Jen Gerson: The tough nut to swallow
It's easy to ask for sacrifice from the unvaccinated. The sacrifice the rest of us make to live in a free society is to accept that even lunatics have rights.
Note: I’m devoting these Friday columns to weekly overviews of the campaign trail while we are in the writ period. Last week’s can be read here. Also note, our ordinary Friday Dispatch will once again be sent out Saturday morning.
By: Jen Gerson
Well, here we are again, friends. We have reached the third week of the Canadian election campaign, which is usually the point at which a little mid-war ennui begins to take root.
All this week, I could not help but drift and think, like Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen: "I am tired of Earth, these people. I am tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives."
This is normal. It will pass by next week.
In the meantime, there is not all that much to say about a surprisingly blah few days.
Surprisingly, because Aug. 30th was the deadline for parties to replace problematic candidates; this is when nasty drops of opposition material will be most impactful. A candidate who has been caught by his opponent doing or saying something untoward must either stick around, and risk dragging down his party's national campaign. Or he can be dropped by the party, which cedes the seat.
We were all expecting the Liberals throw out case after case of CPC conspiracism — and to lay it on mercilessly in an attempt to tie the anti-vaccination protests to Erin O'Toole and his caucus. Alas, it did not come.
There were a few items, of course; a video from Erin O'Toole rambling about the CBC and Maryam Monsef which the leader shrugged off. Apparently Liberal cabinet minister Steven Guilbeault owes back taxes. More shrugs.
The Liberals took the real hit when it was revealed that Ontario candidate Raj Saini would be allowed to continue running under the red banner despite multiple claims of inappropriate behaviour toward female staffers within the party. These are not minor; the CBC has reported at least seven witnesses, four victims, and a human rights tribunal complaint dating back years. This is the kind of oppo that most stings, as it hits a Liberal weak point — hypocrisy and insincerity. You can't claim to be the feminist party of zero tolerance that also demonstrates, uh, not zero tolerance for this kind of thing.
The main Conservative announcement of the week was a plan to end puppy mills, a policy so egregiously cheesy that I'm naming it the: "You want sunny ways, fuckers? We'll give you sunny ways!” manoeuvre.
In short, if the Liberals are playing rope a dope, the CPC won this week on points.
(Meanwhile, I’m in no position to comment on Thursday night’s French debates, as my grasp of French is thin.)
It's possible that the Liberals held off on the oppo drops this week in the hope that it would provide greater attention to their platform — which we have been anticipating for some weeks. Maclean's Paul Wells has already gone through the document and decimated it with such restrained acidity that reading his column made me want to wither up and die inside.
I would offer one observation gleaned from pouring over the Liberals' Facebook page this week. The party is posting videos of Justin Trudeau, particularly the highlights of his speeches delivered at rallies on the campaign trail. Firstly, the protesters dogging the leader are making it more difficult for the party to deliver a clean clip, free of the howls of boos and jeers in the background. In fact, the videos give the impression that Trudeau is delivering speeches in front of few supporters at all.
When those protesters proved to be so numerous that the Liberal campaign cancelled one of these rallies last week, Trudeau delivered a press conference that struck an empathetic tone.
"We all had a difficult year. Those folks out protesting, they had a difficult year too, and I know and I hear the anger, the frustration, perhaps the fear," he said. "I know we have to work even harder to be there for each other, to support each other. We need to meet that anger with compassion."
This was Trudeau emoting in top form, and it would have served him well to keep this tone. Alas, he did not.
Within days, Trudeau was shifting the blame for the protests on to O'Toole, imploring the Conservative leader to talk his people into accepting vaccines.
"I will not be responding to anger with anger,” Trudeau said in one of these videos, before launching into a story; he spoke of walking his youngest son to school when suddenly "it came to me that I really really don't want our kids to have to go through more virtual schools. I don't want to have to go through lockdowns in this country when close to 80 per cent of Canadians have done the right things, not just for themselves, but for their loved ones."
All those right-thinking Canadians deserve better, he noted, They deserve to go to a train, or a plane, without risking exposing themselves or their loved ones to COVID-19
"I have little patience for people who choose to put themselves, their kids, and the rest of us at greater risk."
In another such clip, Trudeau said: “The folks out there tonight shouting, they are wrong … more than just being wrong, because everyone is entitled to their opinions, they are putting at risk their own kids and they are putting at risk our kids as well.”
Well, he's hardly alone in his feeling of frustration, but this is a long way from the calls to compassion of last week, no?
