Maxime Bernier

Protest co-organizer Daniel Pilon and Maxime Bernier

So-called pandemic freedom fighters exploit the gullible, endanger the vulnerable

“In every village, there’s a village idiot. And the pandemic has, inevitably, exposed every single one of them.”

This past Saturday, I met up with a friend for a walk in the city. Our meeting point was Jean Talon metro and then we walked the stretch all the way to Park Ex. We lined up at a popular Greek bakery for spinach pies and dessert, checked out the new spring arrivals at Joe Fresh, grabbed some samosas to go, sat in the sun chit-chatting, wandered by Athena Park where a statue of the goddess and Pakistani grandpas like to hang out, and then popped in at an Asian market for some last-minute grocery shopping before going our separate ways. It was a nice, relaxing Saturday afternoon, away from my laptop. If it weren’t for the fact that we had to wear masks to enter the stores, I would have barely noticed there was a pandemic going on.

A few kilometres away, and completely unbeknownst to me, Maxime Bernier (sporting a popped collar and navy stripes, looking like he had just accidentally wandered off a sailboat docked at Martha’s Vineyard) was fighting for “my freedom.” While I was selfishly soaking up the spring sun, Maxime, accompanied by his merry band of conspiracy theorists and COVID deniers, was coming to my rescue. I wish I would have known — I would have grabbed him a samosa, too. 

Living in a sanitary dictatorship

“I’m in Montreal in a big rally, fighting for your freedom, for our freedom, and that’s only the beginning,” he stated in a video taken at the protest. “We are sending a strong message to these establishment politicians, ‘Enough is enough, we must stop these Draconian lockdowns right now.’” 

The message was nothing new. He said the same thing a few weeks ago in Edmonton, in front of the Alberta legislature, calling for the government to fully open the province and put an end to its COVID health restrictions. “Our freedoms are under attack,” Bernier told the crowd at the time. “We must defend our rights, our way of life and our western civilization values. Fully open Alberta and protect the vulnerable.” 

Fast-forward to May 2 and Premier Jason Kenney is now suspending the legislature as COVID cases soar to record levels and hospitals are preparing to triage patients. The “vulnerable” are the ones in ICUs on ventilators, many of which will die alone. Bernier has moved on to the next town, the next province and the next group of confused dissidents. 

There’s something funny about a man who was elected in a riding his own father represented for decades proclaiming that he’s fighting establishment politicians, like he’s a political outsider and not some privileged white dude who blew every chance he’s generously been given, starting with his inability to remember where he leaves valuable paperwork. But I digress…

According to Bernier and everyone at that rally, people like me, who abide by public health guidelines and aim to get vaccinated as soon as possible, are far too stupid to realize that we’re living in a sanitary dictatorship. People who use such hyperbolic terms have, of course, never experienced a real dictatorship or any kind of authoritarian rule where their freedom or their lives were even remotely at risk. They pack a bus with their flags and their posters and their silly slogans, like “Say no to globalization” (feel free to tell the virus), they perform their little “rebel without a cause” routines, snap some pics for social media and then go home, unbothered and un-detained, just in time for dinner. Even the Montreal police, who were indiscriminately tear-gassing and kettling journalists and students during the 2012 Maple Spring protests, barely lifted a finger to inconvenience them in any way.

To say that Bernier’s political career is a derailed train would be an understatement. I’d be tempted to dismiss him as just another political opportunist, exploiting people’s fears and confusion for personal gain, but this is also the man who came within a hair of winning the leadership of the Canadian Conservative Party — the country’s second most popular party. 

The price paid for conspiracy theories

In other words, there are people who will listen to what Bernier believes and communicates, and so he, and others like him, have the power to undermine efforts to contain this virus. There are, unfortunately, antivaxxers and anti-government conspiracy believers who sincerely think we’re living in a sanitary dictatorship just because we’ve been asked to wear masks and temporarily implemented restrictions to protect each other during a global pandemic.

Those who deny the magnitude of the pandemic continue to put real lives in danger and undermine healthcare efforts. People continue to die daily, and we now know enough about COVID long-haulers to understand the long-term health ramifications faced even by those who “survive” the virus. The protest also forced the vaccination site at the Olympic Stadium to temporarily shut down and vaccine appointments to be rescheduled. While the government did what it had to do to keep the vaccine rollout moving, it irks me that resources and time were spent on this. Frontline healthcare workers already have enough on their plates.

Every time I read about some poor COVID denier, like Drummondville native Gisèle Beaudoin, who ended up in a hospital and died because they refused to take it seriously, my heart hurts for them and their families. They are victims of misinformation and misguided advice, yes. But they are also victims of these charlatans who are trying to win political points and electoral votes on the backs of gullible and scared people. 

Legitimate criticism of government vs. conspiracy theories

Journalists, scientists and educators have, of course, a right and a duty to question some of the choices made: what’s being prioritized, the severity of curfews, the choice of lockdowns and their effectiveness, etc. These are all legitimate debates to have, and people should question to what degree a government is choosing to listen to science over business interests and satisfying their electoral base. Lives are at risk, and some politicians have proven to be callous and indifferent to racial, social and regional disparities and realities. There is lots to criticize and lots that could have been done better. 

But anyone who thinks they’re living in a dictatorship because they’ve been asked to put on a mask to protect themselves and others around them, or anyone who thinks it’s a hardship not to be able to go to the gym or travel without being forced to quarantine, is suffering from self-centred delusion at this point. Close to 14 months in, and with millions of deaths around the world, we can no longer feign ignorance. Unfortunately, in every village, there’s a village idiot. And the pandemic has, inevitably, exposed every single one of them.

Every time I see one of these protests with people callously defying public health guidelines, walking around without masks, recklessly endangering others, convinced that they somehow know something that scientists and medical professionals who have dedicated their entire lives to their fields don’t, I get frustrated. I can’t imagine the frustration of overworked, exhausted healthcare staff as they navigate their days dealing with these crabs in the bucket perpetually pulling all of us back. 

But there’s light at the end of the tunnel. For the most part, Quebecers are flocking to get their vaccine shots, eager to get this under control and have a life again. And that’s a good thing. Now, more than ever, this pandemic has reminded us how interdependent we all are. All we can do is stay the course, keep fighting misinformation and refuse to allow politicians like Bernier and others like him to feed off the fear by pulling stunts like these. 

I know where my freedom resides and it’s in ending this pandemic with sound science, collective intelligence, and clear-sighted solidarity that leaves no one behind. Not even those who pop their collars and lead pointless protests, instead of rolling up their sleeves and helping end this sooner. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.