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Steve Lafleur: The rule of law matters too: Lessons from the Freedom Convoy, one year later

Commentary

A year ago, the Convoy rolled into Ottawa. I’ve long been a critic of disruptive left-wing protests. I have had a front-row seat to two of the most disruptive ones in North America where I was shocked by the lengths to which bored teenagers would go to make a point. Smashing a Starbucks didn’t seem like a reasonable way to emphasize how much you hate globalization, nor does throwing soup at paintings to express displeasure with global climate policies. So, I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about the Convoy.

I’ll admit. I’m biased against disruptive protests. The rule of law underpins modern society. It’s like a bone inside your body: you don’t really notice it unless it breaks, but it holds things together. We live our lives every day knowing that other people will also follow the law—or at least enough of us to keep the world spinning. The idea that you can cause property damage or grind a city to a halt to make a point never made sense to me. 

Needless to say, I was not pleased when the horns started. After weeks of deafening protests by truckers, I’d had enough. Honking might not seem like a big deal, but eventually, it starts to feel like torture. This was the last straw for us. We decided to move out of Downtown Toronto.

Perhaps you guessed it, but that last anecdote wasn’t about the Convoy. It was about the Indian consulate protests in 2021. Every Friday afternoon, trucks would drive through major Toronto streets slowly while wailing their horns, followed by a convoy of supporters. Dump trucks crashing their beds up and down for hours on end was the cherry on top. That sound is etched on my brain. 

We lived just off Bloor Street, across from the Indian consulate. Working from home while deafening noise rattles around in your brain is enough to drive you crazy. Try doing a Zoom call when you can’t hear yourself think. It doesn’t work out so well. The only good thing I can say about the protests is that at least they were only a few hours a week. But it was more than we were willing to put up with.

We moved out of downtown in part to avoid any future protests. We lived in a high-rise building that was built to withstand street traffic. It was not built to withstand this. We figured it wouldn’t be the last protest. Sure enough, along came the Convoy. By that point, we’d left downtown. Ironically, the planned Convoy route cut through my new neighbourhood. 

People who don’t live in Toronto may not realize this, but there were a tense few days when Convoy protests were planned for Toronto. People were really on edge. I bought heavy-duty earplugs. Based on the messages normally even-keeled friends of mine were sending around, I don’t think Torontonians were going to be quite as patient as Ottawans. Especially those with young children. Mercifully, the Toronto police did what the Ottawa police did not: they blocked off major streets in the downtown core to limit disruptions. So it fizzled out. 

Protests are a legitimate part of democratic life. However, there are limits to what anyone will or should accept. No one is going to mind if you go to Queens’ Park or maybe the sidewalk outside of a company you’re mad at. That’s much different than shutting down a street forever because you want to make a political point. 

Part of the problem with debates over the right to protest is that people romanticize the past. People seem to think they can be Martin Luther King without the Birmingham jail. Civil disobedience is no joke. If you feel strongly enough about a law that you are willing to go to jail to call attention to the injustice of the system then, well, you go to jail. The idea that people have the right to cosplay as revolutionaries and occupy a city indefinitely is utter nonsense. 

For those who don’t live in urban centres, ask yourself this: how would you feel if people were allowed to park in front of your house and honk all day while also enjoying police protection?  I imagine you wouldn’t like that. 

There is no right to annoy people. We have bylaws. You can’t make unlimited noise in your house any more than I can open a 24-hour nightclub in a cul-de-sac. Bylaws might go too far sometimes, but we have processes to change those bylaws. You don’t get to just pick and choose which ones you like. That’s what the ballot box is for.

The unusual thing about the Convoy wasn’t the police crackdown but how long it took. Those of us who were in Toronto during the 2010 G-20 protests remember how quickly police are willing to clear the scene under most circumstances. 

Things turned on a dime from marching to fleeing, then. I was chatting with one of the riot police right as the crackdown started and he abruptly turned and told me I had about thirty seconds to leave. It was too late to avoid the teargas by that point. The police might have gone too far. But at some point, protesters have to go home. Whether it was done rightly or not, the streets were cleared and life went on. 

I was also at the 2009 G-20 conference in Pittsburgh (that time as a protester, not an observer). This was ten years after the infamous Battle of Seattle at the G-20 summit in 1999. The police weren’t going to let history repeat itself. I remember crossing the street while a line of armed police repeatedly tapped their shields with their batons to announce their presence. Blackhawk helicopters circled the downtown. It was clear they weren’t messing around. Our little pro-free trade group waved some signs then got out while the going was good. Unsurprisingly, it ended with teargas. By the next day, it was almost as though the protest never happened. I was just a tourist enjoying the city.

