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Stuart Parker: Why the coverage of the trucker protest should worry all Canadians

Commentary

My career as a political essayist began thirteen years ago when I was asked by Rabble.ca to expand on my views about the prorogation crisis and why public opinion had turned so sharply in Stephen Harper’s favour, even among supporters of the parties trying to topple his government.

My thesis, then, bears repeating today:

“In our voting system, the most successful party is one best at reducing the number of choices its potential voters feel that they have. A look at Liberal messaging shows that Jean Chretien became increasingly reliant on his ability to convince potential NDP and Green Party supporters to vote for his party. And despite his antipathy for Chretien, Paul Martin intensified this approach. What we missed during that time was how this change in Liberal tactics helped to change Canadian ideas of what made a legitimate government. As the Liberals lost their capacity to intimidate left-of-centre voters, they lost power. And Canadians learned a lesson: a government’s legitimacy comes not from its ability to appeal to the majority but instead from its ability to control and discipline its own supporters and potential supporters.”

In the ensuing thirteen years, this idea has become increasingly entrenched in mainstream Canadian values. If a candidate for office or legislator expresses any view contradicting their party’s leadership in any way, it becomes a scandal, even if their view is broadly supported by the public and the head office view is unpopular.

It is covered in the media as a threat to a party’s ability to govern because the leadership’s control over its legislators and prospective legislators is less than absolute. It reveals not that a party is diverse, complex, and pluralistic (all things once deemed core Canadian values) but rather that the party is weak and unsafe because it permits diversity, complexity, or pluralism. The country that invented the Westminster parliamentary system still routinely tolerates dozens of MPs voting against a party’s leadership and yet not just remaining in the fold but eligible for future promotion. Indeed, the Westminster system was designed to handle major splits within the factions it represents.

Caucus rebels, back in the twentieth century, were understood to be legislators who could be expected to vote against and/or publicly contradict their leaders during every term they served. Today, the definition of a caucus rebel is a legislator who votes in lockstep with their party, never makes a public pronouncement not approved of by the party but grumbles about having to do this in private with their core supporters. MPs and MLAs, right now, are being punished by chiefs of staff and party whips simply for privately grumbling—that is all that dissent has become.

As I predicted back in 2008, the people who now hold this belief that anything less than total control and absolute discipline is a sign of weakness and illegitimacy are now what pollsters politely call “the centre-left.”

Sadly, as with all broadly held cultural assumptions, these values concerning control, submission, and dissent eventually escape their original context and run rampant through society. If people become convinced of a new moral order for how the world above them should run, it ultimately shakes down to the world below.

And we see this here with centre-left reaction to the national truckers’ protest in Ottawa. No permanent organization is running this protest, which appears to be built around social media, a GoFundMe page, and a loose affiliation of local leadership groups developed in provincial protests by truckers over the past few years.

And of course, it does not represent all or even most truckers in the industry. The crew who are in Ottawa are whiter, more rural, and more right-leaning than the industry as a whole, which is, in turn, whiter, more rural, and more right-leaning than Canadian society as a whole. The folks in Ottawa are also more likely to be “owner-operators,” who have financed their heavy equipment through financial institutions. Those driving trucks owned by extended families or by trucking companies directly are much less likely to be part of the protest.

There is no doubt that a small fraction of these individuals are members of Canada’s tiny fascist militias, the Sons of Odin, the Proud Boys, and other far-right political groups and that a disproportionate number voted for the People’s Party. In addition, the spirit of the protest and the issue it is taking up, vaccine passports, have attracted members of right-wing groups that are not themselves truckers but wish to express solidarity or see the protest as an organizing and recruitment opportunity.

Those of us who cut our teeth in the 1980s peace movement know this story well. The Vancouver Peace March used to attract 10 percent of the city’s population (50,000 protesters at its peak) for its annual walk across Burrard Bridge to support global nuclear disarmament. And, consequently, the vanguard of the march comprised the Trotskyites, Maoists, and other communist sectarians and foreign dictator fan clubs who saw this as their big annual opportunity to radicalize and recruit ordinary anti-nuclear activists.

Right-wing commentators sought to discredit these protests by heavily featuring and platforming the most off-topic or the most radical protesters and then seeking to paint all protesters with that broad brush. This approach generally failed and was mocked by the mainstream press, who depicted the diversity of protesters and homemade signs as a sign of the depth of its support.

But today, that approach is working because our society’s mainstream values have changed and because the target audience is a different one.

Because Canadians, as a whole, but especially centre-left voters have now come to believe that the legitimacy of a movement inheres not in its size or the diversity of people and views it represents but rather in its ability to discipline and control its supporters, this protest looks both illegitimate and frightening. Not only is this protest not controlling the speech and signage of its members; it is celebrating its refusal to control these things and instead sticking to the basics of making sure protesters are nonviolent and law-abiding.

