered. She is proud to be a member of NPR's Peer-to-Peer Trauma Support Team, a network of staff trained to support colleagues dealing with trauma at work. Before NPR, she worked as a counselor at a sailing summer camp and as a researcher in a deep-sea genetics lab.