OF the two major crises recognised by the West at this juncture, there was a minor victory on one front over the weekend.
No, common sense has not prevailed on the Ukraine front, even though protagonists on both sides have lately proclaimed that the window for diplomacy remains open. A door would be easier, even if it leads to one of the excessively elongated tables that Vladimir Putin seems to prefer. The Russian president is reportedly paranoid about contracting Covid-19, unlike many of his far-right admirers in various parts of the world.
The capital of Canada has lately been the epicentre of protests against vaccination mandates. And much else. The aforementioned success doesn’t relate to Ottawa, though, but to the bridge that links the town of Windsor in Ontario province with Detroit across the US border. The truckers blocking that passage have been cleared away in a police operation, with a dozen or so arrests. Not exactly a diplomatic breakthrough, except in the sense that the structure in question is known as the Ambassador Bridge.
The stand-off in Ottawa, where hundreds of truckers are blocking the city centre, remained unresolved at the time of writing, although Justin Trudeau on Monday became Canada’s first prime minister to invoke the 1988 Emergencies Act, which, according to The Washington Post, “gives the federal government sweeping authority to override provincial powers, to ban public assembly in certain locations and to remove people and property from prohibited spaces”.
Repression isn’t the best response.
It remains to be seen how those powers will be used. Canada’s reputation over the decades has tended to frame it as the United States’ relatively placid neighbour that tends to avoid US-style extremes. That benign image may never have been entirely accurate.
It was somewhat adjusted last year amid a steady stream of revelations about the unmarked graves where thousands of indigenous children were buried on the premises of residential schools run by religious orders, which they were obliged to attend. This was a legacy of colonialism, but it persisted well into the 20th century.
And just a few months ago, the Trudeau government appealed the decision by a human rights tribunal that ordered it to pay 40,000 Canadian dollars each to First Nations children who had been discriminated against by the nation’s ‘welfare’ system, and their parents and grandparents. Hence any Canadian claim of moral superiority over other colonial-settler states, such as the US or Australia, deserves to be taken with a pinch of salt. But that, quite obviously, isn’t among the reasons that have led the protesting truckers in Ottawa and their supporters to frame Trudeau in particular as intolerable.
In expressing his support for the protesters, Donald Trump has characterised Trudeau as a “far-left lunatic … who has destroyed Canada with insane Covid mandates”.
Trudeau’s distance from any ideology that could be characterised as far left is at least as extensive as that of Joe Biden. They are both centrists who are inclined to lean to the right, albeit not quite as far as Trump and his acolytes would like.
It has accurately been pointed out, though, that in Ottawa, Trump banners and Confederate emblems are heavily outnumbered by the familiar maple-leaf flag. Sure, the occupation of central Ottawa points to a well-organised protest, and at least some of the organisers are known anti-Semites, Islamophobes or practitioners of some aligned form of racism, and drawn to QAnon imbecility.
There are valid questions to be raised about the efficacy of vaccines and the value of mandates, just as it is important to recognise that the usefulness of lockdowns varies between countries and even localities. Grand conspiracy theories about Covid-19 being a hoax, or a virus invented by the Chinese or by Bill Gates deserve the contemptuous dismissal that usually greets them.
Similarly, legitimate suspicion of ‘Big Pharma’ and its motives is not incompatible with acknowledging the value of the various vaccines, and recognising that they are neither silver bullets nor entirely useless. Almost every government has faltered in tackling the pandemic. Their policies can be questioned without necessarily imputing malicious intent. It has been a steep learning curve for all.
The recalcitrant Canadian truck drivers are representative neither of their profession nor of their nation. And they have encouraged copycat protests across the globe, from Belgium to New Zealand. They may not be amenable to reason, but repression is hardly the answer. ‘Jabs or jobs’ might not be the right choice to offer either, although there might be legitimate cause to wonder why boofy men dominate the visible resistance.
Neither cowardice nor a devotion to irrationality suffices as an excuse. But countering such attitudes through debate and accurate information is bound to be a better bet than ridicule combined with repression.
Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2022