And, in progressive, urban Canada, this broad-brush guilt-by-association strategy exhumed from the 1980s appears to be working, no matter how intellectually lazy its journalistic practitioners are being. Let me rehearse the kinds of sloppy reporting we are seeing here:

  • The most bigoted and ignorant Tweets and Facebook comments by individuals supporting the truckers are being cherrypicked and reported as news about the protesters’ shared beliefs, usually without even checking to see if the person is even in Ottawa as part of the protest. The views are not those of the organizers, just its most offensive and deranged supporters. This move, akin to writing a peace march article primarily covering the views of pro-North Korea and nudist activists at the walk, is going over shockingly well with Canada’s urban centre-left because it signifies to them one or both of two things (a) the truckers are all homophobic Klansmen or (b) the organizers are unable/unwilling to control the speech and signage of every participant in the protests.
  • Mainstream politicians like Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus are able to credit any hate mail or abusive communication to “the convoy crew” and have the protesters and organizers collectively blamed for the communication. Again, this rhetoric is only effective because we have made the belief that the organizers of a protest can or should control the private correspondence of every single participant and supporter a reasonable one.
  • Despite a recent passing interest in toppling pro-Confederate and pro-war statues in the United States, Canadian progressives have suddenly become very concerned about nationalist statuary. While I would never try to politicize a Terry Fox statue, myself, the level of offense centre-left urbanites are taking at people placing entirely removable and undamaging objects and signs on Ottawa’s Fox memorial is deeply worrying. No one has toppled the statue; nobody has even got paint on it. Similarly, the fact that there is urine of unknown provenance in the snow near the memorial to the unknown soldier is now being redescribed as protesters, as a whole, urinating on and thereby desecrating the war memorial. Who knew that the mere possibility of a half a dozen or fewer individuals disrespecting a war memorial by urinating near it could de-legitimate a gathering of thousands in the minds of Canada’s mainstream centre-left!?
  • Many protesters are making false and unreasonable comparisons between present-day Canada and the early days of Nazi Germany. Like most Canadians, I find these comparisons deeply offensive. But that is what they are: deeply offensive comparisons, born largely of ignorance and a persecution complex. The prevalence of such comparisons among the truckers would, in my view, be a reasonable issue for news media to cover. But, instead, what we see is rhetorical overreach into falsehood. News media are depicting the hand-drawn swastikas and upside-down maple leaves used in the posters making those comparisons as endorsements of Naziism and opposition to the existence of Canada. While I am sure there are some genuine Nazi sympathizers among the thousands of truckers in Ottawa, the protest art I have seen using the swastika is the basis of an inaccurate and offensive comparison and not an endorsement of Hitler. Fortunately, because Canadians’ willful embrace of ignorance and stupidity, urban progressives who can, themselves, barely hold onto the idea that one can compare one thing to another thing, are unable to imagine that the truckers may be using symbols to make a comparison—no, they must all be Nazis, traitors.

While it is true that I agree with the truckers on the main issue they are raising, that of vaccine passports, they are not my political community. I agree with them on few if any other issues. Many do hold views I find not just disagreeable but repugnant. I am sure many are climate denialists, for instance.

I am not writing this piece to advocate for the protest and its participants. I am writing this piece to ask Canadians like me whether we want our future protests to be judged and covered by standards applied to the truckers today. I am asking us to think about what happens to the horizon of possibility for mass organizing when we throw in with the idea that actual, authentic grassroots protests are a thing of the past and the only legitimate public demonstration is one choreographed from above, its participants carefully disciplined into reading from an identical script or into silence.

We should also think about the Proud Boys and Sons of Odin who have gone to the rally to radicalize its participants. The on-the-ground experience of regular folks participating will be of being called Nazis, traitors, Klansmen, bigots, etc. Not only will this place greater distance between the participants and urban Canadian society; it will make them look less unfavourably on others who are called Nazis and Klansmen. How bad could those guys really be, they will ask themselves? Were they also smeared as part of a bum rap by shills for the pharmaceutical industry?

They will wonder if those folks also came to be known as these things the way they did. As a person who, because I dissented from the progressive consensus on a single issue, has been smeared as a transphobe, homophobe, pedophile, white supremacist, racist, and ableist in the past year and a half, I can no longer simply accept the opinion of centre-left media on whether someone is a dangerous, bigoted member of the alt-right. I can no longer trust the government-financed Canadian Anti-Hate Network on whether someone is a dangerous hatemonger because many of my comrades and I are on their list. And not everyone is going to be like me and check those claims against the facts. Most people will just start ignoring those claims.

There is a high price to pay when you decide to cry “wolf” over fascism in a political situation like our own, where the authoritarian threat is real and society-wide.

More importantly still, I am trying to sound a cultural alarm bell about the exaltation of order, disciple, and control as Canadians’ primary political values. The fact is that those values are authoritarian. In a nation wherein rapid, dramatic change is not just a moral necessity but an ecological one, we need to retain the capacity for mass mobilization and our capacity to resist an authoritarian regime, irrespective of whether it calls itself progressive or conservative.

Rudyard Griffiths: Time to face the unpleasant truth: Reforming our health system is an urgent necessity

Commentary

What is the plan?

This is the question we should be asking ourselves morning, noon, and night.

