What you need to know about the 'freedom convoys' seen in Australia and across the world

Many countries across the world have seen protests against COVID-19 restrictions and mandates.

Thousands of people take part in a ‘Convoy to Canberra’ protest outside Parliament House in Canberra, Saturday, February 12, 2022.  (AAP Image/Lukas Coch) NO ARCHIVING

Thousands of people take part in a Convoy to Canberra protest outside Parliament House in Canberra, Saturday, 12 February, 2022. Source: AAP

Protests against vaccine mandates have brought parts of Canada to a standstill in recent weeks and similarly minded people have taken to the roads in Australia, France, and New Zealand.

Convoys of lorries have been driven into the capital Ottawa, a reaction initially sparked by a Canadian mandate requiring vaccination or quarantine for drivers crossing the border from the United States.

Similar scenes of frustration have been seen in the New Zealand capital Wellington, where the Convoy 2022 NZ protest has featured Canadian flags, a deluge of rain and as authorities tried to disperse the crowds from the lawns of their parliament.

Here, SBS News answers all the key questions about the protests.

Where have the protests been held?

Gatherings against COVID-19 vaccinations and restrictions have been relatively common since the pandemic started, but have taken a different turn in recent months.

The Freedom Convoy 2022 started on 22 January in Canada with hundreds of vehicles forming convoys from across the country and converging on Ottawa with a rally by the federal parliament on 29 January.

The convoy has gone on to spark similar gatherings with a convoy to Washington DC mooted for March, a solidarity protest moving towards London, and other gatherings in France, Belgium and Israel. In Australia, thousands attended a mass demonstration in Canberra last weekend.

Supporters wave Canadian flags on an overpass
A cross-country truck convoy protesting measures taken by authorities to curb the spread of COVID-19 and vaccine mandates travelled to Ottawa. Source: The Canadian Press

What do they want?

The Canadian convoy started as a protest by a group frustrated at Canada forcing truckers to be vaccinated to enter the country from the United States, or stay in quarantine for a fortnight after crossing the border.

The protest - which is opposed by the Canadian Trucking Alliance - has since morphed to include calls against increased public health measures and a carbon tax in Canada, with hundreds of lorries parked near Parliament Hill by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office.

In New Zealand, the focus has been an anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine mandate stance, protesters in France rallied against vaccination rules and a COVID pass, while Australia's Convoy to Canberra had 10,000 people who appeared to be a mix of anti-vaccine activists, pro-vaccine but anti-mandate campaigners, conspiracy theorists and people from the sovereign citizen movement.

What disruption have they caused?

The convoy protests in Canada have been the most disruptive by far, with a key link between the country and the US blockaded for six days. The closure of the Ambassador Bridge in Ontario, the busiest US-Canada border crossing for trade, created supply chain problems for much of Detroit's carmakers, leading Ford, General Motors and Toyota to cut production.

Similar demonstrations have caused more temporary disruption - traffic on the Champs-Elysees in Paris was held up during a demonstration there at the weekend - with other city centres partially blockaded in Europe as trucks rolled through.

Australia's protest was largely truckless but there were widespread disruptions in Canberra, and authorities made arrests after calling on protesters to leave a campsite in the city's north, while in Wellington there has been a camp set up by the Beehive (the executive wing of NZ parliament) as part of the movement.

Vehicles have also been a problem here, but it is mainly cars causing the problem with vehicles driven to Wellington being parked in the CBD causing issues for traffic flow. Protesters were told they could move their cars and park at the city's Sky Stadium for free, but few are said to have taken up the offer.

Protesters watch as a man spins the tire on his motorcycle in wet conditions as they demonstrate their opposition to coronavirus vaccine mandates at Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022.
The protest began in New Zealand when a convoy of trucks and cars drove to Parliament from around the nation. Source: New Zealand Herald/NZME

What have the protesters said?

Former Qantas pilot Graham Hood is among those who took part in the Canberra protest and, in a press conference alongside federal MP Craig Kelly, said the reopening of the borders was important to him.

Speaking last week, he told reporters Australia was "disenfranchised" and the convoy was made up of "everyday Australian people", adding: "I want to be able to go to Western Australia and see my kids and grandkids, that's important.

"I don't want the government meddling in the way that my children have to parent my grandchildren. We need borders open, we need to be a country again."

In Canada, protest organiser Tamara Lich has previously said they will not stay "one day longer than necessary", telling a press conference earlier this month: "We continue to see additional Canadians coming to Ottawa every day for peaceful demonstrations, we want to thank the hundreds of residents of Ottawa who have stepped forward to show their support."

What has the response been to them?

Mr Trudeau referred to the actions of protesters in Ottawa as "illegal and dangerous activities" as he announced the invoking of emergency powers in an attempt to halt the protests, adding: "The blockades are harming our economy and endangering public safety."

In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he understood the concerns of those protesting against anti-vaccination mandates, saying: "Australia is a free country and they have a right to protest. I would ask them to do that in a peaceful and respectful way."

Meanwhile, over the Tasman, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said there was "some kind of imported form of protest" and "I think we all want them to leave." There, campaigners have been bombarded with the Macarena, Barry Manilow's greatest hits, Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On and a number of vaccine messages in an attempt to get them to leave.

Anti-mandate protesters, also known as Freedom Convoy, rally at Ontario's Queen's Park in Toronto to oppose anti-mandates imposed by the government.Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on February 12, 2022. (Photo by Dominic Chan/Sipa USA)
Anti-mandate protesters, also known as Freedom Convoy, rally at Ontario's Queen's Park in Toronto Source: Dominic Chan/Sipa USA

Why is this happening now?

Katie Attwell, associate professor at the University of Western Australia and an expert in vaccination policy, told SBS News the groups have "really stepped up their activity when faced with consequences for vaccine refusal".

She added: "It's one thing to be against vaccination, but if you can go about your business, then you're not going to be as mobilised. When you can no longer go about your business, when you might be losing your job, or not able to enter into certain public spaces, then, of course, that's going to galvanise people.

"These are groups that I think will remain militant for as long as they remain facing consequences for their non-vaccination."

A person walks among trucks flying Canadian flags
A protest against COVID-19 measures has grown into a broader anti-government protest. Source: The Canadian Press

Why convoys specifically?

Dr Attwell said vehicular protests create "an impression of something bigger than it actually is in terms of numbers and size" and that there are "global connections between groups and sharing ideas".

She added: "It's not just the importation of someone else's strategy. It's being involved and connected to what other groups are doing.

"Certainly groups are communicating and sharing strategies."

6 min read
Published 16 February 2022 at 6:16am, updated 22 February 2022 at 6:54pm
By Alexander Britton
Source: SBS News