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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is questioned by reporters as he returns to the council floor at city hall in Toronto on Jan. 30, 2014.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

It all began with Rob Ford, this tolerance for a Canadian populism that is uncouth, unruly and suspicious of facts, government and regulations. Before the U.S. embraced Trump, Toronto embraced Rob Ford, a right-wing, for-the-people populist whose train-wreck term as mayor ended, and he passed away, but his influence as a symbolic Canadian figure did not.

What we’re seeing in Ottawa is a pack of Ford-type hosers holding the city hostage. We’re seeing hoser-extremism and, somehow that extremism has become normalized. Some embrace it, the majority are wary of it and the media, especially TV, doesn’t know what to do with it.

Ford did a performative hoser routine. Rumpled, inarticulate and full of bluster, he got really mad about “the gravy train” at city hall in Toronto. Sometimes this gravy train merely amounted to a tray of sandwiches arriving when councillors sat late into the evening. He loathed reporters, shouted at them, blocked the access of some of them and, at the same time, liked making a show of himself on TV. This ringing any bells in the matter of the Ottawa situation?

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We struggle with the term “hoser” these days. But let’s say this – the hoser figure has evolved since Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas played Bob and Doug McKenzie on SCTV’s The Great White North segments all those years ago. Back then, they simultaneously celebrated and mocked a heightened Canadian cliché of dumb loutishness by guys in parkas, plaid shirts and toques, to our national delight. (The online Canadian Encyclopedia has an excellent entry on this matter.) Since then, the figure has morphed through Red Green and Trailer Park Boys into a more unsettling national type, seen especially in boorish incarnations such as Don Cherry and Rob Ford.

Bob and Doug McKenzie were TV constructs, an emanation of the popular culture that stuck in the public imagination, and then the world changed. While Bob and Doug were lovable, the newer incarnations can be troubling. But we, and TV coverage in general, are reluctant to see beyond that lovable quality. Those Conservative politicians who pander to hoser-extremism want the touch of authenticity that comes with consorting with lovable hosers.

But aren’t many of these protesters merely in costume? Look long enough at the coverage across various media and under the costumes of parka, plaid shirts and toques you’ll find extremism; white-supremacists, anti-Semitism and misogyny.

What’s happening in Ottawa is a sinister costume party; it’s malevolent theatre, and the trick being played in this theatre is the visual trick of making the truckers and pretend-truckers seem like the majority of Canadians. They’re no such thing. Any more than Bob and Doug were ever the majority of Canadians.

Gas cans line the street in front of Parliament Hill as truckers and supporters continue to protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates in Ottawa on Feb. 9.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

It is the internet that changed everything, of course. Imagine Bob and Doug McKenzie existing in the cacophony of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and right-wing blogging. They would be as the Ottawa protesters are: petulant, narcissistic and in-denial, thriving in that near-medieval world of babble, rumour and misunderstanding. They want to unseat an elected government for heaven’s sake, based on wild conspiracy theories, hatred and spite.

It’s time we recognized this. The Ottawa protesters present themselves as mainstream, using an iconography that’s mere construct. Bob and Doug had, as props, a map of Canada, bottled beers and a frying pan for the bacon. Among many Ottawa protesters the props are Confederate flags, Trump flags, Nazi swastikas and handwritten signs with delusional antisemitic assertions about vaccine mandates.

On TV we see reporters and camera people being harassed while doing their jobs. Their jobs are to present images and attempt a coherent narrative. Naturally, the camera is drawn to the familiar iconography and, visually, this means presenting the protesters as regular folks merely fed-up with vaccine mandates. It’s when the TV journalists are screamed at, abused and jostled, you realize we’re not looking at dopey, dozy Bob and Doug any more.

Think back to the time that the now-disgraced Don Cherry introduced Ford at his swearing-in ceremony, with a rant about bicycle-riding “left-wing pinkos,” and an assertion that Ford represented “lunch-pail, blue-collar people.” Cherry, a millionaire, was talking about a millionaire professional politician who faked being a hoser. It was a few years before everybody saw through the image, thanks mainly to Ford’s appalling personal behaviour. How long before everybody sees though the Ottawa protests for the fakery they are?

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