The “truckers’ convoy” protests in Canada have shaken up public discussion and inspired worldwide imitators. You’d think we’d be happy at this vigorous display of democracy in action. But we’re not, and with reason. It has shown a nation both divided and fragile.
It is hardly surprising that debate on Twitter has been fractious and uncivil. Nor that it shows “two solitudes”, not our approved virtuous francophones and insensitive anglos but a smart set seeing a Nazi riot and an unwashed set seeing Woodstock with diesel fumes.
What is surprising is that I, of all people, am seeking the middle ground. But I fear that “victory” does not mean what either contending party thinks it means. We will not be better off if it ends with the overthrow of the Prime Minister and the bankruptcy of the “Media Party”, or with the crushing of the rabble’s tiny heads. (Like the Harvard professor and former Obama official snarling “Slash the tires”, to which someone retorted that they would pay money to watch her trying to hack through the steel belts she doesn’t even know tires contain.)
Maxime Bernier, head of the People’s Party of Canada, has done his share of unhinged tweeting about tyranny, dictatorship and despotism in a country that frankly seems more in danger of having no governance at all. But he hit the nail squarely on the head with this February 9 tweet: “A peaceful, democratic society cannot function properly without trust. Now, a large and growing minority of Canadians have lost trust in our government, in our institutions, in our media.”
Not without reason, I might add. But I’m not gloating, because it would be worrying even if those institutions had not simultaneously lost trust in a large and growing minority of Canadians, which they have. And without a strong weave of trust, the fabric of a society unravels.
I’m not a big fan of language like “legacy media” or MSM. But most coverage of the convoy has not just been slanted. It has been hallucinatory and obscene. For instance, the ratio of Confederate flags in news stories to the actual protest must be well over 100:1 by now. And it reflects a curious closing of the Canadian mind over the past few decades.
It used to be chic to hold dissenting opinions, at least in theory. There always was an odd tendency of hipsters to think in remarkably similar ways. But the ferocity with which dissent is now treated, from climate to gender to Covid-19, is especially notable for the lack of apparent discomfort in the upper crust.
A Canadian pundit long noted for his sophisticated independence has taken to obsessively retweeting criticisms of the convoy, including: “Ottawa residents are taking back our city and shutting down the far right” with the hashtag #FluTrucksKlan. Another veteran Ottawa journalist recently wrote “Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the premiers of Ontario and Quebec, the leaders of all federal opposition parties and the mayors of Ottawa and Gatineau should stand shoulder-to-shoulder before cameras on Parliament Hill and announce to the nation their agreement that this incoherent assault on Canadian democracy, science and economic security will no longer be tolerated.”
RAAAAAHR!!!! Crush their tiny heads!
Obviously there are matters on which no reputable party should dissent. But democracy needs lively debate on important matters. And when journalists no longer think so, in theory or in practice, something is wrong. Especially if, contrary to their echo-chamber musings or rantings, a significant proportion of the community doesn’t share the supposed consensus.
In such a context it doesn’t help when all the organs of reputable society, from banks to trade associations, take the same tone. Instead, it increases the alienation.
To avoid being the problem I’m denouncing, let me underline that many convoy supporters really are as belligerent as they are nutty. But a great many Canadians who are do not sympathize with the general pushback against regimenting us socially, economically and intellectually. Why would what dissenting urban leftist Jonathan Kay calls “blue tick” commentators react by calling them all dirty names in a relentless mean-girl chorus?
One possible answer is panic over what my National Post colleague Matt Gurney has rightly highlighted as the fragility of our governance: “The protests/blockades are doing to our police, domestic security agencies and our politicians generally what Covid did to our hospitals and LTCs: revealed them as the sitting duck paper tigers a lot of people knew they were but ignored because fixes were hard and costly.” And Matt Taibbi, a dissenting journalist as capable of flakiness and bad language as anyone, albeit with the compensating virtues of ability to see and a willingness to express unfamiliar perspectives, recently said: “As America puts the Canadian Prime Minister’s unmentionables in a vice over a truck protest, it’s clearer than ever: the world’s leaders have forgotten how to govern”.
Look at Trudeau’s February 1 tweet about “the antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, homophobia, and transphobia that we’ve seen on display in Ottawa over the past number of days”. Without a trace of irony he continued “Together, let’s keep working to make Canada more inclusive.” Yet he made no more effort to lead on maintaining order than he did on promoting inclusion. Everything is unraveling.
Canadians being Canadian, we’ve gotten away with a lot of lack of governance because we are very polite and well-behaved. But if a sizeable proportion of us get fed up, what happens? As Bernier’s tweet continued, “They feel like they are being treated as enemies of society, subhumans. These people won’t be going away and won’t stop protesting.”
They won’t, partly because this movement is largely composed of ordinary Canadians who have never before been heard and are now so upset that they are determined to be. I grant that many don’t know much about the details of public policy. But it doesn’t make them stupid or incompetent; if lost in the woods in winter I’d rather have them trying to start a fire than most journalists.
I also grant that the movement contains its share of kooks who have never been heard and shouldn’t be because they are insane as well as being fuzzy on relevant details. But normally when ordinary people care enough to protest, there’s sympathy that their hearts are in the right place, not frothing about the “desecration” of a statue with a flag draped over it — in a country that saw statues toppled, decapitated and thrown into the sea with minimal complaint last year.
The double standard is a growing part of the problem. For years left-wing protests have featured hammers and sickles, and swastikas to claim Canada is fascist, without a hint of polite outrage. But rather than rehashing the past, let me dread the future.
As I recently warned in Loonie Politics, there will be another protest with weirdos in the wings, and other blockades. What standards will be upheld? For the blue ticks to pivot smoothly back to tolerating disorder and radical symbols at protests to their taste would be a Pyrrhic victory at best.
So would crushing the protest, demonizing its supporters and seizing their trucks. It would convince a third of the population that Ottawa really is “occupied” by hostile forces — not by a small group honking horns at inappropriate hours but by an elite that considers them a basket of deplorables. What happens next? Why doesn’t anyone care?
If you understand the importance of trust in society, wouldn’t you make it a priority to act trustworthy? Especially if you were a person of wealth and taste?
John Robson is a documentary film-maker, columnist with the National Post, Executive Director of the Climate Discussion Nexus and a professor at Augustine College. He holds a PhD in American history from...More by John Robson