Ontario and Quebec, the economic engines of the nation, cannot endure another COVID shutdown. Shaky public finances will buckle. Public confidence will collapse. Talent will flee. An already acute physical and mental health crisis will metastasize into a tragedy of unimaginable suffering. It is by no means hyperbole to posit that the risk of another prolonged shutdown is existential. 

Yet here we find ourselves again…slowly and painfully emerging from the fourth round of mass closures in twenty months with not only no plan in sight but the absence of even a discussion of what we could do to prevent future shutdowns.

Who is to blame for the void of ideas and action on the single most important issue we face? It’s too easy to call out hyperreactive politicians and governments. Both are in survival mode caught up in case counts, hospitalizations, and polling numbers. The media sadly has shown itself to be largely uninterested in examining the hard choices required to pandemic proof our institutions. Instead, clickbait COVID headlines and “hot takes” from the country’s self-appointed COVID expert class clog our social feeds and desktops. The result is we are two years into this crisis and have yet to have any kind of coherent conversation about the steps and actions we need to take to avoid a fifth, sixth, or seventh lockdown.    

The real culprit of our collective inaction and paralysis is us. It’s the broad public who are deeply uncomfortable with the difficult truths COVID-19 has revealed about our single most important and cherished public institution: health care. 

Public health care systems were in trouble before the pandemic. We knew we were rationing care through the silent suffering of lengthy wait times. We knew the opioid epidemic was, in part, a reflection of systems that lacked the resources to address chronic illness and debilitating pain. We knew that the delivery of health care had become overly bureaucratized. But despite all these failings we clung to our single-payer system because it represented one of the last vestiges of an older civic compact based on an ethos of mutual care and solidarity. 

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson

The pandemic has done something more pernicious to public health care than just flooding our hospitals with sick and dying, canceling lifesaving surgeries, and burning out legions of frontline workers. It has turned a touchstone of common identity into the foil for our collective immiseration through shutdowns, closures, restrictions on basic civil liberties, and divisive debates about vaccines.

With fewer intensive care units per 100,000 people than Mongolia and total bed capacity near the bottom of the OECD, our public health systems have become choke points that strangle any effective, long-term strategy to manage COVID-19. 

How else do you explain a province like Ontario with almost 15,000,000 residents repeatedly shutting down when its COVID-related critical care admissions top four hundred, or a paltry one I.C.U. COVID patient for every 40,000 residents?

This we know: there will be more variants. Some will be milder than Omicron. Some less infectious. Others may not. With billions of people around the world unvaccinated and immunocompromised, COVID will mutate relentlessly looking for new ways to evade both vaccines and naturally acquired immunity. The comforting prediction that COVID will soon become endemic and mostly harmless is an assumption based on past pandemics shaped by different pathogens, different public health responses, and different therapeutic technologies (e.g. there weren’t tens of millions of people on retroviral drugs in 1918-19). The risk of future shutdowns in a significantly health care-constrained country such as Canada isn’t some hazy hypothetical, it’s a highly probable event in our near-term future. 

We are at the breaking point. The debilitating effects of another shutdown cannot be overstated. As painful and disorienting as it will be for our collective sense of self, we have to rethink health care delivery. Everything needs to be on the table, from the private funding of the medically necessary hospital and physician costs, to public/private partnerships to build more hospitals, to opening up professional credentialization, to user fees, to the holy of holies: a rethink of universality itself. 

Fortunately, we can learn from countries that are much farther down the road of health care innovation and reform and who have efficient and high-performing health care systems such as Norway, the Netherlands, and Israel, to name a few. Systems that proved themselves better able to cope with the surges in infection that have swept the world repeatedly and will do so for the foreseeable future. We need to follow their tracks and move fast. The virus isn’t waiting. It’s mutating. 

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson

The rejoinder to such a clarion call is to increase government funding and build more hospitals, hire more doctors and nurses, expand not contract universality to pharma care, dental care, etc., etc., etc. We are in an emergency. The clock on the next shutdown is ticking. With most provincial budgets already allocating 40 percent or more of revenues to health care, there aren’t the resources to do what needs to be done at the speed with which a transformation has to happen. Ottawa is similarly financially constrained as our debt-addled federal government falls ever deeper into deficit spending in the tens of billions annually for years to come.

If we want to be honest with ourselves the traditional response of injecting more government funding into health care wasn’t working before COVID. Wait times were increasing. Bureaucratization was growing. Patient outcomes were worsening. Health care costs were growing faster than inflation and population. 

The problems with the current system are structural. We can only change the system and start down the road of pandemic proofing our hospitals, economy, schools, and day-to-day lives if the change itself is structural. Anything short is a copout that will set the country up for another round of debilitating shutdowns. 

None of this is pleasant. No one is contemplating wrenching changes to an institution like health care that is integral to our national way of life with glee. This isn’t about ideology. It’s about facing up to reality. It’s about living with this novel virus and the threat it represents for years and possibly decades to come. 

To fail in this singular task is to condemn ourselves to Einstein’s definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. 

Yet, nothing about this crisis is inevitable including future shutdowns. It’s past time to reform health care delivery in Canada and reclaim our agency in the era of COVID that will impact our way of life, like it or not, for years to come.