North American popular culture depicts truckers as alpha males, road warriors, all-American bearded white men. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Hollywood movie showcasing a South Asian long-haul trucker, or a country song devoted to the heartaches of the ever-growing immigrant trucking community.
Maybe that’s why it’s difficult to wrap our heads around the fact that 1 in 5 Canadian truckers is South Asian. In Vancouver and Toronto, South Asian truckers account for nearly 50 percent — and that number is poised to increase in the coming years. In the United States, 60 percent of truckers are white, but as America’s shortage of truck drivers deepens — America is short of 80,000 truckers — Indian Americans are making necessary inroads in the industry.
On Jan. 29, hundreds of truckers from across Canada made their way to Ottawa to protest the government’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, despite the fact that almost 90 percent of truckers in Canada are already vaccinated. The protests have expanded to blockades at busy routes between the United States and Canada, disrupting supply chains of automobile companies.
Despite making up at least 20 percent of the Canadian trucking community, South Asian truckers are a rare sight at the “Freedom Convoy” in the capital. If the protestors’ demands are inclusive and urgent for all truckers, why haven’t the South Asians stepped up?
When I spoke this week to Armaghan Afghan, a 34-year-old Pakistani Canadian truck driver, he was halfway through his 5.5-hour journey from Toronto to Ottawa. But Afghan was not driving to Ottawa to join the protest. “Why would I, or the majority of the trucking industry, join the protesters when we don’t agree with their demands? The rally is for anti-vaxxers and right-wingers,” he said. “And the vast majority of truckers are vaccinated.”
Data from the Canadian Trucking Alliance support Afghan’s assertion, showing that truckers and their families were vaccinated early on, as do others I talked to in the industry. Disha Singh, who works as a safety manager at a trucking and logistics company in Ontario, told me that the majority of the workers at Sunrise Freight Systems are South Asian and vaccinated. “Our drivers and workers simply don’t care about the demand not to vaccinate. The only conversation we are having about the rally is that its caused delays and this has been difficult for the drivers,” she said. Drivers don’t earn money for the hours they are stuck in traffic.
Largely lost in the protests are the Canadian trucking industry’s valid and urgent issues, many of which also hold true for America’s truckers. According to Trucking HR Canada, the country faces a shortage of 20,000 drivers. Less than 3 percent of the industry is made up of women. Millennials aren’t interested in joining the trucking business. Last December the industry got together under the umbrella of the Canadian Trucking Alliance to plan a social media campaign to attract a young and diverse set of workers. Millions of dollars were invested; now it seems that much of that effort has been wasted.
“I wish we were talking about congested highways, road safety, the lack of parking spaces, the small number of border officers, and the dearth of restrooms for truckers,” said Manan Gupta, head of Road Today, a magazine devoted to the South Asian trucking community. “I wish we were talking about how we can pay truckers better, on time, and attract millennials to our industry.” Gupta lamented that instead of talking about how most of the Northern Highways are single-lane roads, or focusing on immigration reforms for South Asian truckers, or discussing vulnerable immigrants who get trapped in extremely abusive working conditions, the protesters in Ottawa are focused on vaccinations, a non-issue in his opinion.
Afghan brought up a point that I as a South Asian immigrant to North America often think about. He asked, “How can an immigrant be part of a movement? Immigrants like to lay low; they only do what they must to make a living.” I see where he is coming from, playing the role of the model minority is what people expect from South Asians.
But the recent history of South Asian truckers tells a different story. Since an increasing number of South Asians have found themselves in the industry, time and again they have protested for their rights. Their most common concern is delayed or unpaid wages — a problem that seems rampant among immigrant drivers, who are susceptible to signing dodgy work contracts and have less access to justice.
Additionally, in 2021 when farmers across the Indian Punjab province were demanding the abolition of three bills that would drive them to starvation, the Indian diaspora in Canada spoke loudly and clearly in their favor. Trucks in Canada are still decorated with stickers that read “No farmers, No food,” and “Farmers Feed Families.”
The Freedom Convoy continues to pick up steam, and the demands have evolved: Now some protesters are calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; there are vague rallying cries for “truth and freedom;” American right-wing extremists have joined in; and the protests are being described as Canada’s Jan. 6 moment. American truckers are making videos in support of the rally, and a “People’s Convoy” from California to Washington, D.C., is being planned for next month.
This is a moment for truckers across North America; they have the microphone. But the stepping back of major chunks of the industry such as South Asians is ominous and telling: If the protest isn’t inclusive, if it is not focused on making truckers’ lives easier and subsequently smoothing the fissures in the global supply chain, the rally will lose steam and the truckers will be back on the road without having achieved anything at all.
Maham Javaid is the 2022 Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow at the International Women’s Media Foundation and a research fellow at MIT’s Center for International Studies.