Matt Gurney: In Ottawa, the unstoppable force approaches the immovable object
A significant slice of our population is furious. It doesn't matter if you think they're wrong. What are we going to do about it?
By: Matt Gurney
I don't remember who said this; I'd give proper credit if I could. But I do remember it made me laugh, largely because it was true. Over the span of human history, yelling at someone to “Calm down!” has a failure rate of 100 per cent.
Two years into this pandemic, Canadians are angry and frustrated and anxious. Much of this is driven by the stress of COVID, but not all of it. There are good reasons to be angry. There are also bad reasons to be angry and right now people from both categories are streaming into our nation's capital.
As I write this, it is Friday morning. The first protesters have begun to arrive in the capital for a large protest. It's been described as a trucker convoy, though initial reports suggest many people are arriving in their normal, everyday vehicles. There's no reliable estimate yet of its size, but while it doesn't seem to be tracking toward the tens of thousands of vehicles some of its boosters had claimed, it's clearly large enough. Hundreds of vehicles? Low thousands? We'll find out. However many there are, though, the people inside them are angry, and they want to be heard.
So what now? What's the smart thing to do about this?
The protest originally seemed to be driven by truckers angered by the federal vaccine mandate for cross-border travel between Canada and the United States. The Americans are also requiring foreign truckers entering their country to be vaccinated — which means even if Canada did rescind its vaccine mandate, our truckers would still be required to get the jab by the U.S. No vax, no cross-border route. So the protest now seems more vaguely aimed at vaccine mandates in general, and even more broadly, is simply an expression of discontent and anger at the Trudeau government on any number of fronts.
As for the convoy's stated goals, I read a memorandum of understanding the group Canadian Unity put together earlier this week, and as I stated on Twitter, "it's farcical. It reads like something a couple of 14-year-olds would write up in a fanfiction approximation of what they think a historic and profound document should read like." The text in some places is simply indecipherable.
The leaders imagine that once they arrive in Ottawa, they'll convince the governor general and the senate to join with them in a new committee that will replace the federal government within 10 days, and then, within 90 days, reverse all vaccine mandates and any fines levied under them thus far. This would not be limited to within the federal jurisdiction; the new committee that is our new federal government would simply order the provinces, territories and municipalities to make it so. The document implies that it would do the same for private-sector mandates, but that section is written so badly I can’t tell you with any certainty what is actually being proposed.
Journalist Justin Ling, in a radio interview Friday morning with my SiriusXM colleague Arlene Bynon, recapped the known extremist links for many of the rally's organizers. (He followed up with more detail later on Friday, and it’s grim reading.) Yet despite the appalling words and actions of some of the leaders, there's plenty of normal, well-meaning people joining up (as Ling himself rightly noted). That's always the way it goes with these protests. On left and right, every protest that gains any traction these days finds itself an awkward union of well-meaning people and hard-edged agitators looking to cause trouble.
And this poses a problem we’ve yet to satisfactorily solve. What counts more? The average people with genuine (if perhaps badly informed) concerns? Or the fanatics with extremist views who want to literally overthrow the government?
What do we do — again, what's the smart thing to do — when some significant percentage of your population is thoroughly alienated from the mainstream and increasingly furious, and their anger is driven by a mix of genuine and sincere frustration mixed in with fringe insanity and outright malicious violence-infused rhetoric? Do you ignore the odious stuff and try to engage with them to address the genuine issues, or do you dismiss the whole lot at the first sighting of a Confederate flag? (Which happened really quickly, for what it's worth.)
We haven't figured out yet how to handle this, but we need to, because some of the people showing up in Ottawa are good people with genuine concerns, and some of them are vile people seeking conflict with our democratically elected government, and we can't treat both of these groups the same way without making all our problems worse.
In any case, whatever the smart play is, I have a pretty good sense of what will happen: the prime minister will see in this an opportunity to bolster his own political fortunes. He's done it before, remember? During the last election, when confronted by angry mobs at campaign stops, Justin Trudeau tried empathy for a few hours, and then, presumably after looking at some focus-group results, pivoted to anger and attack. He never looked back. In comments earlier this week, he signalled that he's planning more of the same: he described the protesters as a "fringe" with "unacceptable views." This is an absolute gift to the hard-edged protesters, and it'll only further piss off the normies who've tagged along, making the rhetoric of the militants all the more appealing. Meanwhile, in a true circle of giving, the convoy is a gift to Trudeau, too: The PM's tough-guy act will appeal to the majority of Canadians who would rather give vent to their own frustrations on loons calling for our democratically elected prime minister to be arrested.
