The 2022 Freedom Convoy in Ottawa, Canada, raises questions about the meaning and tactics of decolonial abolition. To call for the police of a colonial state to crack down on unruly settlers on stolen Indigenous land is both hypocritical and ineffective. And yet, it isn't clear how to organize effective grassroots resistance against a well‐funded group of possibly armed right‐wing protesters in trucks. This essay situates the Freedom Convoy in the longer durée of capitalist extraction and colonial state violence in so‐called Canada, arguing that the convoy was not an anomaly but an expression of the global logic of carceral racial capitalism. It then engages with teachings shared by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson about the beaver's practice of building dams that sustain life and, in some cases, threaten it. If we understand Canada as both a liberal democracy and a “criminal empire” willing to destroy the earth and the Indigenous nations that care for it, then Robyn Maynard is right: abolition means Land Back. The question for decolonial abolitionists then becomes not just how to shut down prisons or dislodge right‐wing occupations, but rather how to staunch the flows of colonial racial capitalism, deepening pools that support diverse forms of life.
In early 2022, hundreds of right-wing activists got in their trucks and drove to Ottawa, the capital of so-called Canada, and occupied the city for almost four weeks straight. They called themselves the Freedom Convoy. They were fed up with Covid mandates and angry about government mismanagement of the pandemic. They were also fired up about “political Islam,” the “Great Replacement,” carbon taxes, and Western Canadian separatism (or Wexit). Between January 22 and February 21, 2022, thousands more people would join the convoy, some in spite of the right-wing agenda, others because of it.
Freedom looked like different things to different people in different moments of the convoy. It looked like bouncy castles and hot tubs and bonfires in the street. It looked like Confederate flags and swastikas. It looked like honking horns and fake Indigenous drum circles and singing “O Canada” in the face of an arresting officer. It looked like the righteous indignation of white people who were sick and tired of being told what to do, standing up to fight for their human right to eat in restaurants and play indoor sports.
Not everyone felt so free, though. BIPOC residents reported being harassed and assaulted by convoy protesters. The incessant honking and fumes from idling trucks made everyday life a nightmare for people and pets. Some Ottawa residents demanded that police “do their job” and forcibly clear the occupation; some filed a class action lawsuit against convoy organizers because of the noise; and some organized counter demos to reclaim their neighborhoods and block weekend convoy enthusiasts from joining the party.
Between the calls to Make Canada Great Again and to Make Ottawa Boring Again, my students and I tried to make sense of what was happening, and what a decolonial abolitionist response to the convoy might look like. It was clear that while the organizers framed the occupation as a peaceful, family-friendly event to celebrate freedom and human rights, they were also motivated by a toxic blend of white supremacist, Islamophobic, anti-immigration, settler nativist, and pro-pipeline politics and conspiracy theories. A lot of this is just a remix of Trumpist memes and themes. But there's also a very specific history driving both the occupation of Ottawa and the colonization of Canadian psychic space.
The Freedom Convoy grew out of Yellow Vests Canada, a spin-off of the French Yellow Vest movement that blended their opposition to carbon taxes with a rejection of “foreign oil” from Muslim countries in the Middle East and a celebration of “ethical oil” from Alberta (Tewksbury 2021). Ethical oil is the brainchild of Ezra Levant, who also runs a far-right media outlet called Rebel News. It's a rebranding of the tar sands mega-project that National Geographic calls “the world's most destructive oil operation” (Leahy 2019), built on Cree, Dene, and Métis land around Fort McMurray. This is where my dad worked as a crane operator for most of my life growing up. The tailing ponds are so large around Fort Mac, they can be seen from outer space (Leahy 2019; Preston 2017: 14). Tens of thousands of “temporary foreign workers” (TFWs) are employed to work in the oil patch and related service industries, then expelled from the country when they're no longer needed (Preston 2017: 15). Downstream from the oil fields, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation report high rates of cancer, including a rare form of bile duct cancer (Lawrynuik 2019; Preston 2013: 54). And man camps in the oil and gas industry are notorious as sites of sexual violence against Indigenous women, contributing to what the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls calls a “deliberate, often covert campaign of genocide” (National Inquiry 2019: 5; see also 584–86). In other words, ethical oil is a thick slurry of violence marketed as a peaceful alternative to Islamic “Conflict Oil regimes” who “support terrorism” and violate the human rights that Canadians hold so dear (qtd. in Preston 2013: 53).
