There Will Be Lasting Societal Damage When the Protest Is Over

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that.” Those deeply offensive words by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election campaign galvanized the many American Trump supporters who did not fit any of those characterizations. That speech may have cost her the election.

It came to mind on January 27th when Prime Minister Trudeau denounced the participants in the trucker convoy as a “small fringe minority” of people who hold “unacceptable views.”

It is clear that they are not. Yes, there were a few right-wing extremists and others who subscribe to bizarre conspiracy theories. But most of the truckers, including many who are vaccinated, came intent on determined but peaceful protest. The convoy started in Vancouver and picked up supporters en route. It was significantly larger when it pulled into Ottawa.

Trudeau was rightly criticized from an unexpected direction, Quebec Liberal MP Joël Lightbound: “From a positive and unifying approach, a decision was made to wedge, to divide and to stigmatize. I fear this politicization of the pandemic risks undermining the public’s trust in our public-health institutions. This is not a risk we ought to be taking lightly.”

The convoy was triggered by the Liberal’s January 15th decision to require unvaccinated Canadian truckers re-entering Canada from the United States to get tested for COVID-19 and quarantine themselves. The quarantine requirement was designed to punish the unvaccinated.

This was at a time when there had been community spread of the Omicron variant across Canada, averaging more than 40,000 new cases a day. The government overruled a decision to drop the requirement by the Canada Border Services Agency.

In the same vein Canadians were urged to avoid non-essential travel outside Canada, regardless of vaccination status. If they did, families with children under five who go abroad must quarantine together for 10 days upon return. That urging has been widely ignored, and has subverted respect for other, more valid public health measures.

The protest is beginning its fourth week, noisily annoying Ottawa residents but not violent. Many of the occupiers say that they will remain until all the mask and vaccine mandates are removed. Copycat protests have occurred in other Canadian cities and border crossings and in other countries.

In notable evidence of peaceful intentions, the protesters blocking the Coutts, Alberta border crossing chose to voluntarily disband after a small splinter group was found to have a stash of weapons and ammunition.

Fatigue with the covid restrictions encompasses most Canadians. Many have a silent resentment of one or another of the rules that have been put in place.

Trudeau telling those Canadians that they have “unacceptable views” is neither helpful nor persuasive. Neither was his announcement that there were going to be “severe consequences” for the protesters.

Since then the Ottawa police have been criticized for being too chummy with the truckers. The chief has resigned. Edmonton police have been criticized for being more rigorous with counter-protesters than with the truckers.

As a practical matter, the progress that has been made has not been accomplished by Ottawa. The opening of the Coutts border crossing was managed in Alberta.

Keeping borders open should be a federal responsibility, but in Ontario it was Premier Doug Ford who acted. He declared a state of emergency and threatened fines of $100,000 Canadian dollars and up to a year in jail for anyone illegally blocking roads or other critical infrastructure. That and a large contingent of police enabled the reopening of the Ambassador Bridge, the busiest land border crossing between the U.S. and Canada.

On Monday, Trudeau invoked the federal Emergencies Act, for the first time in Canada’s history, to give the federal government temporary powers to handle ongoing blockades protesting pandemic restrictions. Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino warned Wednesday that those joining convoy protests in Ottawa risk being arrested, which would be at odds with Trudeau’s assertion that Canadians’ constitutional rights would be protected.

On Friday, police started an intervention to bring the occupation to an end. Offensive flags have been waved and the citizens of Ottawa tormented with horn blowing. Some thought they were there to upend the government. But most thought it was about eliminating covid restrictions. It has been largely peaceful during the three weeks of occupation. At time of writing it is not clear whether the operation will finish without a violent confrontation.

What is clear is that Joël Lightbound is right. Trudeau’s words create division and stigmatize groups of people that are far more numerous than the protesting truckers. There will be lasting damage to the social fabric of the country.


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