COLUMN: We all love Freedom. Why have Canadians become tribal about it?
No person nor party can claim only it represents the true meaning of liberty and freedom, and anyone who is truly serious about the words needs to take time to read about democracy in history before entering into conversation about the concepts. Not a lot of time but at least a day of deep reading.
Freedom is not what a teen thinks it is when they tell parents and teachers to stop “bossing” them around. “Holding me down, turning me round, filling me up with their rules!” (John Lennon, It’s Getting Better). But that is the juvenile understanding of liberty that some Ottawa protestors are demonstrating.
Conservatism in Canada
“Listen to the other side, not just the echoes from your own tribe.” With those words, Erin O’Toole graciously departs as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada after failing to move the party toward the centre on issues like gun laws, climate change, and vaccines.
Personally, I would like it if Maxime Bernier returns to the Conservative Party and becomes leader, merging his People’s Party with Conservatives. Bernier once came quite close to winning the party leadership but that was two leaders ago. A win for him now would mean defining what Canadian conservatism is in 2022 – something not clear to many voters: if it means to be a Canadian mutation of US Republican-party values, should we not demand to know?
Candace Bergen, the interim Conservative leader, is to the right of O’Toole. This is the woman who wore a “Make America Great Again” hat and has never said why. It is fair to ask why a Canadian conservative so high-profile in the public eye would do that.
For a very recent essay on conservatism from Canada’s right-wing press, see here
The party is a mess. The 2003 merger of the upstart Reform/Canadian Alliance with the century-old “Progressive” Conservatives (– the adjective, singnificantly, would be dropped by Stephen Harper — ) engineered by Harper and Peter McKay, is not demonstrating signs it will endure, in my opinion. And the re-division of this party into its constituent parts might well be a good thing for our politics… although the likely result would be to make the Liberal Party more unassailable as the “natural governing party.”
[A decent summary account of the conservative merger can be found here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unite_the_Right_(Canada)]
Liberalism in Canada
The party whose name references the world liberty, the Liberal Party, has no such problem of being understood by Canadians, for it has exercised government power for so long the electorate knows what to expect from it. It is the party best at co-opting all sorts of political tendencies under its “big tent” strategy, and only the meaning of the Bloc Quebecois party is more easily understood.
Here’s a historical tid-bit Canadians should appreciate: the party of Sir John A. Macdonald in the 1850’s when “Canada” was a British colony uniting Ontario and Quebec, was called the Liberal Conservatives. So, one sees, labels do not necessarily tell a voter very much useful about a party.
I joined the federal Liberals once only in my life, to ensure Justin Trudeau got my vote at their 2013 leadership contest, and when he went on to defeat Stephen Harper, that was mission accomplished as far as I was concerned. After that, I left the party, and went leftward as was my lifelong habit.
Who knows Freedom best? Who knows what it truly is for all of us?
“Freedom!” and “no vaccine mandates!” are phrases at present very much part of one tribe’s rhetoric in our politics of pandemic discourse. They call themselve patriots also. And one slogan that we will not see them using is this one, “This is What Democracy Looks Like!” That phrase might seem to be harmonious with what the Freedom tribe wants to say about itself, but the words are very much part of the rhetorical arsenal of the political left and the social justice warriors.
See for example, this view from a BC news source: https://www.pentictonwesternnews.com/opinion/this-is-what-democracy-looks-like/
I’m trying to take O’Toole’s advice. I address both tribes of our national polarity in the questions arising from the pandemic. Each tribe stoops to name-calling. I want to take some heat out of the discourse. But full disclosure: I’m triply vaccinated and I am not convinced the health authorities who advised my choice are making mistakes, manipulated, or malevolent, as anti-vaccination people are convinced. I feel pained for the healthcare workers who see death and fear daily due to Covid-19.
I’m both a leftist where socialist policy is concerned, and a civil-libertarian who endorses all our liberties in Canada’s Charter of Rights. “Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects our right to “life, liberty, and security of the person.” It guarantees our legal rights, which protect our personal autonomy and bodily integrity from laws or actions by the government that violate those rights.” [see https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/csj-sjc/rfc-dlc/ccrf-ccdl/check/art7.html ]
People have the right to refuse a vaccine. Let Canada’s Supreme Court decide the implications of the Constitution and Charter. I accept that the rule of law and my freedom under law imposes limitations on my liberty to do as I please. Living in society is absolutely founded upon accepting self-discipline.
The Vaccinated Tribe (my folk)
Vaccinated people are extreme in contempt and disdain toward those refusing vaccination. I made my choice — but won’t brand the unvaccinated as manifestly unintelligent and socially-irresponsible. We vaccinated trust “majority consensus opinion” among scientists justifying our choice; we’re not ourselves scientists but believe in democracy, freedom of information, health authorities. The current situation of demonstrations, convoys, and street actions by the unvaccinated, are provoking rage and reaction from those who vaccinate. I wish to drain the rage and self-righteousness from “my tribe.”
The self-righteousness most observable to me in my folk is their certainty they care more about others and that the unvaccinated do not. The unvaccinated are accused of vile irresponsibility for the health of the vulnerable and for overtaxing our healthcare systems.
The Unvaccinated Tribe (some of my close family)
The Freedom! protestors care about health too, but assess risk and necessity in different manner. And they claim they care for my freedom and want to protect it for me and my children. For them, the paradigm of losing freedom for security, caving into fear, is how China has run its pandemic strategy.
When I saw an anti-vaccination poster on a convoy truck, it made me think about rights. “My rights do not end where your fear begins!” I get it. Some fears are unreasonable and the frightened can indeed ask for too much security by adopting China-like totalitarian controls on our behaviour and actions.