In 2019, Yellow Vesters joined with other pro-pipeliners to organize a truck convoy to Ottawa called United We Roll, which functioned as a trial balloon for the 2022 Freedom Convoy. One of the ironies of this moment is that the federal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whom right-wingers like to mock as a treasonous coward and pedophile, used public money to keep the TransMountain pipeline project alive in 2018, in the face of ongoing opposition from Indigenous nations, environmental groups, and the BC provincial government. For over a decade, the RCMP has run surveillance programs targeting Indigenous peoples and environmentalists as potential threats to “critical infrastructure” such as pipelines (Preston 2013: 51–53; see also Bosworth and Chua 2021: 9–11). It would be hard to find a liberal government more open to oil and gas development and pipeline expansion.
Given this context, what's an abolitionist to do when a revanchist petrostate movement rolls into town and occupies your capital city, celebrating freedom and demanding the end of public health mandates in the midst of a global pandemic? And what does a situation like this teach us about the meaning of abolition?
On one hand, it makes no sense from a decolonial abolitionist perspective to call for the police of a settler state to crack down on unruly settlers for the sake of restoring peace, order, and good government on stolen Indigenous land. This is precisely the tag-team operation that sustains settler colonial logics: the state upholds “the rule of law” while settlers push the boundaries of legal occupation on the ground. In the end, both sides of the settler equation benefit from the way internal squabbles naturalize the settler occupation of Indigenous land as “our streets.”
On the other hand, it isn't clear how to organize effective grassroots resistance against a well-funded group of possibly armed right-wing protesters in large vehicles who decide to occupy a small, liberal city in the middle of winter, and very quickly set up a military-style supply chain of fuel, food, and entertainment to keep them going, thanks in large part to a friendly response from local police (at least in the first few weeks). And even when people do take matters into their own hands, as in the Battle of Billings Bridge, where Ottawa residents came together in −22 °C weather to confront convoy weekenders on the ground, the problem of “whose streets” does not magically dissolve.
Whether you rely on the police or not, the fact remains that the city of Ottawa is built on unceded Algonquin Anishinaabe territory. And so, even if grassroots efforts were successful in ousting the settlers who illegally occupied the city of Ottawa for three weeks, the settlers who have illegally occupied these Indigenous lands for over three hundred years would still remain. This dilemma recalls the “ethic of incommensurability” between abolition and decolonization that Tuck and Yang identify as both a problem and a possibility for radical politics (2012: 29–36). Every prison, jail, and detention center could be shut down in so-called Canada, and the country would still remain a settler colony on a patchwork of unceded, purchased, and treaty land. Every police force could be defunded and abolished, and settlers could still informally police Indigenous peoples and extract wealth from Indigenous lands.
But this is precisely the lesson of the Ottawa occupation: there can be no meaningful abolition without decolonization and Indigenous resurgence. This does not necessarily mean that every settler leaves Turtle Island, although it does not rule it out. Either way, abolitionist movements must go beyond dismantling carceral institutions, and even beyond dismantling the state. We must also care for the land upon which prisons and pipelines, but also community gardens and yoga studios, are constructed.
As Robyn Maynard argues, “One opposite of policing is Land Back, which is, after all, an end to the imposition of private property regimes and the carceral technologies developed to enforce them” (Maynard and Simpson 2022: 204). Before colonial invasion, Indigenous peoples on what the Algonquin and Haudenosaunee call Turtle Island kept each other safe and held each other accountable without prisons or police. This means that a world without prisons is not just a utopian future to be imagined here, but a plurality of practices and legal orders to be remembered and reimagined. White settlers like myself are not keepers of these memories, but we can play a role in helping the colonial-carceral world to die so that other, more life-giving worlds may flourish (Oliveira 2021). Part of this process involves un-learning the history of the death-dealing world we have inherited and continue to inhabit.
