At the end of 2021, both the United States and Canada announced that they would require truck drivers entering each country to be fully vaccinated. Canada began enforcing this measure on January 15th, 2022, and the United States followed suit a week later. On January 28th, a convoy of truck drivers entered Ottawa after making their way across Ontario, protesting this vaccine requirement. Occupying the capital for three weeks, the protesters, calling themselves the “Freedom Convoy,” defined their ultimate aim as forcing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to repeal the vaccine mandate that they argue is a restriction of their freedom as Canadian citizens. In a statement posted on Facebook, protesters assert that Trudeau is undermining the liberties granted to Canadians in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms through vaccine mandates.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms strives to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of Canadians, and firmly entrenches liberal democracy as the ruling system of the land. Sections 2-5 of the Charter guarantee the right to vote, periodic elections, and freedom of political expression and association. Section 15 establishes equal protection for all under the law, an essential tenet of a democratic polity. The introduction to the Charter itself declares Canada a “free and democratic society,” and posits the ensuing rights and freedoms as essential and sufficient to ensure this freedom and democracy. Prime Minister Trudeau was elected and enacted pandemic policies pursuant to the processes laid out in the Charter, while protesters insist that his actions undermine the rights afforded to Canadians, thus setting up a Charter-based showdown between the federal government and protesters over the meaning of freedom and democracy’s role in it.
Positioning themselves as defenders of freedom of the masses against an overreaching elite government, the truckers, if unintentionally, draw on Austrian political theorist Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of democratic elitism. Schumpeter defines an elitist democracy as a system of governance where elites compete through elections for the right to rule the populace. Rather than coming from the masses, leaders are drawn from a small circle of elites who overlap in the educational, economic, and social sectors, and continue to concentrate and pass down power within this tight circle. Thus, this power elite controls the goals and methods of policymaking without true representation of the masses.
Schumpeter argues that the will of the people is illusory, and it is simply an irrational and unstable reflection of the power elite’s influence. Schumpeter posits democracy as simply a method of elites competing for power to make decisions. Rather than a new form of governance, Schumpeter sees democracy as a continuation of elite rule, just with a new method of choosing which elites will rule. This reconceptualization threatens the central rhetorical premise of democracy, which is its supposed commitment to freedom and egalitarianism. While democracy is frequently critiqued in academic circles, the concept of the “elite” who do not do anything for “us” has been co-opted by a rising tide of right-wing anti-democratic activists, both in Canada and across the world. The actions of the governing elite have taken on tremendous practical importance in the collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and when paired with the nascent populism rising on the right, have become an ideological lightning rod in the progression of Canadian democracy.
Holding degrees from two of the country’s most prestigious institutions, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau contrasts heavily with the mostly uneducated blue-collar truck drivers that form the public face of the recent protests. Trudeau’s COVID response has relied heavily on bureaucratic measures that have imposed stringent costs on those who reject the guidance of science and government, excluding the unvaccinated from transport and large swaths of the public sphere. The catalyst of the trucker protests, the requirement that Canadian truckers crossing back from the United States be vaccinated, represents the culmination of two years of pandemic policies that have curtailed individual freedoms in pursuit of public health goals. In their Facebook statement, the protesters utilize populist rhetoric, drawing a separation between politicians and the people, contending that it’s time to remind politicians that they work for the people. From the perspective of protesters, the requirement that truckers be vaccinated to cross the border imperils the economic livelihoods of those working in the industry, and represents top-down dictum from bureaucrats who are out of touch with the economic and social realities of their constituencies. Thus, the explosive reaction to a policy that affects a relatively miniscule proportion of the Canadian population draws its roots in ongoing anti-elite backlash in Canada and across the world.
Schumpeter, having lived through the collapses of Austria-Hungary and Weimar Germany, possessed an understandably negative view of democracy as a whole. However, his focus on the illusory nature of the masses’ power, and emphasis on the continued control of elites, can be utilized to create a more perfect democracy in Canada. 66% of Canadian citizens are satisfied with the state of their democracy, a satisfaction level behind only Sweden and New Zealand, despite punditry surrounding the so-called downfall of democracy based on a miniscule percentage of very loud anti democrats. Schumpeter’s critique of democracy based on its elitism can open the door to policy solutions that can address the role of the power elite and uplift those outside of the elite into positions of power. While Schumpeter may argue that such policy solutions would not pass if not supported by elite interests, even in such an aristocratic democracy, politicians must compete for votes from ordinary people. Thus, while the trucker protests thrust into the spotlight the elitism of the Canadian government, Schumpeter’s analysis of elite democracy provides a stepping-off point to reform Canadian democracy and increase the influence of the masses.
Edited by Victorian Sirveaux
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
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