None of the three major parties shows any indication of understanding what’s happening around them, much less adapting accordingly
Canada is a complacent country. A large land mass with a small population, rich resources and natural defences, we have a bad habit of congratulating ourselves on the sagacity of our good fortune.
It’s been that way as far back as I can remember, with one major interruption when Quebec tried — over an extended period — to split the country apart, alerting nine startled provinces that the 10th didn’t share their self-satisfaction. But that’s faded with time and circumstances, allowing us to drift once again into a kind of quiet self-regard, content in the many assurances we offer ourselves about our decency, civility, tolerance and devotion to diversity. There’s lots of evidence that, as a country, we’re not nearly as virtuous as we like to think, and we certainly don’t share our advantages beyond our borders to the extent we pretend, but it’s always easy to let those facts slide, especially given how frequently we’ve been ruled by a party devoted to endlessly reasserting the myths we like to believe.
The events of the past three weeks — and for two years of pandemic before that — may have shaken that easy contentment. The Canada on display since March 2020 has hardly reflected the one we like to imagine. Institutions that don’t work, hospitals that are overwhelmed, a venerated health-care system that can’t cope, police forces that can’t keep order, borders that can’t be kept open.
Events of the past three weeks may have shaken that easy contentment
Leadership that has failed on so many fronts in so many instances. Experts who lack expertise, appointees who aren’t up to the job, talking heads who can’t keep their story straight or their advice consistent. A governing class seemingly dedicated more to division and disparagement than pragmatism or co-operation. In sum it’s produced an anger that is palpable and not anywhere like the placid and polite Canadian profile. For a long time now Canada has been neither peaceable, orderly or well governed.
Apart from an unaccustomed national grouchiness it’s revealed an ugly underbelly of assertive discontent that can’t be waved away or ignored as a tiny fringe. In both the most recent elections Canada’s No. 2 party attracted more votes than the No. 1 party (and was so upset it quickly dumped its leader), but less note has been taken of the fact almost a million voters cast ballots for fringe parties campaigning on an overwhelming disaffection for the existing order.
A million votes out of 17 million cast is not nothing, given that we’ve just learned that 400 trucks are enough to bring Ottawa to a standstill for three weeks. Taken separately they may not amount to much but at their core they share something potent: a belief in a wholly different world. Malcontents have always been there, but something — blame Donald Trump if you want, or the pandemic, or impatience with obvious injustices — has encouraged a determination to be heard, while the internet and social media has given them the means to challenge the beliefs with which we’ve so long insulated ourselves.
They share something potent: a belief in a wholly different world
It’s been often observed that the 9/11 attacks produced a permanent change in a world that could never go back to what it had been. It’s hard to imagine the same won’t be true of the pandemic. We’d have to forget too many lessons, ignore too many shocks, above all how badly it’s been handled at so many levels that were supposed to be there to deal with such things. While it’s not likely to cheer Ottawans to any degree, it’s probably fortunate the recent madness took place on their doorstep, right in front of Parliament where it couldn’t be spun, hidden, dismissed or otherwise disguised, and with all the pundits watching just a short hop from their homes and offices.
It mesmerized them. While an army of cops was still arraying itself to finally clear Ottawa’s streets, about 20 “masked and violent attackers” surrounded and assaulted workers at the site of a pipeline project in British Columbia. According to one account, “an attempt was made to set a vehicle on fire while workers were inside. The attackers also wielded axes, swinging them at vehicles and through a truck’s window. Flare guns were also fired at workers.” The terrified crew fled for their lives while attackers set about burning and vandalizing equipment.
While the attack briefly distracted media attention, it quickly shifted back to the “national crisis” in Ottawa, where no one’s life was endangered and a major issue was what to do with all the kids the protesters brought with them. If the protesters had parked their pickups in some smaller, distant burg, would they have earned the same saturation coverage? New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh made the answer to that pretty clear when he announced his willingness to grant the government the extraordinary powers it sought to clear the laneways around Wellington Street, but stipulated they must never be used against “Indigenous land defenders, climate change activists, workers fighting for fairness.” Insisting that the rights of some Canadians deserve greater protection than others isn’t normally a position you associate with Singh’s party.
While Canada may have changed, it’s painfully obvious our political leadership is lagging woefully behind. None of the three major parties shows any indication of understanding what’s happening around them, much less adapting accordingly, fixated instead on whatever immediate gain they can squeeze from the commotion. Our prime minister is an increasingly grumpy and distant figure who prefers insulting and disparaging opponents while defining which views he deems “acceptable.” Conservatives spend more time hunting for leaders than searching for solutions and seem intent on plunging deep into the pool of eternal outrage.
The biggest gains in September’s election went to Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party, whose natural constituency comprises just the sort of people who spent the past few weeks making life as miserable as possible for residents of Ottawa. You’d have to be pretty optimistic to think events of the past two years have reduced that voting pool.
It’s not the stuff to support complacency. If it rids us of that debility, the turmoil won’t have been entirely without gain.
• Twitter: KellyMcParland
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