Unvaccinated people are extreme in scornfulness and disgust with vaccinated “sheeple” who accept mandates/passports and surrender their freedom to corrupted and untrustworthy government authorities. They’re not better scientifically-educated than vaccinated citizens but insist they’re also vindicated by sound, reputable science. That argument is best conducted by scientists, not you and I.
For myself, I am sure that there has not been nearly-enough airing of the sharp debate among scientists around good public policy in health measures, and that we are intelligent enough to be exposed to the disagreements rather than have a consensus view propagated too soon. I think we all should know what the Great Barrington Declaration is. More of us should know the name of Dr. Norman Doidge as we know the names of Teresa Tam, Bonnie Henry, and Anthony Fauci.
But actions speak loudest. I took the jab three times. Loved ones in my family did not and got mildly sick and still will not. I am around them constantly. I am so far never ill.
Government, policy, consequences: the unequal shares of suffering
Also, governments have been miserably poor at making the negative effects of their health measures fall in a fair and equitable manner on the populace; small businesses have paid dearly, and many have failed, while corporate business racks up record profits. That is down to some very poor decisions in some jurisdictions – not all, and that is how I know there are alternatives with less dire results – to let big stores open while small ones closed.
The predicted mental-health effects of government policies have been harsh on the poor while the wealthy feel much less pain, and of course in capitalism this is the norm. Governments seem to have found health advice that suited political ideology, so pro-business parties worked differently than socialist ones. Denmark and New Zealand seem, to me, more attuned to fairness than places like Ontario or England.
The economy of the capitalists ought not trump fairness and health any more than the political dictates of China’s Communist Party should determine that its national lockdown is right.
Rage, aggression, insurrectionary language
But the unvaccinated have brought upon themselves a reputation for rage and unreasonable actions in support of their perspectives that I do not see originating from vaccinated people; since government is the enemy of the anti-vax tribe, perhaps they feel justified in taking an attitude of radical resistance. My observation: anti-vax folks are more willing to be aggressive and offensive. (e.g. stone-throwing at the prime minister, waving swasika or Confederate flags, obscene language and gestures.).
Their response: media manipulation, agents provocateurs. An unconvincing defense, to me. I do not have that level of distrust for journalists – but then again, I have been a professional news reporter, have the education for it, and know people in it.
It is not fake news that the protestors carry signs, lots of them, that read “F___ Trudeau!” Their spokespeople say they will stay until they get their way.
And Candice Bergen tells the PM it is his fault the convoy is in Ottawa and demands he show respect to the patriots. Rex Murphy in The National Post goes further: Trudeau “hates” the protestors. Bergen wants a strategy to make Trudeau lose voter support and is playing a Machiavellian game, appearing to endorse the protest so long as it looks democratic and not insurrectionary. Bergen appears to calculate how close she can get to the Freedom! Cause without being tarred if things go wrong and that Cause taints itself by violence or extreme-right rhetoric.
Anything to win a federal election and have power, is the “Conservative” principle on display here.
Insurrection on the near horizon?
Patrick King, listed as a contact for the North Alberta group participating in the convoy, has regularly espoused anti-Semitic views on social media. “He’s publicly distorted established facts about the Holocaust … then invoked the antisemitic conspiracy theory that the Jewish people are secretly in control of world governance, media, and finances”, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network said. King said last month, “The only way that this is going to be solved is with bullets.”
The American right, a majority of which is ensconced inside the Republican Party but also has a strong position in media and academia, is watching the Ottawa events, applauding the extremism, goading the protestors, and hoping the Canadian scene mobilizes and inspires the American political arena of struggle. I have heard Americans saying these Canadians “have the Spirit of 1776.” Those words have no resonance in Canada. But perhaps there are Americans who do more than talk support, and will offer arms and money to the protest if its leadership determines they want an insurrection.
American right-approval in itself disturbs me and ensures I lose sympathy with the people in Ottawa who have motivated the Mayor to declare of emergency. We Canadians are rightly proud we are not like our neighbours in regard to use of force to change governments.
Violence, the game-changer
My prediction and conviction is this: one violent event, one death or serious injuries to police, public and/or property, will be as a lightning bolt across our nation. It will make us all step back, take a few deep breaths, and discover more political intelligence than is so far on display.
A minority within the minority, a faction of the extreme – perhaps armed, perhaps with a real revolutionary plan beyond obstruction of streets and public space — who believe they can achieve their vision of freedom by insurrection, will want to go on fighting. They might have allies in America who advise them. Their vision will fail, and no one will speak for them, not even Max Bernier or a Conservative aiming to become leader of the party.
The majority will decide the time to leave has arrived, and will depart Ottawa. Canadians will have one moment where serious political education happends, before letting politics fade in their consciousness to its usual back-of-mind status.
Democracy is never a guarantee of good government
Democracy, be certain, is an experimental methodology or technique we Canadians are lucky to operate. Other times and places it flourished awhile then collapsed. Athens; medieval Italian communes, towns in Flanders – all had vigorous democratic forms that failed when factions and war caused the parties to overthrow democratic norms and culture of respect for the minority and for the rule of law. It can unravel in Canada.
An educated citizenry capable of self-government: the democratic necessity. Is that us? We’ll all get an education by how we find resolution for this particular crisis. The last crisis similar to this was exactly two years ago when indigenous people were mobilized over an issue of pipelines and native rights in northern BC. White settlers shouting Freedom! were nowhere in evidence then, before Covid-19.
The pandemic once again teaches us about ourselves.