Let us be clear. The occupation of Ottawa cannot be justified. It was an illegal blockade, not a peaceful protest. The participants demanding more “freedom” for themselves were forcibly limiting the freedom of others. Some protesters may well have been sheep, but they were not blameless. Despite claims that they saw nothing and heard nothing offensive, no one who was there could possibly have missed the swastikas and confederate flags that flew from so many vehicles until the very end. Nor could they have missed the white nationalist, homophobic, QAnon vitriol on their various social media sites, promoting outrageous conspiracy theories and anti-government rhetoric. This is, after all, the group that wanted to overthrow the democratically elected national government and replace it with a bizarre collection of unelected senators, protesters and the Governor General.
We also need to recognize that this was not simply some sort of spontaneous grassroots uprising. Long before the so-called Truckers’ Convoy had reached Ottawa, the security experts at CSIS had warned governments and Ottawa police that it was being led, not by truckers, but by a variety of known extremists with violent agendas. As one former CSIS agent stated, “It was a movement led by extremists to begin with, and we should not be surprised they turned to extremist tactics.”[i] Three of those leaders have been refused bail because of concerns they would re-offend immediately. And more than two weeks after downtown Ottawa was “liberated” there were still pockets of resistance, with die-hard protesters gathered in farmers’ fields on the outskirts of the city and across the river in Quebec.
At the same time it is important to note that these protesters represent only a tiny fraction of the population. Despite the flood of misinformation and disinformation promoted by right-wing media and social media sites, most Canadians condemned the occupation, along with the blockades at major highway and bridge crossings to the U.S. in four different provinces.[ii] Most Canadians disapproved of the Conservative MPs who sided with the protesters, including former leader Andrew Scheer and current leadership hopeful Pierre Poilievre, who declared he was “proud of the truckers.”[iii] Most Canadians strongly supported the prime minister’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act to put an end to the protests,[iv] particularly in the face of local police incompetence and inexplicable provincial inaction in the case of Ontario.[v] Indeed, many believe it took too long to put an end to the protests, and more than 50% would have supported bringing in the military to do so if necessary.
Given that last statistic it is perhaps not too surprising to learn that many Canadians’ faith in politicians, democratic institutions and the rule of law has been shaken by these recent developments. An international poll reported in October 2021 found that more than two-thirds of Canadians (72%) declared they were satisfied or very satisfied with how their democracy was functioning, a level exceeded by only three other countries. (The United States, meanwhile, placed fourth from the bottom at only 41%.) But by February 2022, after two full years of a global pandemic, including the arrival of a fifth “Omicron” wave that saw increasingly uneven and often contradictory provincial responses, followed by the three weeks of border blockades and the Ottawa occupation, it was a different story. As a comprehensive Nanos poll revealed, Canadians’ confidence in almost all of the institutions of democratic governance had declined substantially, as did their optimism about the future of the country.[vi]
One obvious reason for this declining confidence was the incompetence of the local police force in Ottawa and the failure of provincial governments to act decisively with respect to the blockades, forcing Ottawa to invoke the above-mentioned Emergencies Act to preserve the rule of law. According to a number of experts, another reason is the constant repetition by the media, with little or no context provided, of the alleged problems identified by the protesters. Take, for example, their misguided belief that their Charter rights and especially freedoms were being violated. Not only did they appear to be unaware of section 1 of the Charter, (which has always allowed for “such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”), but they mistakenly claimed these rights were revoked by the Emergencies Act when it specifically stated that it was not the case. Coupled with their egregious confusion of the American with the Canadian legal system, as evidenced by their frequent reference to their “Miranda rights” and “First amendment rights”, a case is easily made for the urgent introduction of compulsory civics courses at both elementary and secondary school levels nationwide. A case can also be made for the inclusion of comparative context in the curriculum of such a course. As the annual reports of Freedom House have consistently demonstrated, Canada actually ranks among the top three or four countries in the world in terms of the rights and freedoms enjoyed by its citizens, far ahead of all other G7 countries and only marginally behind Finland and Norway. [vii]
Nevertheless, after two years of enforced isolation, and economic hardship for some, correcting public misconceptions will hardly be sufficient. The need for a more optimistic and comprehensive message from governments is pressing. As an Angus Reid poll recently revealed, the sense of common cause and social cohesion so prevalent at the outset of the pandemic has deteriorated dramatically in the past few months. Nearly 80% of those surveyed agreed that the pandemic has “pulled people further apart” and “brought out the worst in people.” More than 60% believed “the level of compassion Canadians have for one another is weaker.”[viii]
As these numbers suggest, rather than focusing on that which divides Canadians, it is now essential for political leaders to place renewed emphasis on a positive agenda which can unite them.
Yet this is certainly not happening at the provincial level where premiers Jason Kenney and Scott Moe, in particular, are spending much of their time attacking and blaming the federal government for all manner of ills. Others, such as Doug Ford and Francois Legault, are framing all of their political commentary about federal policies and programs with an eye to enhancing their own chances in upcoming provincial elections.
Nor is it happening at the federal level among opposition parties. While Westminster model parliaments innately create adversarial scenarios, the degree to which the Official Opposition Conservatives have taken this to heart is arguably without precedent. Rather than offer up constructive criticism of government policies and/or realistic alternatives, many of the lead spokespersons for that party have spent much of the pandemic levelling personal attacks on ministers, repeating unsubstantiated claims and even conspiracy theories in lieu of scientific evidence, and obstructing the progress of legislation they oppose through procedural tactics and delays.