We can all see the problem, I think. This is moving into "unstoppable force meets immovable object" territory. What's the happy outcome here? What's the offramp? What's a compromise everyone can live with? I do not envy the public security officials tasked with keeping everything calm and safe in Ottawa this weekend. Even if this doesn't boil over this time — God willing, it won't — the anger isn't going to go away. It exists. It's out there. What are we going to do with it?
In the short term, I don't know what we will do. I really don't. We have to manage this and de-escalate as best we can and hope nothing terrible happens. Our current crop of political leaders are simply not up to this job. Trudeau will likely makes things worse for his own gain; O’Toole’s days seem numbered, as members of his caucus openly express their support for the convoy. Both men are polling under 30 per cent; Trudeau isn’t even the top pick among Liberals. Both of the parties that can plausibly form a government are losing Canadians, and it’s easy to see why. This is a problem!
In the long-term, though, it seems that a smart thing to do would be starving the fringe of oxygen, right?
I'm a realist. There will always be a fringe — a fringe on both sides of the spectrum. The right-wing fringe, which is the concern today, is fired up and self-sustaining. It's global in scope and has detached itself so thoroughly from the mainstream that traditional outreach tools like education via media and societal institutions won't work — the media and the institutions are among the preferred targets of the fringe. You’re not going to talk these guys down by citing the Toronto Star, or, indeed, The Line. The movement can sustain itself on social networks with all the misinfo it can create indefinitely. We're stuck with it. But if we want to keep it a fringe, we need to isolate it and wall it off by keeping our moderate institutions strong and competent.
And we're not doing that, are we? The greatest bulwark against expansion of the fringes is a confident, functional centre, and as we often recount here at The Line, Canadian institutions (and many others more generally across the Western world) are in a bit of a state, aren't they?
We have a military that can't fight. A federal government that can't procure pistols for the army or pay its own employees. The best and brightest public health leaders we’ve got told us that the risk to Canada from COVID-19 was low, until it wasn't, and then they thoroughly botched the response. Inflation is heating up, food insecurity is rising, you can't buy a house anywhere near one of our major cities unless your parents can spot you the first million bucks, and in much of the country, the schools haven't functioned properly in two years. Hell, here in Toronto, it took the city 10 days — ten! — to clear the snow from the streets after a recent blizzard.
Canada is increasingly, as Lauren Dobson-Hughes wrote so aptly here, not fit for purpose. All of us know that things can be better and need to be better, and it's not happening. And we all know why — our political class, as a whole, isn't up to it. It's either beyond their ability or simply not of interest. The elected officials and their would-be successors are too often content to dunk on their opponents and wage meme wars while the problems we face get worse and more obvious and the partisan divide ever-more entrenched. Some of the challenges are hard, but not all of them are as hard as we make them. And so what we're left with is anger, a churning rage that is constantly searching for a new outlet or grievance. Again, is it any surprise that both the Conservatives and the Liberals are opposed by more than 70 per cent of the electorate?
Don’t mistake the above for too much sympathy for the convoyers. I'm not about to hit the 401 and go join the protest in Ottawa. I don't trust protests. I never have. Putting a bunch of angry people in proximity with other angry people with no obvious way to calm everyone down isn't a good idea. It's legal, and must be permitted so long as it remains peaceful, but it's not my scene.
But it's going to keep happening, and if we want it to stay confined to a relatively small fringe, beginning to fix a lot of the political and social problems we have, if only to prove that the state and its servants are still capable of productive action, is an obvious and necessary place to start. Dealing with the extremists is going to take years, and will never be entirely successful. In the meantime, let's do what we can to keep the fringe at the fringe by fixing the problems we can fix — the problems that need fixing on their own merits anyway — in the middle, where most of us live.
Some of this pressure will probably ease as the pandemic ends. Across the world, and increasingly, here in Canada, there is a growing acknowledgement by politicians and public-health leaders that our strategies are going to have to adapt, and that will probably mean an end to vaccine passports for the general public in the not-too distant future. As a tool for encouraging the general public to get jabbed, they’ve taken us about as far as they can, and it’s getting hard to see the case for them outside of very specific settings like health-care facilities, long-term-care homes and perhaps some other niche environments. But to go to the local pub for a pint? That’s not going to last forever, and it’s probably time to start being honest about that, despite the fact that those most committed to stopping COVID-19 in its tracks will lose their minds. Any hint that we’ll ever be able to move beyond this dark period will help lower the temperature.
But only to a point, and the virus also has a say — we’ll have to wait to see what the future brings on that front. In the meantime, let's all take pains to not make things worse by pouring fuel onto what is a dangerous fire, no matter how satisfying it'll feel. Because remember: yelling at people to calm down fails every time, and screaming at them that they’re wrong doesn’t actually change any minds.
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