How to Unify and Combat Polarisation in Times of Deep Division
What is the freedom convoy movement, who are its organisers, and where is it going?
The Freedom Convoy movement, as described by Michel Fournier-Simard, a PhD candidate and politics professor at Dawson, “is a movement [that] started around the 24th of January in BC about the specific issue of cross-border vaccination requirements for truckers. However, throughout the first week, a lot of people added to it, to express their frustrations on anything that [was] COVID related”. The political affiliations of some catalysts of the movement, such as Tamara Lich, James Bauder, and Patrick King, have been the source of concern for many Canadians. Critics brought up Tamara Lich’s role with the Maverick Party in Alberta as former secretary when expressing concerns over racism and white supremacy in the protests. These consternations were only magnified by concern towards James Bauder from Canada Unity and Patrick King, who are accused of being white supremacists and of encouraging hateful, racist, and undemocratic actions undertaken by some protesters in Ottawa.
However, other prominent figures of the convoy movement in Ottawa, notably Benjamin Victor and Chris Barber, have tried distancing themselves from hateful and racist figures within the convoy, and deny people’s claims of white supremacy and violence. They state that their board includes a Jewish man and Metis woman, and believe these controversial figures are “outliers” that do not reflect their movement. Instead, they explain the “freedom convoy” is meant to unify and represent Canadians of all ethnic backgrounds. In a press conference in early February, they also testified to working with local authorities to prevent violence and to keep their grassroots movement about removing COVID restrictions.
When the protest first started, there wasn’t much concern about violence and division, as “it was [an overall] positive demonstration, with people of all ages and backgrounds, vaccinated and unvaccinated, in Ottawa celebrating and rallying, but as time went by, the people that were left weren’t just the truckers,” said Fournier-Simard. Indeed, many others who were more extreme and had bad intentions also joined the protests: honking all night, showing up with confederate flags and swastikas, and vandalising the War Memorial, thus discrediting the positive message that other protesters were trying to convey. The actions undertaken by these people explain why so many Ottawans have negative sentiments towards the movement and feel trapped in their homes.
It can, however, be harmful to generalise and put everyone in the same oversimplified box, as it can create division. The supporters of this movement are much more than a “fringe minority” with “unacceptable views,” as expressed by Trudeau. According to a survey conducted in early February by Abacus Data, close to a third of the Canadian population feel they have a lot in common with the convoy protesters. Although the people who associate with the Conservatives and PPC support the movement at greater rates, contrary to popular belief, many “left” or “centre-leaning” voters also identify with the protesters, close to a quarter of Liberals and NDP voters, and more than half of the Green Party voters. Despite the surge in hateful and radical actions undertaken by certain individuals at the protest, this movement, for many of its supporters, remains about vaccine mandates and a frustration with current living situations caused by the pandemic. Such protests also cross borders and political parties, happening in many different regions of the world.
Now, how do we move forward as a society?
Decisions regarding COVID restrictions will ultimately come down to decisions made by politicians. Despite opposing views of pandemic policies, how can society stay unified throughout these difficult times? As expressed by Michel Fournier-Simard, “Canada has mostly avoided the polarisation that we’ve seen in the States, but democracies are very fragile entities. […] [the notion] that a [polarising statement] comes from the left, that it comes from the progressives, that it comes from Trudeau, is troublesome. We need to talk to these people [the protesters and supporters]. We can’t use an us vs them mentality like we’ve seen in the States”. On February 8th, Joel Lightbound, an influential Quebec MP, showed a rare moment of dissent when he openly criticised his own government for politicising COVID and fermenting division within Canadians. Like Lightbound, we should hold politicians accountable and “[penalise] leaders when they decide to go and enhance polarisation instead of diminishing it”. As individuals, we can also “read articles” of varied, reliable sources “that go against our beliefs, to understand each other […] and [to] open dialogue.”