A Canadian Heritage Minute
It all began with the beaver. Europeans admired their waterproof pelts, so they killed most of them, then crossed the Atlantic looking for more. The French were first off the mark, but the English were not far behind. In 1670, King Charles II granted the Hudson's Bay Company exclusive trading rights on 1.5 million square kilometers of Indigenous land in what is now known as Canada, and he appointed his cousin Rupert as governor of this land. The position of governor was a strange combination of CEO and political leader, empowered to “enact any laws and regulations not repugnant to the laws of England,” as long they increased the flow of beaver pelts to Europe, and guns, wool, and other manufactured goods to Rupert's Land (Smandych and Linden 1996: 21). The Hudson's Bay Company was, in effect, a venture capitalist enterprise attached to an increasingly elaborate security force. It made trade deals with Indigenous nations, invented its own currency called the “made beaver,” and in time even established its own police force and court system in the Red River settlement (Baker 1999).
The first penitentiary in Canada was built in 1835 on Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee territory in Katarokwi/Kingston, where I now teach. A hundred acres of land north of the prison became a farm where prisoners grew food for their own consumption and fertilized with their own waste. They dug limestone out of quarries and used the stone to build Canada's first asylum for the “criminally insane” and, decades later, the first prison for women. Today, the university's football stadium sits in the former prison quarry and the prison for women is being converted into luxury condos. Kingston Penitentiary is up for grabs as a film set and potential yacht club.
These are just a few of the flows and accumulations that eventually morphed into the Canada whose greatness the Freedom Convoy was hell-bent on remaking: a massive fur warehouse with an ad hoc assemblage of governors, constables, and carceral enclosures to stabilize trade relations and secure what would later be called the “critical infrastructure” of global capitalism. But there's more to the story than this.
In 1869, the newly repackaged Dominion of Canada purchased Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company and began clearing the plains for agriculture, railways, resource extraction, and settlement. Just a few years later in 1873, Canada's first police force, the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP), was created to control Indigenous peoples on their own lands and secure territory for further development. This included forcing open a corridor for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway and operating an illegal pass system to control the movement of First Nations people off-reserve.
None of this capitalist-colonial violence went uncontested. The Red River Rebellions and North-West Rebellion are just two examples of large-scale coordinated resistance by Métis and Plains Indigenous nations against the corporation-turned-nation-state of Canada. But this resistance was met by an increasingly well-armed and tightly organized carceral apparatus. In 1885, Métis leader Louis Riel was executed for treason against the Crown in Regina, and less than two weeks later, six Cree and two Assiniboine leaders were executed in Battleford. This was the largest mass execution in Canadian history. Prime Minister John A. MacDonald explained: “The executions of the Indians . . . ought to convince the Red Man that the White Man governs” (qtd. in Monaghan 2013: 504). Chiefs Big Bear and Poundmaker were also convicted of treason and incarcerated at the newly built Stony Mountain Penitentiary in Manitoba, a province that Riel had helped to found.
Today, almost 150 years after the creation of the NWMP, Indigenous women make up 50 percent of the population in federal prisons for women, and just 5 percent of the overall population. Already in 1989, the Aboriginal Women's Caucus saw this as a structural feature of the settler state: “All Aboriginal, First Nations citizens are in conflict with the law . . . [insofar as they are subject to] a system of laws to which we have never consented” (qtd. in Nichols 2014: 453).
The same RCMP force that was empowered to use “lethal overwatch” in 2019 against Wet'suwet'en matriarchs defending their unceded land against a gas pipeline (Dhillon and Parrish 2019) offered handshakes and hugs to white protesters in 2022 after an eighteen-day blockade of the Alberta-Montana border connected to the Freedom Convoy. Four of these white protesters were arrested for conspiring to murder RCMP officers, and a cache of guns, ammunition, a machete, and body armor with the Diagolon insignia were seized from their trucks (National Post staff 2022).
One of the lessons of the convoy—we could miss it if we focus too narrowly on those three weeks of honking in Ottawa—is that Canada has always been a colonial resource extraction project backed up by state violence, from the early days of the fur trade to the clear-cuts, agribusiness, mines, and oil fields of the settler colony today (Pasternak 2022). For over three hundred years, carceral power in so-called Canada has been driven by racial capitalism. The truck convoy is just a particularly obnoxious expression of a more basic logic of extraction and destruction that crisscrosses not only the continent but the globe.
So what would it take to dismantle this “criminal empire” (Stark 2016)? Let the beaver be our guide.
