Freedom Convoy 2022 could have generated important discussion about how we balance risk and reward and individual freedom in the time of COVID. instead, it ceded the stage to a dark-star dog’s breakfast of extremists, conspiracy fertilizers and crazies.
And it’s one, two three
What are we fighting for?
— Country Joe and the Fish
As with much in our complicated world these days, last week’s “Freedom Convoy 2022” to Ottawa to protest vaccine mandates started out as one thing, and then morphed into another. And then became another. And another. Until it ended up something else entirely.
It began as a protest by some long-haul truckers in Western Canada who were upset by a federal regulation that required cross-border workers, including truckers, to be double vaccinated before crossing the Canada-US border.
The new rules, which took effect January 15, weren’t so much new rules as an end to an exemption for essential workers. Other cross-border travelers already had to show proof of vaccination.
One presumes the federal government broadened the scope of its requirement because vaccines — considered the best defence against both the transmission of COVID and also the seriousness of the illness — are now widely available to everyone.
We know truckers are venturing in and out of a country where only 63 per cent of its citizens are fully vaccinated, where there are more than 500,000 new COVID cases reported daily and where more than 2,500 people die of COVID each day.
The government considers mandatory vaccination for truckers one more small step on the road to controlling the pandemic sooner, reducing the burden on an already overwhelmed healthcare system and allowing the world to adapt to its new normal.
There are, of course, legitimate questions. How many Canadian COVID cases can be traced to cross-border truckers? What will this decision mean to already stressed supply chains on both sides of the border? What is the proper balance between public health and the economy?
And, of course, there are more specific questions. What will the requirement mean for the livelihoods of those who choose to remain unvaccinated? Should we even care?
It’s not hard to understand why some unvaccinated truckers might be upset.
So, a convoy formed; big rigs rolled east from British Columbia to Ottawa to let our politicians know their grievances and their demands. Declared a statement on the group’s Facebook Page:
The Government of Canada has crossed a line with implementing Covid-19 vaccine passports and vaccine mandates. As of today, we now have the support of millions of Canadians from across the country.
But how many millions really support unvaccinated-by-choice truckers in a country of more than 38 million people where close to 80 per cent of citizens are double vaccinated? And where more than 80 per cent of Canadians say they support mandatory vaccinations for various classes of workers and travellers?
Let’s also revisit “some truckers…”
We are talking about a relatively small number of drivers; 85–90 per cent of the 120,000 Canadian cross-border drivers are fully vaccinated, so they — and the goods they carry — won’t be affected at all.
Many truckers and trucking associations, in fact, oppose the convoy, calling it “an embarrassment for the industry” and argue its participants represent “a tiny, tiny proportion of drivers.”
And then too, there is this. In the unlikely — let’s be honest and say impossible — event the protesters could convince Ottawa to rescind its vaccination requirement, it wouldn’t matter a whit.
On January 22 — one day before the convoy headed out on that highway for its high-noon showdown in Ottawa — the US Department of Homeland Security began enforcing its own new rule: all non-US citizens entering that country by land or ferry must show proof of vaccination.
By then, however, reality was already moot, or at least beside the point.
The Freedom Convoy and its new Big Brother, the “Ottawa Freedom Rally 2022,” had become a thing.
And what a thing it became.
Support convoys, including one from Enfield, NS, set out last week on the road to Ottawa to join the main group for a vaguely defined protest on Saturday that might or might not go on indefinitely.
One of the group’s looniest of loony tune demands — that Governor-General Mary Simon and the unelected Senate agree to a “memorandum of understanding” with, well, them, reversing all vaccine mandates in the country — was not only unconstitutional but its manifesto also read, as the Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason correctly noted, “like it was concocted by some good ole boys, sitting around an outdoor fire and ripping open beer after beer.”
To make that warm mess even hotter and messier, other groups with other agendas quickly latched on to whatever legitimate frustrations the truckers had, pretzel-twisting the issues for their own purposes.
A GoFundMe page — organized by what the Canadian Anti-Hate Network calls two “previously known figures in Canada’s far-right ecosystem” — raised more than $6 million to pay for protesters’ gas and food expenses. Gas? Food? Who put up all that money? And where will it really end up? According to a CBC News analysis, “at least a third of the donations to the GoFundMe campaign… came from anonymous sources or were attributed to fake names.”
Many of the convoy’s key organizers, in fact, represent a dark-star dog’s breakfast of extremists, conspiracy fertilizers and crazies.
Tamara Lich, billed as one of the lead organizers of the convoy, was previously a member in good standing of the Islamophobic, anti-immigrant Yellow Vest movement before showing up as the secretary of the Maverick Party, the new name for Wexit, the Alberta separatist movement.
