Politicians Like Poilievre, Smith and Ford are the Cause of Antidemocratic Behaviour

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When Justice Paul Rouleau tabled his long anticipated report on the federal government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act, Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre was in a tight spot. Not only did Rouleau confirm that the government’s action was justified, but he had harsh words for participants in the so-called Trucker’s Convoy that occupied Ottawa. Rejecting the statements of many convoy leaders that the event was some sort of peaceful, warm and fuzzy Woodstock, Rouleau stated “I do not accept the evidence espoused by the organizers that they were unaware of harassment, intimidation and other non-peaceful conduct by protesters.” He also expressed disbelief at organizers’ statements that they were unaware of the many Nazi and Confederate flags displayed by convoy members, or the omnipresent F…k Trudeau tshirts.

Although Rouleau’s report recognized that some individuals were originally there to exercise their legitimate right to protest, he noted that things quickly got out of hand and became an illegal occupation that rode roughshod over the rights of other citizens. Moreover the situation was worsening on a daily basis and “becoming dangerous and unmanageable.”

Poilievre, of course, had visited the convoy for photo ops and stated at the time “I’m proud of the truckers and I stand with them.” What to do now that this position looked fairly embarrassing, even for him?  Unlike his equally embarrassing earlier support for cryptocurrency, which he simply jettisoned and never again referred to once the whole thing began to go south, he had no choice but to comment on Rouleau’s report.  

And so, in his remarks at a hastily called press conference, he focused primarily on inflation and the rising cost of living. Both, he declared, were the fault of Justin Trudeau. And both, in his view, were causes of the unhappiness that led to the convoy in the first place, along with the assault on freedom that the government’s pandemic restrictions represented, and the prime minister’s longstanding role in “sowing division” in society. (The fact that inflation and the cost of living only became an issue long after the convoy was dispersed, or that almost all of the restrictions the convoy protesters were upset about had been introduced by provincial governments, was never recognized.)

But Poilievre did not – and apparently just could not – stop there. Justice Rouleau clearly identified the two key causes of the convoy crisis as a “failure of policing” ( the OPS, the OPP and the RCMP all indicted) and a “failure of federalism” (by the province of Ontario’s government, about which more below.) Yet Poilievre nevertheless insisted the whole thing was actually the prime minister’s fault. “The only reason we had this emergency”, he thundered at his press conference, “is because Justin Trudeau wanted it to happen, because he wanted to distract and divide Canadians.” This, in turn, was accomplished in Poilievre’s view by “imposing unnecessary and unscientific rules that brought an end to the livelihood of countless heroes.” (Presumably the Liberal war room is paying close attention here and will display this comment repeatedly during the next federal election.)

In addition to attributing blame elsewhere, Poilievre clearly was unable to recognize the key role that he and members of his caucus had played in “sowing division” by encouraging the protesters and legitimizing their behaviour. The parallel with Donald Trump’s role in encouraging the civil unrest that led to the January 6 occupation of the Capitol is striking. Nor does Poilievre ever recognize that his defence of “freedom” from so-called “elites” and “gatekeepers”, which he espouses because his supporters, like Trump’s, are obsessed with it, is misguided, meaningless and potentially dangerous. 

Rouleau’s report was hardly good news for premier Doug Ford of Ontario either. Some of the report’s most scathing criticism was levelled at Ford for his complete abdication of responsibility in the face of the Ottawa occupation, which Rouleau described as an abandonment of the citizens under Ford’s jurisdiction and a “failure of federalism”. According to the Justice, “It was incumbent on the province to become visibly, publicly and wholeheartedly engaged from the outset.” Instead the government, led by the premier and Attorney General, were AWOL.  

Although the report did not speculate on the rationale for Ford’s bizarre refusal to participate, many commentators were quick to point out that he was undoubtedly loathe to criticize the convoy when many of the participants were from his political base, to say nothing of close family members.[i]  And rather than explain or defend his behaviour after the fact, Ford also chose to abuse the concept of parliamentary privilege to avoid testifying at the Rouleau Commission and putting on the record any evidence of his support for the federal government’s action.

While Rouleau’s report provides a clear and well-reasoned assessment of the chaotic situation that ultimately forced the federal government to invoke the act, his most significant contributions may be his incisive explanation of the actual meaning of “freedom” in liberal democracies, and his lengthy  analysis of the “inherently destructive and divisive” role that misinformation and disinformation played in the evolution of the convoy saga, and continue to play in Canadian society.       

By now almost everyone has heard the ridiculous conspiracy theories floating around on the internet about Bill Gates inserting chips in vaccines or Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum (WEF) planning the Great Reset, but there are also a growing number of home grown fantasies and they appear to be multiplying. (At the time of writing, one of the more diligent efforts by disgruntled convoy supporters is an attempt to establish that Justice Rouleau is somehow related to the Trudeau family.) 

Clearly elected politicians cannot spend all of their time debunking these myths. Still, it surely behooves them to disavow these falsehoods when they run into them in person. Instead, Poilievre and several other prominent right-wing populist politicians in Canada are actually encouraging these mistaken beliefs and the antidemocratic behaviour they often lead to. Indeed, several of them owe their very election to the support of proponents of these beliefs.

