Your freedom ends where mine begins
There is a comprehensive global perception that Canada is a nation where relative peace, justice, stability and the rule of law are institutionalised across public life; protests, riots, violence and divisiveness are associated with their southern neighbours. Yet, the ongoing pandemic and—crucially—the resulting socioeconomic effects, in conjunction with health mandates, have created ample room for a small but vocal group of individuals calling for a restoration of their so-called freedoms. The Freedom Convoy is supposedly being led by truckers and their supporters, who are protesting against Covid-19 vaccine requirements to re-enter Canada—rules imposed by Justin Trudeau's government as a public safety measure in January 2022. Convoys from across Canada descended on the capital city of Ottawa on January 29 and spread across economic hubs like Toronto and Windsor. The fundamental question is: How popular are these protests, and how necessary?
Let's look at the facts. Canada has a vaccination rate of above 80 percent (with two doses)—higher than countries like the US and the UK. Roughly 85 percent of the 120,000 Canadian truckers are fully vaccinated, with the trucking industry being fundamental during the pandemic in ensuring a sustainable supply chain process, with regards to the smooth transfer of essential goods and services across Canada and the US. When it comes to restrictions, the decentralised nature of governance in Canada means that much of the public measures taken during the pandemic have been imposed by provincial governments—not by the Government of Canada. In essence, both left- and right-leaning provincial governments across the country have mandated the usage of masks in schools, introduced vaccine passport systems, and instituted public health fines.
On the other hand, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet have focused on driving forward a pro-vaccine message and pushed through unprecedented stimulus packages for workers and businesses, while outlining border restrictions relevant to the mobility of travellers and essential workers. In a nutshell, both the state architecture and the public have generally been receptive to the advice of health experts and medical professionals.
But now pandemic fatigue is setting in, and the polar extreme of this very fatigue is being manifested via the Freedom Convoy. It is important to point out that the trucking industry groups, including the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA), have dissociated themselves from the protests, indicating that a large number of those calling for the end of mandates are, in fact, not truckers. Concerns have been raised as to the influence of far-right groups in determining the tone of the protests—even that of pro-Trump groups emanating from the US. The international ramifications are widespread as well, with similar demonstrations being mobilised in France and Belgium.
The Freedom Convoy may have started as a genuine means to kick-start a conversation around health mandates and fundamental rights. Yet, it has transitioned into a tool to call for Trudeau's resignation and a demand for the termination of all mandates—irrespective of who instituted them or the health implications of such a decision. "Unmask the children"—is what truckers who protested outside a school in Ontario demanded this very week. Citizens across the country, and particularly people of colour, have reported racist and verbally abusive language being directed towards them by demonstrators.
The situation on the ground remains politically fluid and volatile. In a first in Canadian history, the Emergencies Act was invoked on February 14—a constitutional instrument guaranteeing the federal government wide-ranging powers to respond to public welfare emergencies. It's expected that this will have the nod of a majority of parliamentarians to be enforced. Measures discussed include targeted law enforcement actions, along with directions to financial institutions to curb flows of funds towards the protests. At the same time, there has been wide-scale indication of plans to remove restrictions across most aspects of public life in the coming month itself. While such has been based on the advice of health experts, it's difficult to unwaveringly deny that the Freedom Convoy has had no effect in policymaking in the past month or so.
There are those who will say that Trudeau is out of touch with the public—perhaps he is. Some will say that he is overreaching when it comes to enforcing his authority. And there is reason to question him on his government's spending patterns and rising inflation rates. Yet, to call for his resignation on account of existing public safety measures is a far stretch—especially given that he received a mandate to govern via recent elections, wherein he outlined very clearly a pro-vaccine and pro-mask road to recovery.
The Freedom Convoy consists mostly of a demographic and racial group who have not been oppressed systematically, and their rights have categorically not been infringed upon, in my opinion. The expectation to follow health guidelines and the science around Covid is one that's driven by a civic duty to keep each other safe, and it's for this very reason that a majority of Canadians, and 85 percent of truckers, are vaccinated today, and the country's Covid mortality rate remains relatively low. The minority of Canadians who are not, barring those with medical conditions, can choose to remain unvaccinated—but there is an opportunity cost of doing so, and that in principle is valid.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a banking professional based in Toronto, Canada.