Patrick King, listed as a contact for an Alberta group involved in the convoy, proclaims “the only way that this is going to be solved is with bullets.” According to the anti-hate network, he has also “publicly distorted established facts about the Holocaust… then invoked the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that the Jewish people are secretly in control of world governance, media and finances.”
Jason LaFace, who served as the first president of the right-wing People’s Party of Canada’s Sudbury riding association and has been linked to the even farther-right Soldiers of Odin, is the convoy’s main organizer in Ontario. He is not a trucker himself, of course, but that seems to have become beside the point.
“This is no longer about the mandate anymore,” he told a radio talk show last week. “This is about Canada. This is about our rights and how the government’s been manipulating the population and oppressing us all the time.”
LaFace then compared mask mandates to living in Nazi Germany. “I have family who are Jewish — who are victims of the Holocaust.”
Let us pause here for just one sane second to connect his dotty dots back to anti-Semitic Patrick King…
Back to LaFace.
“This thing here what is going on with the government,” he lamented, “when you walk in the grocery store… ‘Wear your mask!’… Are we living in an oppressed society? [Justin] Trudeau is a criminal in this country. He needs to go,” he declared before hanging up on the interviewer.
But it’s not just the convoy’s dodgy organizers. Some of those quoted in the media as its supporters openly endorse violence. “I advocate civil war,” Jim Doerksen told Global News in Saskatoon. “If people don’t want to stand up, we’ve got guns, we’ll stand up and we’ll bring ’em out.”
Declared yet another supporter on a widely shared social media post: “I’d like to see our own January 6 event… see some of those truckers plough right through that 16-foot wall.”
There were the dangerous. And then there was the senseless.
Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur tagged along with one group of pro-convoy protesters in a shopping mall parking lot in Vaughan, ON. He spoke to one mother who “stood to the side, her two-year-old bundled in a stroller. Her name was Dasha, and she wouldn’t give her last name. She was unvaccinated.” Arthur asked why she was protesting.
“Freedom,” she said, “for the people.”
How do you define freedom, I asked.
“To do anything we’d like to do. Like we did before. To go back to normal…”
But the hospitals are full. Vaccines help keep people out of hospitals. She laughed.
“Well, if you go online, you’ll see that there’s a lot of videos, a lot of doctors speaking up. If you go online and listen, it’s very easy to see… The hospitals are full of s—, that’s what they’re full of…”
Why would they exaggerate the hospital numbers? I asked Dasha.
“Well, maybe you should ask Trudeau about this.”
But Trudeau isn’t in charge of hospitals.
“This is the whole plan, OK?
“I don’t know exactly. I don’t know why you’re asking me. I’m just a regular person that wants to go back to normal. Why can’t we just call it a day and say this is a regular flu just like any other flu?”
And so it went.
No wonder Donald Trump, Jr., posted a support video calling the convoy “genius” and predicting “this is how it all ends.”
As I write this, on a Saturday morning, with a blizzard raging outside my window, I have no idea how it will end.
But I do know none of this will lead anywhere good.
Which is unfortunate.
The science is the science. But it is evolving every day. How we use that evolving science to make public policy is a legitimate topic for public debate.
- How do we balance the COVID risks of sending kids to school with the mental health risks of keeping them at home?
- How do we balance the health risks to everyone from opening up the economy with the everyday costs to workers and small business owners of keeping the economy shuttered?
- How do we weigh the risks the unvaccinated pose to the rest of us to their individual freedom to choose?
As we move toward a world in which we learn to manage and live with COVID, these are questions we need to ask ourselves on an ongoing basis. The answers will change with the science and our experience.
But we can’t even have that conversation if we allow it to be hijacked by the conspiracists and the crazies.
Correction: The spelling of Tamara Lich’s name has been corrected.
When this column was initially published in the Halifax Examiner, some readers complained about the use of the word “crazies,” connecting it to an offensive term for mental illness. The Examiner chose to keep the word. Editor Tim Bousquet explained his reasoning here.
I certainly would never use the word to describe someone with a mental illness but there are other accepted definitions of the word that seem to perfectly capture what Tim calls “those who create a false reality, allow it to motivate them, and use it to undermine the real reality.”
Consider this definition from Merriam-Webster: one who is or acts crazy, especially: such as one associated with a radical or extremist political cause. Example — “… are convinced that Wilson thinks they’re rubes, bumpkins, or crazies, and wants to replace them with a legislature full of moderate clones of himself. (Fred Barnes)
A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner.
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