Learning from the Beaver
In her 2020 lecture, “A Short History of the Blockade,” Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson reflects on the world-building power of Indigenous blockades against “the colonial machinery of elimination,” which includes everything from police and prisons to universities and museums (2021: 4). Writing in support of the Wet'suwet'en people's refusal of a gas pipeline on their unceded land and the many solidarity actions that #ShutDownCanada for three weeks in February 2020, Simpson calls blockades “both a refusal and an affirmation. An affirmation of a different political economy. A world built upon a different set of relationships and ethics. An affirmation of life” (56).
The Freedom Convoy demonstrated loud and clear that the tactic of the blockade could be appropriated for settler world-building projects. But it also challenges us as decolonial abolitionists to reclaim the tactic of generative refusal, following the teachings of the beaver, or Amik, who builds “dams that create deep pools and channels that don't freeze, creating winter worlds” that sustain multiple forms of life rather than securitizing its own self-enclosed domain (14). Simpson asks:
And who is the first back after a fire to start the regeneration makework?
Amik is a world builder.
Amik is the one that brings the water.
Amik is the one that brings forth more life.
Amik is the one that works continuously with water and land and plant and animal nations and consent and diplomacy to create worlds, to create shared worlds. (15)
Simpson contrasts the life-giving infrastructure of a beaver dam with the critical (read: colonial capitalist) infrastructure of the Trent Severn Waterway, which channels waters between Chi-Nibish (Lake Ontario) and Odawa Wiikwwedong (Georgian Bay) into a canal system to support industrial development. While the Trent Severn Waterway is a simple negation, “an ending of life” (32), the beaver dam is “both a negation and an affirmation” (20).
This is not to say that Amik is incapable of doing wrong or harming others, whether by accident or on purpose. Simpson shares a story of the Giant Beaver who once roamed the earth, wrecking havoc for Nokomis and their grandchild Nanabush. Giant Amik builds a giant dam that raises the water levels between Gichi Gaming (Lake Superior) and Odawa Gaming (Lake Huron). In Simpson's version of the story, Nokomis and Nanabush hack into Amik's social media accounts and start deleting their posts until Amik comes crashing into their encampment between the lakes. A fight ensues for two days and nights, and in the end Amik bursts through their own dam to escape, releasing the water and creating thirty thousand islands with the wreckage of the dam (Simpson 2021: 21–3). And so, a giant dam that once threatened to destroy a campsite creates thirty thousand new dwelling places for two-legged and four-legged creatures through its generative destruction. After the battle, Giant Beaver runs off to the ocean, but Nanabush calls them back and invites them to what we might now call a community accountability process. Eventually, they learn “to use their beaver skills for good,” thanks to “a little patience, a little resistance, some community, and a considerable reduction in size to the Amik we know and love today” (23).
This story of the Giant Beaver reminds us that a world without prisons or police is not a world where nothing harmful can happen, but rather a place where harm, accountability, and repair are all part of a process of learning how to share the earth and build worlds with others. The destructive activities of Giant Amik are neither tolerated nor demonized, but rather scaled down to the point where they may support life rather than undermining it.
This is not to say that the Freedom Convoy or the tar sands of Fort McMurray could become life-giving if they were scaled down and befriended by a twenty-first-century Nanabush. Some projects are just incommensurable with decolonial abolition—with life itself. Simpson's story doesn't tell us whether or not to call the cops on big rig blockaders, although she does “give thanks to Nokomis and Nanabush for not arresting Giant Beaver, destroying the blockade, and going back to business as usual” (32). A part of me also wonders what might happen if Giant Beaver kept their size but used their mighty tail to bust up pipelines and convoys with their new friends.
If we understand Canada as both a liberal democracy committed to the rule of law and—precisely as such—a “criminal empire” (Stark 2016) willing to destroy the earth along with the Indigenous nations who care for it, then Robyn Maynard is right: Abolition means Land Back. The question for decolonial abolitionists then becomes not just how to shut down this particular institution or dislodge that annoying right-wing occupation, but rather how to work together to stanch the flows of colonial racial capitalism, deepening pools that support diverse forms of life and busting up blockages of accumulated wealth to create islands of refuge for sharing the earth.
Thank you to Marquis Bey, Bettina Bergo, Melissa Folk, Sheena Hoszko, and Adele Perry for feedback on this essay.