Take, for example, the reported encounter between Poilievre and a supporter in North Bay in January 2022. The supporter repeats, as fact, the long-debunked claim that the Trudeau family made $70 million through their ownership of shares in a Vancouver-based company that contributed to the development of the Pfizer COVID vaccine. Instead of denouncing the claim as untrue, Poilievre and his wife both take great pains to stress that they do not have any shares in that company. As one lengthy article on Poilievre’s support for misinformation concludes, “His performance is notable for what he doesn’t do.. he is always careful to echo a crowd’s anger…(and) avoids saying anything that will contradict their false beliefs.”[ii]  

This sort of avoidance behaviour has consequences. As Frank Graves (president of Ekos Research) and Stephen Mayer (Harvard Nieman Fellow and recipient of Michener Award in journalism) demonstrate in a chilling article, some 66% of current Conservative supporters say they “never trust government to do the right thing”, compared with 8% of New Democrats and 4% of Liberals.[iii]  Contrast this with the longstanding view of the vast majority of Canadians that government is and can be a force for good. One might almost describe this as the Americanization of Canadian political culture, since mistrust of government has been a motivating factor in politics south of the border since the Declaration of Independence. At the same time, however, declining faith in the various institutions of government – such as the Supreme Court, the electoral system or the presidency –  are a more recent American phenomenon arguably brought to a head by the misinformation and disinformation campaigns of the Trump era. Pierre Poilievre’s current attacks on the Chief Electoral Officer, the Governor of the Bank of Canada and the Supreme Court can certainly be seen as a step in that direction.

An earlier column dealt at some length with the many absurdities put forward by Danielle Smith, the new populist premier of Alberta, and her sidekick Scott Moe of Saskatchewan. We can now add to that list their newly minted rants against something they describe as a “digital ID.” They insist the federal government is intent on “imposing” this on individual Canadians, and declare they will fight with their last breath to prevent this from happening.

As award-winning medical journalist Dr. Andre Picard pointed out, “Increases in the Canada Health Transfer are not contingent on some nefarious “digital ID”. Nor will Canadians’ personal health data be shared with bureaucrats, politicians or the public…Health data are anonymized. No one is going to know that Bob from Regina waited eight months for a new hip.” What we will know, hopefully, is which provincial systems are most effective and efficient, and are delivering the best care to Canadians.

 Describing Smith and Moe’s ridiculous claims as a “dogwhistle” response to their far right supporters, Picard notes that this is the same type of disinformation that was spread earlier about vaccine passports and vaccines themselves. Picard also makes the link with antidemocratic behaviour. Not only do these false claims deter citizens from making wise choices, he notes, but it encourages their deep distrust of government and politicians. “In their parallel universe, the World Economic Forum and their acolytes (Trudeau, the Liberal government, etc) want to create a digital ID for all citizens with the goal of controlling every aspect of their lives.” [iv]

Presumably Smith and Moe invented this issue in order to save face with their supporters, since they were hardly going to turn down the $19 billion in additional federal funding for health care that Ottawa recently offered. Smith, of course, is about to face the electors of her province in what is shaping up to be a close race with her NDP opponent and needs every vote she can get from the conspiracy theorists who are the bedrock of her support.

Once again it is difficult to overstate the fact that these fabrications have consequences. In such a tainted political climate, it is perhaps not surprising, but surely disturbing, to learn that one recent example of citizen mobilization on the basis of disinformation involves opposition to a plan by the city of Edmonton to promote the internationally recognized concept of the “15-minute city.” The purpose of this concept, of course, is to minimize the frequency and/or need for intracity automobile traffic, and therefore reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by establishing walkable communities with access to amenities such as greengrocers, coffee shops, schools and medical clinics. In this case the plan involved relaxing some municipal bylaws to allow a few small multipurpose buildings in residential areas. But when news of the proposed changes reached some citizens they took to the barricades literally as well as figuratively. Many were convinced the plan was intended to limit the ownership of automobiles by private citizens. Others believed they would require a pass to move from one area of the city to another. Still others believed the entire city was going to be put in some sort of lockdown. Ludicrous though this may seem it took the concerted efforts of several city councillors communicating on social media, and the actual presence of a councillor at a citizen street gathering, answering their concerns while swearing on a Bible, to avert a more serious crisis.  

The time has long past when progressives of all political stripes can simply dismiss these misguided individuals as a “small minority” or a lunatic fringe component of society that will have no impact on the practices and institutions of liberal democracy. As countless experts have attempted to demonstrate, the role of social media in altering societal norms and behaviour is dramatically outsized.[v] In addition to better regulating these fora, and providing better education of future citizens in the theory and practice of democracy, there is an urgent need for political leaders at all levels of government to step up now and challenge each and every piece of misinformation that comes their way.

While the discredited U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs Wade certainly contributed to the surprisingly robust Democratic showing in the November mid-term elections, there is no doubt that another key factor in the party’s rebound came when President Joe Biden delivered a master class in the theory and practice of democracy at the historic Independence Hall in Philadelphia. His “Battle for the Soul of the Nation” address, delivered barely two months before that election, was a template for all politicians hoping to preserve liberal democracy in the face of these unprecedented challenges. This is the type of speech that this particular prime minister not only easily could, but should, deliver sooner rather than later. If this also requires challenging the false narratives of fellow political leaders, that task should not be avoided in the name of maintaining positive federal-provincial relations or encouraging a civil debate on issues. There can be no civility without mutual respect, something sadly lacking in right-wing political discourse these days that encourages even more antidemocratic behaviour.   

[i] https://www.narcity.com/toronto/fords-daughter-was-at-the-freedom-convoy-yesterday-says-it-was-beautiful-to-watch

[ii] F. Graves and S. Maher. “The Secret of Pierre Poilievre’s Success”. The Walrus. January/February 2023. pp38-44.

[iii] Op cit

[iv] A. Picard. “Ottawa is not Coming for your Health Data”. Globe and Mail. February 14, 2022.

[v] https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/07/social-media-harm-facebook-meta-response/670975/