As a leaked memo to her caucus from newly appointed Interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen demonstrated, the situation has deteriorated rather than improved with the forced departure of former leader Erin O’Toole. Warned by her own advisers that Conservative support for the Ottawa occupiers was costing the party votes, and they should now join the calls of the other parties for the protesters to leave the city, Bergen urged her colleagues to wait and do nothing because “we need to turn this into the prime minister’s problem.”[ix]
Bergen’s approach has been enthusiastically pursued by Pierre Poilievre, the front runner in the leadership race to replace O’Toole. Unlike Jean Charest and Patrick Brown, who entered the race as moderates looking to bridge the wide gap in the party between progressives and extremists, Poilievre has committed irrevocably to the anti-vax, anti-environmentalist, pro-conversion therapy and pro-oil industry rhetoric of the extremists. As several observers have warned, if Poilievre succeeds in his bid to capture the party leadership, the next federal election could be even more divisive as he is forced to “out-extreme Maxime Bernier in pursuit of those votes.”[x]
Not surprisingly this move to the far right by the Official Opposition has resulted in an increasing polarization in political discourse as well. As the famous finale of the movie “The American President” made clear, the proponents of far right discourse are “not the least bit interested” in solving problems. Instead, they are “interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of them, and telling you who is to blame for them.”[xi] This discourse, in turn, has greatly contributed to the polarization of society as a whole.
Of course the primary leadership role on the national unity file should be filled by the federal government, even though in times of crisis the support of opposition parties and premiers can be extremely helpful. At the outset of the pandemic the Trudeau Liberals did have some success in portraying a united “team Canada” front with provincial premiers and opposition parties. But as the crisis wore on, and problems with various provincial pandemic response measures emerged, this initial image of solidarity quickly deteriorated. Finger-pointing became the default response of many as they attempted to avoid or transfer blame.
Meanwhile the Liberals also had initial success with their efforts to focus on positive post-pandemic policies and highlight the need to “build back better.” But this messaging eventually lost its lustre for many Canadians as the pandemic dragged on, particularly as the Liberals were forced to spend longer than expected on ongoing support measures rather than future plans. By the time the 2021 federal election was launched their mere repetition of this by-now familiar but vague discourse – with no real focus or new emphasis — arguably contributed to their minority result.[xii]
Since that election the Liberal government has appeared to be drifting aimlessly in terms of future plans, albeit for numerous reasons related to unexpected crises. And where the government’s discourse has been clearly articulated, such as on the importance of vaccination as the primary tool to defeat COVID, the Conservatives have taken a starkly opposing position, increasing the level of political polarization. At the same time the Liberals have also, if inadvertently, added to this perception themselves in other ways. Where they have focused on the future at all — amid the ongoing response to Omicron, the handling of the various protests and, most recently, the crisis in Ukraine – they have focused less on hope for everyone and more narrowly on the now familiar centre-left issues of diversity, representation and reconciliation. These issues are unquestionably important. However it is also important to recognize that much has been accomplished on these files since 2015, both in terms of actual policies and in terms of public opinion. Those Canadians who remain unmoved or actively hostile to the rhetoric of inclusion are unlikely to change their minds after nearly seven years. Instead this continued emphasis on specific target groups is also contributing to the increasing polarization in society and lack of faith in government that is reflected in the above polling numbers.
Simply put, in a period of great uncertainty and economic upheaval, the Liberals (and the NDP) appear to be further to the left than at any point in many decades while the Conservatives have been captured by the far right, leaving many Canadians to feel the centre has been abandoned.
In this context it is clear that the Liberals need to shift their emphasis to the bread and butter issues now impacting most Canadians on a daily basis if they are to restore trust in government and achieve a greater level of social cohesion.
The growing cost of food and other consumer essentials, the shortage of affordable housing and the ongoing problems of supply chain management must be seen to be on the radar of the federal government in tangible ways.
This does not mean that the Liberals must put aside other left-of-centre policies promised in their last platform. But here again, rather than focusing on policies to promote inclusion for targeted minorities, they need to emphasize those programs that provider benefits for large cross-sections of the general public. Ironically there is already one such policy that has been effectively implemented and should be highlighted, namely the federal-provincial child care agreements now signed with all provinces except Ontario. Yet once again the Liberal communications strategy appears to be missing in action. Similarly, there must be a greater effort to communicate existing and planned federal support measures to compliment environmental policies so resented in the most affected provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, and to bridge the increasing rural-urban divide so evident in election results.
In short, more is needed. There is nothing wrong with the phrase ‘build back better” if it is accompanied by a comprehensive blueprint for action, clearly identifying an overarching national vision that resonates with the vast majority of Canadians, and finalized only after public consultation with provinces and municipalities in an effort to achieve at least a measure of consensus. Failure to articulate such a national vision, by contrast, could lead to a further increase in the polarization of Canadian society and the potential for the more extreme elements of political discourse to dominate the agenda for years to come.
[v] M. Lapointe. “Intelligence and Governance Failures at Root of Occupied Downtown Ottawa”, Hill Times. Feb. 18, 2022.
[vi] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-data-dive-with-nik-nanos-canadians-are-losing-faith-in-the-countrys/ See also https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/unlike-u-s-neighbours-most-canadians-content-with-state-of-their-democracy-survey-1.5633027
[viii] M. Gollom. “COVID-19 Pandemic Has Brought out the Worst in People, Pulled Canadians Further Apart, Survey Suggests”. CBC news. Mar 10, 2022
[x] S.Riley. “Time to Take Poilievre Seriously, No Matter How Unserious He Seems” Hill Times.March 14, 2022. See also S.Copps. “Place Your Bets It’s a Real Race Now”. Hill Times. March 14, 2022.
[xii] Rachel Aiello, “What’s in an Ad? Dissecting the Parties’ Early Campaign Messaging,” CTV News, 30 August 2021,