Two of my cousins were in Ottawa when the trucks rolled in at the end of January. Wayne Stronks was setting up camp on Slater street after completing the 4500 km drive from Smithers, BC. Daniel Perry was logging into work-from-home video calls, his downtown office closed amidst the uncertainty. I, like many Canadians, was nervously reading any article I could find with “freedom” or “trucks” in the title, eager to get a glimpse of what was going on.
Maybe I should just call one of them? I hadn’t talked to either cousin in more than 10 years and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Enough families are fracturing over politics these days. Why go looking for trouble? But state-of-emergency after state-of-emergency was called, and I knew it was time to pick up the phone. I said a prayer and dialed.
“The first thing this trip did is it allowed people to see that they weren’t alone,” explained Stronks from the cab of his truck. He was back home in Smithers after spending January 29 to February 6 protesting in Ottawa. He’d put his own electrician business on hold to be there.
Stronks hadn’t planned on going. But when he heard that a local contractor was sending a cement truck, he suddenly felt compelled to go; he caught the convoy in Thunder Bay.
“There were only three or four towns that first day, but in those towns it was crowded. There were people all along the walks, flags everywhere, just so much excitement and pure joy. You didn’t see masks, you just saw people. It felt surreal.” When they rolled into Sault Ste. Marie it was 11:30 pm and still the roadside was packed with people waving flags.
Stronks described the joyful party atmosphere in Ottawa’s downtown. “I’ve never seen something so close to a utopian society.” He shared countless examples of people coming together to organize garbage collection, share meals and clean bathrooms. But I wanted to know more about his motivations for going. I couldn’t quite grasp why so many people would feel strongly enough to drop work, family and the comforts of home for political activism.
Fear or frustration
When I’d spoken to my Ottawa-based cousin, Daniel Perry, a consultant with Summa Strategies and a former Conservative aide in the Senate, I asked if he thought fear of authoritarian government motivated the convoy.
“I don’t think it’s a fear of an authoritarian regime or even a communist government for that matter. I think people are just tired of not being heard,” explained Perry, referring to the frustrations and exhaustion of living through a pandemic.
That certainly could have been true for many of the protestors there, but not for Stronks.
“Eighty-year-old ladies would come up to my truck and most of them had thick accents: Polish, East German, Russian.” Stronks says he was amazed to see them braving the freezing cold, deafening noise and large crowds. “These old ladies would come up to my truck say ‘thank you for coming, we’ve seen this before. We know why you’re here. Please don’t go.’”
As Stronks described the impact of these elderly women’s words, I began to get a clearer picture of his motivations for being there. Most people I know associate mask wearing and vaccine mandates with the common good, even if they are frustrated and annoyed with all the limitations on life. But for Stronks, these things are not just inconvenient, they are actually dangerous. If an oppressive regime is at work, enforcing unjust policies based on carefully constructed lies, then protesting would be the only loving and compassionate choice.
So I turned the conversation towards love. On February 3, Ray Elgersma, who lives in an apartment within earshot of downtown Ottawa wrote to Christian Courier, “What I would like to hear from my Reformed Christian brothers and sisters who are participating in this protest (yes I saw some of your trucks) is how you reconcile your actions with the foundations of our faith, to love God and our neighbours above all, and to live the fruits of the Holy Spirit – namely, love, joy, patience, peace, kindness, understanding?” When I read these words to my cousin, he took a deep breath and gathered his thoughts.
“There was a sense that if this doesn’t work, we’re doomed,” explained Stronks. “If this doesn’t work the next stage involves prisons, gulags and guns. And nobody wants that stuff.” I could hear the sadness in his voice. “If this doesn’t help anything and we go into this tyranny, well at least we’ve done the absolute best that we can. We’ve exhausted all the other options.”
I hadn’t heard anyone say this before. Of course, I’d read Facebook comments making similar claims, but hearing it with my own ears from a familiar voice had a different impact. I wanted to tell him all the things I know to be true about the scientific process and the challenges of policy making. But I urged myself to just listen. When someone believes they’ve been lied to, pummelling them with more information is only a clanging gong.
Christians in the convoy
When I asked Daniel Perry about the involvement of Christians on the streets of Ottawa, he had a different take. “A lot of the language we’ve been seeing at this protest is not something that Christians would want to be associated with. There’s a lot of ‘F-Trudeau’ and some pretty hateful slang on signs.” From Perry’s perspective, the protest organizers mostly used Christian language to appeal to a bigger base. Likewise, the reliance on Christian crowdfunding site GiveSendGo was more about a convergence of right-wing values than shared faith.
But of course, there were Christians in the crowd, and as Elgersma had observed, some of them attend Christian Reformed Churches, Stronks included. I decided to investigate some of the Christian imagery cropping up around the convoy. Stronks’ Facebook profile picture features semi-trucks surging between towering waves, an illuminated cross in the background. The parallels to the Biblical exodus story are overt. The image has been shared at least 10,000 times on Facebook and incorporated into countless viral YouTube montages. An Alberta MLA’s tweet describing the image as “simply beautiful” received more than 1,700 comments.
The artist, Hannah Dieleman said the imagery came out of a time of fasting and prayer, and felt like a gift directly from the Holy Spirit. “It doesn’t even feel like it was my own idea. It just came to me and flowed out of my hands. . .I believe that any time in history that people have been released from oppression and slavery, God is present. He is the God of freedom.”
Hannah sees the convoy as a piece of a larger spiritual revival and talked about her own recent conversion to Christianity. “It was about a year into this pandemic, of believing and following the rules, that the veil lifted for me. That’s when I saw through the lies. . . That’s the moment I finally cried out to God, that’s where he met me, and carried me through.”
Can we overcome this?
I mentioned to Dieleman that most Christians I know would find the image she made offensive and she acknowledged that tension. Still she hopes that Christians can come together despite some of our deep differences. “God is on the side of unity, peace, love and exposing the darkness – shedding light on the truth,” Dieleman affirmed. “No matter which side you’re on, ‘they’ – the ‘others’ are not the enemy, Satan is. ‘We’ are not the truth, Jesus is.”
Perry also ended our conversation with words of hope for unity. “I think our country is at that point right now where there’s a lot of division, a lot of people are in pain, a lot of people are lost. So I think the church has an opportunity to listen and reach out to individuals and let them know that at this time there is a path forward.”
Now that the trucks are gone, it’s tempting to think this is all over. But I think we would do harm to our churches by ignoring the fears and hopes Stronks and Dieleman represent. If the church is a body, then amputation is not a good option. May we find emotional reserves in our pandemic-depleted tanks to listen well and uphold each other in prayer, no matter where we were when the trucks rolled in.
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