The past couple of years have seen some questionable encroachments on the civil liberties that ensure democracy, in an effort by governments to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. From an increasingly authoritative approach in Australia to last year’s controversial cessation of gathering limits in the United States, nations have struggled to balance management of the COVID-19 pandemic with democratic freedoms. A collective international response has been underwhelming, so countries have mostly relied on their own governments to determine the best approach, often including executive orders and local and federal mandates.
Canada has had some of the tightest and longest COVID-19 restrictions in the West. It’s one of the most vaccinated countries with at least 85% of its population from the age of five having received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Ontario students have remained in online school for longer than anywhere else in North America. All these measures and compliance with little dissent or pushback from the population, until recently. The coronavirus pandemic has generally been less ideologically polarizing in Canada than in the United States, with liberal and conservative provincial governments applying the same policies. But almost two years in, on January 28, in the capital of Ottawa, thousands of Canadians joined in protest of federal vaccine mandates for truckers.
The “Freedom Convoy” united Canadians across the country as citizens lined bridges, streets, and overpasses. Caravans traveled across provinces and gathered in capitals in opposition to the government’s handling of the pandemic. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s response to protestors reflects a generally accepted dismissal of protestors’ views and the event itself, one that fuels polarization, and delegitimizes and diminishes ‘alternative’ perspectives. The news media is primarily responsible for how events are portrayed and received, and in the wake of the Freedom Convoy, it has fed into this climate of polarization through wording and coverage choices.
On January 26, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a press conference that close to 90% of Canadians and the same percentage of truckers were vaccinated. He claimed that protestors approaching the capital were a “small, fringe minority” holding “unacceptable views” and “[did] not represent the views of Canadians who had been there for each other.” Exclusionary and polarizing comments like these are often used by demagogues and are highly effective at dividing a population.
Early coverage of the protest highlighted the official narrative condemning peaceful protestors and supporters and downplayed the stories of moderate and liberal participants who had found common ground.
Real-time information and statements by attendees were widely shared across Twitter and Telegram, but many details never made it into official news streams. (For example, the truth behind police reports on the trampling incident of an elderly woman.) Organizers and supporters from various ideological backgrounds acknowledged the presence of more extreme views but said that overwhelmingly, the environment was one of peace and it felt like a family. A general lack of access to first-person coverage and interviews surrounding protest events has allowed the condemnation of the Freedom Convoy and limited the marketplace of ideas.
Copycat convoys in the United States, Australia, across Europe, and Israel have been planned and carried out at varying scales as a result of Canada’s initiative. Participants are voicing the same concerns and fears about overreach by the government in handling COVID-19 and subsequent protests; and a general feeling of not being heard. It seems that the frustrations shared by individuals from all walks of life and ideologies make up a larger “minority” than expected. This movement becomes less “fringe” as it’s taken up by multitudes across the globe.
It’s important to note that the steps taken to discredit the protest events, and those that were undertaken not only in Canada but in Israel to break up the protests, have incited fear and distrust in the democratic institutions of these nations, including banks and police forces. The long-term effect of which we can only wait to see.
The assumption that alternative, non-mainstream, or simply different views must be extreme or wrong leads to them being labeled and condoned as “unacceptable.” The way that the Freedom Convoy protest has been covered by the media has reinforced Trudeau’s initial sentiment and defined the movement for much of the world. Trudeau’s words echo those of traditionally populist demagogues, that intentionally fuel ideological divides. Unlike the United States, Canada has not been the face of a rise in polarization and its subsequent threat to democracy. But the government’s stance on largely peaceful and unifying protests has set a precarious precedent for the freedom to dissent in the future.