The “Freedom Convoy” protesters came to Canada’s capital to make history.
And they will — just not for the reasons many of them are imagining.
This is not the start of a popular uprising that will shake the Canadian government to its core, put the prime minister in jail, make the Senate and Gov. Gen. Mary Simon the supreme authority of the land, bring an end to all vaccine mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions, and kickstart a libertarian revolution of absolute rights without social responsibility.
The premiers of Ontario and Quebec will not face charges of treason, nor will Canada’s chief public health officer.
Despite what some of the demonstrators want their fellow citizens to believe, future historians won’t speak of anti-vaccination and anti-mask activists in the same breath as freedom fighters like Louis Riel, Rosa Parks and the Allied soldiers who liberated survivors of the Holocaust.
What historians will recall about this mid-winter protest — including the plugging of Wellington and other Ottawa streets by a few hundred big rigs and smaller trucks — is the following footnote to the story of Canada’s monumental struggle against COVID-19: “In late January 2022, a small but noisy segment of the country’s population, entirely out of step with the great majority of vaccinated Canadians, boiled over with anger and resentment for being unavoidably marginalized and pressured to conform in the midst of a once-in-a-century global health emergency that demanded national consensus, concerted collective action and a basic belief in science.”
The Freedom Convoy might also merit mention in some future history of the Conservative Party of Canada as an example of its disastrous flirtation with anti-democratic forces that infiltrated and discredited an otherwise merely hapless, misguided fringe movement of some unvaccinated Canadians.
Fringe? Yes, Trudeau got that right. Badly hobbled Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has tried to walk a tightrope between praising the protest as an important symbol of Canadians’ pandemic angst and avoiding overt shows of support for its disjointed and partly dangerous aims. Meanwhile, the more menacing, grasping Tory MP Pierre Poilievre — now locked, it seems, in a struggle with O’Toole over the soul of their party ahead of a caucus leadership vote on Wednesday — is tweeting carefully staged, “cheerful” photos of himself with select protesters to convey his broad sympathy with their cause.
But if either O’Toole or Poilievre are tempted to align themselves more closely with the protesters, a series of outrages perpetrated by a handful of rogue demonstrators has highlighted the peril of such a strategy: the unfurling of a Confederate flag; the occasional display of swastikas; drunken “dancing” and urinating on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; the enlisting of a bronze Terry Fox to hold an upside-down Maple Leaf and “Mandate Freedom” sign; the swarming of the Rideau Centre by an anti-masker flash mob; the crashing of a local soup kitchen by pushy protesters demanding free meals.
These were, it must be said, aberrations. And not to minimize certain incidents that are being investigated by police, but there is a statistical probability that several acts of sheer stupidity will occur every time there’s a large gathering of people.
A few hours spent mingling with Hill demonstrators at the height of their protest midday Saturday was enough to discern the less shocking, more typical themes of people’s participation: opposition to all vaccine mandates and a fierce hatred of Trudeau and his government.
Some, of course, are convinced the pandemic itself is a grand conspiracy; some want Trudeau and other political leaders summarily removed from office (and prosecuted for alleged crimes against humanity); some see a firmer embrace of God’s commandments — “Live By Faith Not By Fear” — as the true pathway out of the pandemic; and some insist that unfettered personal freedom is so sacrosanct it must always override other rights, even at the expense of Canada’s collective wellbeing.
It was illuminating that former Conservative MP and cabinet minister Maxime Bernier — now head of the People’s Party of Canada — was mobbed like a rock star when he joined the crowd just before noon on Saturday. Outcast Ontario MPP Randy Hillier, another ex-Conservative who has embraced the anti-masker, anti-vaxxer cause, arrived at the same time to many hugs and handshakes.
So yes, clearly, the fringe.
All of the protesters are sick and tired of COVID-19, like the rest of us; this much deserves empathy. Vaccine mandates and other public health measures imposed over the past two years have affected everyone adversely. And sadly, given the fact some of these protesters are proudly unvaccinated and resist mask-wearing and presumably other basic anti-COVID measures, they have almost certainly suffered job losses and other hardships at higher rates than the rest of the population — including sickness and the loss of family members to the disease.
Nevertheless, the mandates have been necessary to ensure the survival of as many vulnerable Canadians as possible in the face of an unrelenting virus. Public health experts and governments have pleaded with citizens to get vaccinated, and then pressured and penalized those who continue to refuse, because vaccination is the most effective way to avoid death, to avoid overwhelming hospitals, and to chart our best route out of this crisis.
These facts are not acknowledged by the protesters. As they gathered in Ottawa this weekend to express their views — as is their right — hospital wards and ICUs and healthcare workers across Canada remained strained to the breaking point in large part because unvaccinated patients have disproportionately overwhelmed the country’s healthcare system.
This is why vaccine mandates and other anti-COVID rules remain in place across Canada, at least for now.
And it’s why unvaccinated cross-border truckers, even if Canada lifted its mandatory vaccination policy in response to the incessant horn honking of the past few days in Ottawa, would drive straight into an equally strict U.S. vaccine mandate to protect that country’s population.
Many of the Ottawa protesters, it can be safely said, are not merely unvaccinated Canadians exercising their choice to opt out of the country’s crucial inoculation blitz, but vocal anti-vaxxers deluded by misinformation and determined to spread it themselves. They represent some small percentage of the unvaccinated 10 per cent, so we need to be wary of overstating how many others they truly speak for.
We can, however, at least comprehend and defend their loud but peaceful venting of anger and anxiety over the impact of the pandemic on their lives.
Who hasn’t felt like screaming at certain times over the past 23 months?
It’s fair to say that all of this has been divisive — but only to a degree, and certainly not in the epic sense that some politicians have tried to suggest. The pandemic has divided Canadians in a way that’s actually been minimized by federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments’ largely successful campaigns to get the vast majority of Canadians vaccinated.
A 50-50 split in public opinion over the merits of taking a jab would have been profoundly divisive for Canada; a 90-10 split is, in fact, minimally so.
Historians, who are big-picture storytellers, will understand this. And in their chronicle of these pandemic years, they will briefly note the boisterous but wrong-headed, incoherent cries of injustice voiced by some unvaccinated protesters, circa 2022, representing a thin fraction of public opinion in Canada.
Randy Boswell is an Ottawa journalist and Carleton University professor.