Convoy Pandemic Canadians remove restrictions ottawa

Photo by Steve Walsh

The Convoy may be temporarily over, but the pandemic remains

“While I sympathize with some of the (peaceful) protesters’ grievances, the convoy objectively remains a movement led by questionable people with questionable motives. Most of all, it’s been a dangerous distraction from the bigger picture.”

After three weeks of watching non-stop coverage of the convoy protests — the incredulity of the delayed government and police reaction, the privilege of protesters on full display, the incoherent arguments of convoy leaders (who somehow thought their years of watching Law & Order had supplied them with the expert legal knowledge required to tackle bail hearings and ultimatums issued to government leaders) and, finally, the inevitable and necessary policing action to free the city from what was often a violent and hostile occupation — the dust has settled and we’re collectively trying to figure out what happened. But it’s far from over. The sentiments and beliefs that propelled the movement remain. 

There are still far too many people who directly support or aren’t as concerned as they should be by the rise of the far right in Canada and around the world. Too many Canadians still get their science information from non-credible sources. Too many still don’t have a good handle on media literacy, allowing themselves to become easily swayed and manipulated pawns in the disinformation game. Far too many continue to underestimate this virus, despite the fact that we’re inching close to six million deaths worldwide. An increasing number of people have been convinced that mainstream media is straight-up lying to them, allowing the kind of abuse against journalists I’ve never seen before in North America. 

Violence against journalists on the rise

Journalists harassed by Convoy protesters in Ottawa
Journalists harassed by Convoy protesters in Ottawa

Some of the images from the past few weeks that will remain seared into my brain were images of journalists covering the convoy protests being assaulted, insulted, spat on, yelled at, called slurs, threatened with violence, forced to flee with bodyguards in tow. My heart sank watching them stay composed and professional while trying to finish their live hits, their safety compromised by misled people viewing them as the enemy. 

My inbox has been flooded for the past three weeks with much tamer, but equally relentless convoy supporters, repeatedly informing me that “mainstream media is bought by Big Pharma perpetuating lies that make vaccine makers money,” and that “COVID is fake news.” They’re convinced everyone supports their point of view. 

“Go see for yourself,” they tell me, and then link to YouTube videos, random Facebook pages of conspiracy theories or extreme far-right media sources portraying convoy protesters as heroes out to do God’s work. They almost always tell me to “do my research.” On the few occasions I’ve been tempted to respond, my emails bounce back because their addresses are untraceable, or I’ve been pre-emptively blocked. The people messaging me aren’t interested in dialogue. They just want me to be forced to listen to what they are convinced is the truth. 

“These were peaceful protests by ordinary Canadians fed up with useless mandates,” many insist. No, they weren’t. There was never going to be anything peaceful about protests organized by people who openly admitted that overthrowing a democratically elected government was their goal. It’s not a peaceful protest if journalists need to hire bodyguards. It’s not a peaceful protest if Ottawa residents (particularly minorities) are sequestered in their homes for weeks, afraid to go out for fear of being harassed or threatened because they’re wearing masks. It’s not a peaceful protest if Ottawa Police are forced to set up a hate crime hotline because of too many reports of assaults and threats. It’s not a peaceful protest if Ottawa’s 911 call centre is flooded with calls from mostly-U.S.-based convoy protesters, endangering lives. 

Terrorizing an entire city, shutting down a major bridge, issuing ultimatums and allowing a bunch of goons to take over our country’s capital for three entire weeks, aided and abetted by white privilege and a local police force that treated most of them with kid gloves for far too long, is not okay. Arresting people who openly broke the law and issued clear threats against democratically elected leaders is not “government overreach” or “tyranny,” it’s a direct and logical conclusion of their own actions. Most of these people continue to be completely unaware that they were given both a grace period and the kind of softball treatment by police that marginalized communities in Canada can only dream of.

Questions remain unanswered 

Now that the honking has finally stopped, the hot tub deflated and thrown out, the rigs towed and Ottawa residents can finally sleep and walk around in peace, what comes next? How do we fight this type of dangerous misinformation? How do we pull back people who’ve gone so far down the rabbit hole, radicalized by lies that have been maliciously fed to them by grifters and far-right organizations?

We can analyze and debate why the Emergencies Act was invoked and if it was even necessary — and I suspect we will hear many cogent arguments for and against it in the coming weeks as we unpack it all. But there has never been any question in my mind that what was happening in Ottawa needed to end because it should have never been allowed to happen in the first place. The federal government had been warned back in late January that violent extremist groups were deeply involved in the protest movement. 

If anything, I must agree with NDP MP for Winnipeg Centre, Leah Gazan, who stated during Monday’s debate on the Emergencies Act that the fact it was even invoked is a “failure of leadership at all levels of government to respond adequately to clear threats to national security and our very own democracy.” 

While I can sympathize with some of the (peaceful) protesters’ grievances and disillusionment, the convoy objectively and factually remains a dangerous movement led by questionable people with questionable motives. Most of all, it’s been a dangerous distraction from the bigger picture. 

COVID is still here

COVID-19 pandemic deaths February 2022

Close to 47,000 Americans died of COVID this month alone. “The death toll during the Omicron wave is about 17% higher so far than the death toll in the Delta wave.” As CBC News reporter David Cochrane pointed out, “More than 2,000 Canadians have died since the protesters occupied the downtown of Ottawa.”

Omicron isn’t “milder,” the pandemic isn’t “over,” taking basic precautions to stay safe and keep others around us safe isn’t “living in fear,” we don’t live in a “dictatorship” and Trudeau isn’t “exactly like Hitler” just because vaccine and mask mandates exist during a global pandemic.

We can have responsible, grown-up conversations and debates about how and when to start lifting mandates, while remaining acutely aware that there remains a reason for them. Hospitals and ERs are still overwhelmed, non-COVID patients keep falling through the cracks as surgery backlogs and delayed cancer diagnoses remain the direct consequence of a buckling healthcare system. Long COVID patients continue to confirm debilitating effects of a virus many still insist is harmless. As many provinces and countries begin lifting mandates — and politicians and public health officials try to navigate and appease pandemic fatigue — many doctors continue to voice concerns that we may be moving too fast in dropping all mandates and will be woefully unprepared if another variant appears.

A lack of solidarity 

When those opposed to any mandates say vaccine passports don’t work because “vaccines don’t prevent transmission,” they’re not arguing in good faith. Vaccines prevent deaths and hospitalizations, because they drastically reduce the chances of both. When hospitalizations decrease, the likelihood of a functioning healthcare system increases and the need for additional public health measures like lockdowns and mandates decreases. How do we still not understand this, two years into a global pandemic? 

Removing all vaccine and mask mandates when most young children aren’t yet vaccinated, telling immunocompromised people to “just stay home” or insisting it’s time to “learn to live with COVID” when we have basic and easy-to-implement public health measures to mitigate risk is the equivalent of someone telling you their child has a severe peanut allergy, yet you insist that it’s your right to bring that peanut butter and jelly sandwich to school. 

That’s not fighting for freedom from COVID. That’s just fighting for the freedom not to care about how your decisions affect others. Kind of sums up the entire Freedom Convoy for me. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.