The Liberals are trying to spin two concurrent but incompatible narratives; that of their Dear Leader's inexhaustible empathy, and that of his relentless toughness toward the reviled 20 per cent of the electorate that won't get the jab.
Either of those angles can work for Trudeau, but, like, guys, you gotta pick a lane here. You're either pleading for understanding for the misguided deplorables at the gate — or you're running against one-fifth of all Canadians, and hoping the remaining 80 per cent line up behind you out of a shared sense of outrage and frustration.
You can't do both.
And herein lies the problem with continuing to turn a policy of mandatory vaccinations for federal employees and travellers into a wedge issue, as the Liberals have done. Those in favour of mandatory vaccination for things like travel on planes, trains and boats may, indeed, be in the majority — but I suspect it's a conviction that is weakly felt by that majority. By comparison, those opposed to this proposal hate it with the ferocity of a thousand hell beasts.
The weight of passion is all on one side — which is why anti-vaccine protests are popping up like mushrooms around Liberal campaign rallies, but pro-vaccine mandate protesters are nowhere to be found. They certainly aren't showing up to O'Toole events; nor are they staging sizeable counter demonstrations in support of the Liberals.
This should surprise no one. If you're an ardent anti-vaxxer who deeply believes that the shot is some kind of nefarious scheme to inject the population with untested death juice, then relenting is unthinkable. Trudeau's proposals will sharply curtail your freedom of movement. No vacations, no work trips — no visiting family. Further, there doesn't seem to be any sunset clause for those prohibitions. Add domestic vaccine certificates to the mix and what we're saying is: "you people can't travel or participate in civic life until COVID goes away. Maybe forever. We don't know. Because fuck you, idiot, that's why."
By comparison, if you have done the right thing and taken your shots, a mandate won’t affect you. The anti-vaxxers might anger you, but they are only the latest infuriating item in a long list. You are also anxious about sending your kids back to school, your personal debt, housing costs, and the state of the economy. Hell, your most pressing question is probably why the Liberals chose to call this election at all (if their vaccine mandate was so important, why didn't they move forward with it before they drew up the writ?) Further, O'Toole is presenting a saleable compromise. He supports vaccination, but is proposing rapid tests for those who won't get the jab. What’s left to protest?
The Liberal mandate is not minimally invasive — indeed, it is not intended to be. They are offering to punish the unvaccinated if you elect them. It's a promise to appease frustration, anger and the desire for retribution. This is what the Liberals are leaning into, and it might be a winning strategy, but it's hard to present yourself as Prime Minister Buddha while painting 20 per cent of the electorate as child-endangering monsters unworthy of our patience.
To the unvaccinated, Trudeau represents a threat to personal liberty. What he is directly proposing — and indirectly supporting via vaccine certificates — will curtail a sizeable minority of the population’s ability to travel and fully participate in civic life. That may be ethically justifiable and even necessary to protect children and the medically compromised, but it should not require the genius of the Liberal strategist set to understand why the anti-vaxxers are so angry.
Someone is going to need to make this point, and I guess it's going to be me. (Ducks) We live in a free, liberal democratic society; one that allows dumb people to protest their dumb positions — even using vitriolic language and imagery to do so. Idiots are allowed to do idiotic things — like protest in front of hospitals as they did this week, lest anyone imagine such demonstrations were confined to partisan rallies. The line is properly drawn at violence, and the threat of same. (Nevermind church burnings and rail line blockades. A certain degree of tolerance and compassion will be extended for such tactics when the political and media consensus broadly concurs with the righteousness of the aggrieved.)
Telling the prime minster to go fuck himself on the campaign trail is a tried and true tradition in this country. The anti-vaxxers are lunatics, but lunatics, too, have the right to dissent. For the moment, they have the right to make bad decisions for themselves and, by extension, for the community at large.
Living in a free society does not come without sacrifice. It's easy to ask for sacrifice from the unvaccinated; all we are demanding is that they rise above their fear and their pride and to accept this medicine for their own sake, and for the sake of those around them who cannot be likewise protected.
The harder ask is to demand a sacrifice from the majority who have been vaccinated, from those who have done the obvious, sane thing already. The sacrifice we make to live in a free society is to accept painful and frustrating limitations to the control we choose to arrogate to ourselves — even if we would choose to exercise that control only for the greater good.
It's a tough nut to swallow. Sometimes them's the breaks.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: email@example.com