Freedom Convoy co-opts social justice language for insurgent ‘crooks’
Standing in the middle of last weekend’s Freedom Convoy protest against vaccination mandates, lockdowns and all things governmental, I was struck by the celebratory atmosphere of the party: signs waving, people shouting , horns, a triumphant moment for Canadian democracy over pesky party protests – from scientists and doctors monitoring the worst pandemic in a century.
“My mind! My body! My choice!” read the signs. “Smell the corruption!” “We just want our rights back!”
In any other context – women’s rights, LGBTQ2S+ rights – it would be a jubilant moment, the triumph of a militant minority wresting power from the government’s infamous overlords.
But this, of course, was not a marginalized group fighting for equality.
They were members of an authorized majority (mostly white), accustomed to getting what they want, extremely confident, extremely ticked off, with no patience for science, safety or the well-being of others.
While the trucks are deceived with “FREEDOM!” Canadian banners and flags rolled down Waterloo’s King Street to wild applause, it didn’t look like a weary fringe opposing government mandates and lockdowns.
It was like the center of the universe: Shea Stadium, bottom of the ninth, World Series; Animal House toga party, circa 1978; Beer Fight Night on the sidewalk outside Stages nightclub, 1993.
“You are on the sidelines now! says an unmasked passerby as I stand next to two isolated counter-protesters to represent healthcare workers too busy saving the lives of unvaccinated COVID patients to attend.
It was triumphant, dizzying, intoxicating, with a denied sense of reality that made me think I had landed in an alternate universe where my personal freedom was truly has been at stake, not just access to my favorite bar or cinema, that the pandemic was fake, or at least grossly exaggerated, that vaccines were dangerous, instead of saving lives, and that wearing a mask was a a sold-out gesture that made me an object of pity and ridicule.
But like so many aspects of the Freedom Convoy, a national phenomenon that has co-opted the language of social justice movements to advocate not just for an end to vaccination mandates, but for the overthrow of our democratically elected government, it’s a jerk.
In Waterloo, we were lucky: we got the watered down, small town version.
They came. They honked. They left. No one was inconvenienced.
If being there felt – even for a moment – like being on the front lines of a social revolution, the horde of horrified emails I received after the rally, from law-abiding people worried about the surgeries retarded and immunocompromised family members, reminds me that in the real world, the majority of Canadians don’t buy it.
“Many of the older people I work with lived through World War II and gave up their own rights and freedoms to make sacrifices for society as a whole,” notes Janet Harmer, a registered nurse who showed up Sunday for support healthcare workers.
“Many of this generation gave their lives to protect the rights and freedoms of others. In our current society, most of us have never experienced anything like this.
“We live in a world of increasing emphasis on individual rights and freedoms. It’s not something we had to do before, put the good of society before our own.
“It’s a novelty.”
Given their zeal for freedom, one would think that the rioting masses never buckled their seat belts, were never vaccinated as children for school, or smoked outside when the regulations prohibit smoking indoors.
Having no faith in mRNA vaccines, despite assurances from medical professionals that they are safe, I wonder if they check the elevator pulleys before climbing into these moving death traps, or examine the blueprints of their truck engines before speeding down the road, waving flags, horns blaring?
“Grow up and put on a mask,” advises Harmer, glancing at the exuberant horde running down the road with Canadian flags a few yards away.
“It’s not serious.”
They won’t listen, as similar rallies in Toronto, Quebec, Alberta and the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor have proven.
And think of Ottawa, where the Freedom Convoy staged a chaotic downtown “occupation” that saw national symbols desecrated, Nazi swastikas and Confederate flags flown and terrorized residents harassed and honked all night long. .
“The laws are the laws and they’re trying to hold us to ransom,” complains Rick Smith, whose double hip replacement surgery was postponed when unvaccinated COVID patients clogged hospital intensive care beds.
“It affected my life with the delay.”
Vaccination mandates and masking are the measures that will allow him, after months of spreading Omicron, to get back on the waiting list when surgeries resume, as the government promised on Wednesday.
“I really hope they continue to keep the proof of the vaccine in place and extend it to grocery stores,” he insists, aware of the precariousness of a reopening.
“If people choose not to get bitten, so be it, but they can’t have dinner and so on among us in the future. If the warrants extended to Walmart, I could leave without that my sons come to pick up my groceries because I can’t run the risk of getting sick.
The irony, of course, is that as Omicron numbers drop, vaccine mandates and lockdowns will be fall, Freedom Convoy or not, with the provincial governments of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and others already signaling their intention to end the restrictions.
The timing may be coincidental, and there’s no guarantee that a new, more virulent variant won’t plunge us back into chaos, but the implications of a victory for the Freedom Convoy could bode ill for the future.
“The vast majority of Canadians still believe in following medical advice and staying on guard against COVID infections,” notes Lorne Dawson, a sociology professor at the University of Waterloo who studies religious terrorism and the process of radicalization.
“Gradually, however, the far right seized this opportunity to recruit and expand their communication networks. I expect there will be a lasting legacy of more polarization and extremism in Canada than before, and for some time to come.
If there’s any upside, it’s the counter-protesters, who showed up last weekend to represent the vast majority of Canadians who followed the rules, despite the odds, got their shots, squatted and — unlike superspreaders who chuckle at people wearing masks — have demonstrated an ability to see beyond the tip of their noses.
Mocked, mocked and sometimes surrounded, the counter-protesters marched peacefully around Waterloo Town Square, stirring ballast for the furious hordes, providing a quiet certainty that when the shouting and screaming subsides, common sense will prevail again.
They may or may not be correct, but in the fantasy world of freedom denied, it was heartwarming to see.