Walcott: We must counter Freedom Convoy with rally for equality, hope

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Consider the occupation of Ottawa by the Freedom Convoy, the weekly demonstrations in Calgary, Toronto and Edmonton, the fragility of Canadian society is evident.

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Canadian society is not fragile because of the ease with which our citizens express their discontent; it is fragile because of the time we allow discontent to develop into intolerant opinions, hatred towards institutions and towards each other, before we act.

As I scroll through social media feeds, watch the news, and listen to the rhetoric of my peers and leaders across the country, it’s easy to recognize that a hate movement is taking root. And if it’s convenient to characterize these protests as nothing more than far-right movements with suspicions of white supremacy and even easier to cast their grievances on the flawed ideologies that underpin them, that would be a huge failure. to fail to recognize that the roots of collective discontent represent something larger that is happening in our society.

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While I try to stay objective, it’s impossible not to feel provoked by the number of protesters spouting white supremacist opinions, spreading anti-science conspiracy theories, misrepresenting data to minimize the cost of lives useless waste, and those who judge vaccines and masks “tyranny! Focusing on these disheartening features of the protests glosses over the reality that so many have become radicalized and that in many cases it was societal failures that allowed this to happen.

At the start of the pandemic, Canadians were confronted with the many structural problems that underpin the very fragile institutions of our society: few social safety nets, lack of decent wages and the consequences of the underfunding of our health institutions. Programs aimed at healing our fragile institutions such as CERB and CEWS have acted as stopgap measures to problems that need to be addressed.

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But eventually, CERB ended, and public health measures became a matter of politics rather than science. Throughout it all, the rich have gotten even richer while the average entrepreneur, salaried worker or frontline worker has been rocked by uncertainty and struggling to find their place.

In the absence of a clear path forward, whether through the government’s failure to provide such a path or through the intentional obfuscation of the facts by conspiracy peddlers, people rightfully felt the fear. It is here, in times of precariousness, anxiety and discontent that a growing extremist element sees an opportunity to weaponize public anxiety in the protests we see occupying our streets.

Bad faith actors have taken the opportunity presented in this discontent and twisted it into a sense that what was lost was in fact taken, and that we must get it back, whatever it is.

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For people like Pat King and BJ Dichter, leaders of the Freedom Convoy movement, “it is” a desperate attempt to acquire power and control. For them, it’s an opportunity to fuel their own movements, widely seen as white supremacist and xenophobic.

We hear this in claims of victimization found in King’s videos of plots to “depopulate the Anglo-Saxon race because they are those with the strongest bloodlines” or Dichter’s belief that the Liberal party is “infested with Islamists”. Organizers of these protests wave “COVID-19 release” flags to cover the deeper roots of extremism and discrimination.

From my experience as someone who has spent years doing anti-racism work, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how familiar it all sounds, if not just a bit more extreme. It seems that at the intersection of COVID-19 discontent is also similar discontent with progressive movements for Black Lives Matter, #METOO and 2SLGBTQ+. The radicalization of some individuals is easier to understand when you consider how many people over the past 10 years have confidently expressed extreme dissatisfaction with discussions of intersectionality, privilege, the fight against systemic discrimination.

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The opposition to many of these movements is characterized by illusions of self-sufficiency, of complete autonomy, of total contempt for the other.

Anti-poverty movements trying to support the most vulnerable have long been told to “raise themselves by the bootstraps”. In the face of police killings of unarmed black people, calls for police reform have been met with “You don’t want to get shot? Do not resist. And now, with COVID-19, we’re hearing that same selfish, self-centered attitude in “if you don’t want to catch COVID, stay home.”

Many have believed that individuals have complete free will, that the outcome of our lives is not deeply tied to the systems around us.

That’s why it came as no surprise to anyone when a series of signs and symbols are worn in these so-called “freedom” demonstrations. Signs carried in confidence with the words “All Lives Matter” scribbled on them. Others proclaim “segregation,” as if, at least in Alberta, the protesters weren’t firmly seated in the front seats of the bus.

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Signs reading “My body, my choice” are appropriated by conservative men in trucks – historically, this is not a demographic that overwhelmingly advocates for women’s right to choose.

The use of these symbols, signs and slogans is almost unfathomable, except for the fact that we have seen them before on our streets.

We need to call these people back. Canadians must learn to be able to express their dissatisfaction with our world without degrading the progress we have made. Facing our individual pain cannot come at the cost of causing pain to another.

It would be irresponsible for my peers and leaders across the country not to recognize that in the aftermath of COVID, people are looking for a fairer and more equitable future. A society that helps build a society that cares deeply about its members, is fairer and offers greater opportunities for all. One that seeks to address the undercurrent of discontent exhibited by COVID-19.

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Right now, it may feel like we’ve seen those horizons recede even further.

In the vacuum of progressive visions, extremists profit from the feeling of being left behind. COVID-19 has deepened existing inequalities and reinforced the alienation and isolation that many already felt in our society. Unfortunately, the weekly rallies in cities across Canada are not organized around fairness and justice.

So maybe that’s what needs to come next: an equal swell and force of people demanding fairness, demanding opportunity, challenging the rules of our society to protect the most vulnerable and truly deliver equality luck to all. In these “unprecedented times,” such voices need to be louder and clearer right now.

To cut through the noise of anti-vaxxer discontent and opportunism, the “Freedom Convoy”, we must build a path forward with opportunity, optimism and hope.

And we must cement once and for all that freedom is not just something we choose or demand; It’s something we share.

Courtney Walcott is the Calgary City Councilor for Ward 8.

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