At the time of writing there is a large anti-coal protest in Germany. Celebrities like Greta Thunberg are being hauled away by police—gleefully, I’d add. They know what they’re doing. The point of a protest isn’t usually to physically shut something down. It’s usually a glorified photo op that gets sorted out by lawyers afterward. But it gets them on TV. It may be annoying sometimes, but it sorts itself out pretty quickly. Protests aren’t meant to last forever.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with protests. But there are limits. Unless there is a literal coup d’état or the Soviets roll in with tanks, disruptive protests are hard to justify. Moreover, it’s not clear that they achieve anything. Frankly, if they did, it would send a really bad message. 

One of the last things we need as a society is for people to start to think that they can get what they want by smashing things or taking communities hostage. That doesn’t end well.

Jeremy Roberts: Our public discourse will suffer until our civic culture improves

Commentary

Last week Ontario Progressive Conservative government introduced changes that will allow more surgeries to be done outside of hospitals, including at private and not-for-profit health-care centres. It’s a move that was, as expected, met with a significant reaction from the public.

On the one hand, there were those that saluted that move as a common-sense change to how we deliver health care to patients in the province.

On the other hand, it was hailed as a dangerous change that will lead to further privatization of health-care services. The opposition parties have already started a petition to “Stop the Privatization.” 

Where exactly is the truth?

Many writers will debate the merits of this policy. In fact, my colleagues at The Hub have already done so. This piece isn’t exactly about that.

What I’m more interested in is the fact that we, as a society, cannot have a critical discussion about issues like these. Our civic culture promotes a polarization effect, whereby issues harden into twin choices. Our political actors work to shape those choices.

In this particular debate, you are either: (1) for reducing wait times or against it; or (2) pro-privatization or anti-privatization. Those are the frames that will be played out in the coming weeks. Expect the temperature to rise when the Legislature resumes sitting in February.

This practice of framing is done by all (successful) parties. Why? Because it works. And it’s backed up by data. 

In our era of busy lives, people respond to easy frames that tap into their moral frameworks. 

If I were still in politics, it’s what I would do too.

But herein lies the problem. How can we as a society have substantial conversations about critical policy issues like this without putting aside this framing?

On a broader level: can we change our civic culture to better foster dialogue?

This health-care debate is just one example. There is growing agreement across the country that our health-care system isn’t working how it should. We need to be willing to have a dialogue that moves beyond simple frames because this isn’t a simple problem. Engaging with an issue means looking at what other jurisdictions have done. What has worked and what hasn’t? What do the academic and think tank literature say? Do we have data on outcomes? Are solutions cost-effective?

These are some of the criteria that we should judge our complex policies with. Not frames, but real information.

If we look at climate policy, we see the same thing happening. Like health care, climate change is not a simple policy challenge. But almost all policy discussions are subjected to framing before the policies get a real thorough discussion. Are you for or against carbon pricing/tax? Are you pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear? We can’t move past the frames and have a substantial discussion.

So, I return to my question on whether we can change our civic culture.

It seems an insurmountable task. But I had a glimmer of hope recently.

I had the chance this month to speak to a group of students at the Munk School for Global Affairs and Public Policy. The students are in their twenties and, believe me when I tell you, many of them have strong opinions.

But what struck me was, despite their strong opinions, they were willing to listen to each other. They engaged on points of policy. They made concessions where they saw new evidence and worked to persuade where they felt their own cases were stronger.

Obviously, this group of students is self-selected. These are young people who chose to study public policy in a graduate setting. 

But despite growing up in a civic culture that promotes polarization, they were able to look beyond that.

I’ve written here before that I believe strongly that better civic education is the key to solving some of society’s challenges. I remain convinced that putting faith in our youth is the key to breaking free from these sorts of societal dilemmas.

And my experience with these students helped reinforce that view.

We can start by teaching kids about these frames and why they happen. We can also provide young people with the tools needed to critically analyze issues, which should be a fundamental objective of education anyways. 

And we’re fortunate in Ontario to have many brilliant organizations operating at the national, provincial, and local levels that want to help foster these skills. CIVIX, the Samara Centre for Democracy, and even our very own Hub

To readers, I ask this: when a new issue comes up, pause and acknowledge the framing, then move past it to engage on a deeper level with the policy.

And to parties and governments, I would offer this: let’s consider how to best equip youth to be better citizens and improve our civic culture in the long run.