Protest against vaccination mandates in Ottawa, Jan. 29, 2022 (CC Véronic Gagnon)
Ottawa, Canada’s national capital, an otherwise quiet city of a million inhabitants has now been subject to constant protests for more than three weeks. Dubbed by its participants as the “Freedom Convoy 2022” and by its detractors as a blockade and occupation, it has undoubtedly caused societal disturbance, division and in some instances chaos. All the while, it has also been a rallying point for Canadians fed up with or fully opposed to the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions in Canada.
The instigator of these protestors was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government’s decision to revise COVID-19 cross border travel exemptions. Up until January 15th, cross border transport truck drivers were exempted from COVID-19 border restrictions (vaccination requirement, testing and quarantine). By revoking this exemption, the government essentially imposed a vaccine mandate upon this work force, a workforce of some 300,000 Canadians of which 75% or more are fully vaccinated.
Putting the efficacy and justifiability of vaccine mandates aside, the policy itself has been roundly questioned. Some have criticized the government for failing to marshal any evidence in the way of public health data to justify the policy. Afterall, truckers are an essential workforce who largely operate in isolation and therefore unlikely to be great spreaders of COVID. Lacking clear evidence and defying common-sense, the policy was widely decried and questioned by industry experts, industry associations, public health experts and political leaders. It has been one of the most thoroughly opposed COVID policies by the ‘expert’ class, and yet the government has been obstinate in its imposition.
From heroes to villains
The Canadian trucking industry is part of the backbone of the Canadian economy. Employing a large number of Canadians and contributing some $65 (CAD) billion annually to Canada’s GDP. This policy, moreover, was put in place as North America has been struggling with severe supply chain issues and generationally high inflation rates.
It is important to recall that at the onset of the pandemic truckers across the country were hailed as heroes. Rightfully so, as they ensured that grocery store shelves remained stocked, that everyone’s online orders were fulfilled on time, and that hospitals had enough medical supplies to respond to the pandemic. Truckers were originally exempted because of the crucial role they play in supporting everyday life and the Canadian economy. Even this week, the Government quietly announced that truckers transporting medical supplies to combat the pandemic are exempted from COVID border restrictions.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time in the pandemic in Canada where yesterday’s heroes have become today’s villains. Just months ago, some front-line health care workers who have relentlessly served the public, were fired in Ontario for choosing to remain unvaccinated. It is a disturbing trend.
A political strategy
But why would a government persist in such an unpopular, ineffective, and economically harmful policy?
Despite Canada being one of the most vaccinated countries with 89% of the adult population fully vaccinated, it maintains some of the strictest COVID protocols
A plausible answer can be traced back to how the Liberal Party of Canada approached this summer’s federal election. After having publicly stated that he would not call a pandemic election the Justin Trudeau did just that in August, heralding it as the most important Canadian election since 1945. The Liberals preceded to take a very aggressive line on COVID-19 vaccinations, framing themselves as pro-vaccine and their opponents as anti-vaccine, skeptics and conspiracy theorists. Strategically, it was very astute as the Canadian population was at that point approximately 70% fully vaccinated. The Liberals very effectively co-opted and turned the 70% on the 30%, framing the unvaccinated as selfish, a public health threat and the ultimate obstacle to getting vaccinated people’s life back to normal.
When introducing vaccine requirements to fly domestically within the Canada the Prime Minister rhetorically asked in a news conference “would you like your child to be seated next to an unvaccinated person? Our policies will keep you and your loved ones safe.” Stirring such fear and distain for the other (the unvaccinated in this case) has become all too normal in Canadian pandemic politics as of late.
This aggressive, albeit successful, hard line on COVID led the Liberals to consistently present and maintain overzealous COVID policies to buttress their COVID credentials. These policies have remained and even been ramped up despite Canada being one of the most vaccinated countries with 89% of the adult population fully vaccinated. Despite this, Canada maintains some of the strictest COVID protocols (vaccine passports and mandates, gathering and capacity limits and strict border controls).
Instead of seeking avenues of de-escalation the Prime Minister inflamed the situation with inflammatory rhetoric
The trucking industry became a political tool and expose for the Governments COVID zealotry. This is not surprising as they had already imposed vaccine requirements on other federally regulated industries like banks, telecommunication firms, airlines and postal services. It is hard to see a vaccine mandate against an already heavily vaccinated population as anything other than political theatre to achieve partisan ends. The fact that it was pursued despite objective and repeated warnings about the economic impact it would cause should make Canadians question whether the Government is actually seeking to promote the common good within Canada.
State of emergency
It is within this context that a mass protest emerged in the West of Canada, amassed support, personal and funding as it made its way to the Capital as a convoy. The trucker convoy, situated in Ottawa has also spurred related demonstrations at border crossing across the country – in Alberta, Manitoba and Southern Ontario – which at various times effectively closed those border crossings to any traffic or shipping.
While blockades at the border related to these protests have been effectively broken up by local police forces, this week the Prime Minister invoked the Emergencies Act to break up the persistent protests in Ottawa. The invocation has been met with significant concern and aggressive political critique.
The Act, which allows for the Government to make recourse to truly extraordinary powers during a time of national crisis, can be understood more as a consequence of failed national leadership than rampant social unrest.
The Government of Justin Trudeau watched as this convoy amassed support and decided to do very little governing. They abdicated all responsibility to local authorities, citing jurisdictional division of powers, the Prime Minister took a weekend away to go skiing and upon returning stoked flames by calling convoy participants “racists and misogynists,” “a fringe minority with unacceptable views” which we need to decide whether to tolerate or not. Instead of seeking avenues of de-escalation the Prime Minister inflamed the situation with inflammatory rhetoric.
A more divided society
Given how Justin Trudeau has used vaccines as a political tool in the recent election, it should not surprise Canadians or any onlookers that his Government continues to use the pandemic towards political ends. What is becoming clearer though is the collateral damage caused by such pandemic politicking – a more divided society, more stigmatized minorities, emerging radicalization and diminishing trust in government.
Canadians have begun to express embarrassment at this ongoing situation. But embarrassment over what? Canadians shedding their usual social apathy and expressing displeasure towards government policy, or the sheer incompetency and dereliction of duty shown by our Federal Government?
Canadians are fatigued by the pandemic, yes, but the governing class has had two years to learn how to best govern during the pandemic. That an overzealous COVID policy unsupported by public health data and denounced by experts is at the heart of this national calamity is the true embarrassment. Canadians should be ashamed of their government, not their neighbours who have joined or supported the convoy.