“Stay the hell home.”
That is the headline on Saturday’s editorial in the Toronto Star. It is a message to anti-vax protesters who, during this election campaign, have been disrupting political events, particularly those of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Perhaps more disturbing are the angry and confrontational protests targeted at hospital sites in Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Toronto where frontline health care workers are risking their lives to save the lives of others, most of whom are hospitalized because they refused to be vaccinated.
While elections, especially those at the national level, often include a degree of anger and hostility, seldom have we seen it to the extent that has become apparent in this current political battle.
Certainly, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had his fair share of angry protesters in his day. And who of us of a certain age, particularly if we are political junkies, will ever forget former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, when blocked by a protester, knocking away his megaphone and applying a chokehold now forever known as the “Shawinigan handshake”?
But this time, it seems much more serious to me. It is in large part a product of the COVID-19 pandemic which has become a breeding ground for discontent. It is more insidious and deep-rooted than before, and while still a mere shadow of the dangerous uprisings in the United States is nevertheless a trend that should cause concern for all Canadians.
It is fuelled by conspiracy theories and fake news and too many people are full of rage. As the Toronto Star says in its editorial, “The rhetoric is so far over the top that it comes with an undercurrent of potential violence — though thankfully things haven’t yet gone that far on the campaign trail.”
Of course, when you get right down to it, these events are not just about anti-vaxxers, although that may be the stimulus and the most convenient platform. They underline a more serious phenomenon. With changes and hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, people are simply angry, disillusioned, and frustrated. Some of them have found a vehicle to express their frustration in the delusional antics of anti-vax protesters. In a nutshell, they are fed up.
Also in the Toronto Star this weekend, columnist Edward Keenan says this: “People know they are angry. In a survey of 6,000 Canadians taken in February and March, researchers working with Angus Reid found patterns of anger, rage, and misanthropy in people’s descriptions of their own reactions to COVID-19.”
Keenen goes on to quote trauma coach Iris Mclaughlin who wrote that after periods of long stress, “it becomes increasingly difficult to see nuance, think clearly, listen, empathize, and have restraint. We’re also more prone to name-calling, defensiveness, aggression, irritability, self-centredness, nonlogical thinking, difficulty focusing and anxiety.”
The perfect time to call an election, eh?
But here we are. So the question must become, what must be done to lower the temperature between now and election day? To start with, there may be no more important time for political leaders of all stripes to stick to the truth.
Given the current atmosphere, I believe Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should have known better, when condemning the protestors at his rallies, than to say Erin O’Toole has done nothing to “correct” these protesters, with the clear implication that he had incented them. Not only was that inflammatory in an atmosphere where the opposite is called for, it was also just plain untrue and self-serving, and the prime minister knew it.
In its Saturday editorial, the Toronto Star recognized this when it wrote, “At a cruder level, the Liberals have done their best to pin the anti-vax mobs on the Conservatives and leader Erin O’Toole. That’s likely to fall pretty flat. After all, O’Toole and all party leaders have condemned the protests and the Lecce example [organized protests at Ontario Education Minister Stephen Leece’s home and threats to ‘dig up dirt’ on him]shows that extreme anti-vaxxers are prepared to go after a Conservative they see as offside with their cause, as well as those to the left.”
What is true is that a few Conservative campaign people were seen to participate in the anti-vax protests. But on multiple occasions, O’Toole has been clear about this. He has stated that no elected Conservative that supported these anti-Trudeau protests would be allowed to stay in his caucus. And he has warned supporters that they are not welcome on the Conservative campaign if they engage in the harassment or intimidation of other party leaders. Some have already been shown the door.
Here in our small towns we are, in most circumstances, free of protesters. Not this week, however, and over the last few days I have watched anti-vax protesters and spoken to some of them. None of them were interested in anything other than their own set of facts. Two of them told me they were disaffected Liberals. Three were planning to vote for the People’s Party of Canada, and another few said they wouldn’t vote if their lives depended on it.
It is easy and arguably politically astute to point fingers as to who is responsible for the anger, frustration, and unrest that we see in Canada today. But the truth is, you cannot blame people who are not yet in power for it and, in fairness, those who are in power do not have total control over the events that have caused it.
As columnist Susan Delacourt wrote recently, “…it’s also true that some of the protesters don’t like O’Toole or Premier Doug Ford that much either, and some have been heard chanting support for the People’s Party of Canada and Leader Maxime Bernier, who seems to be using his Twitter feed to encourage them.”
It is interesting to note that Bernier’s PPC Party has seen a small increase over the election of less than two years ago. Clifton van der Linden, a political professor at McMaster University, opined that this might be caused by a “rally around the PPC by a segment of the anti-vax movement” as Bernier is the only leader who is “antagonistic” toward COVID-19 vaccinations.
The bottom line is that so called anti-vaxxers have become a movement. And like most movements their cause and their agenda is much bigger than their name implies. It is one thing to target a political campaign. It is another step up the ladder to disrupt hospitals and the private homes of individuals. Eventually, as it has in the United States, things get out of control.
No political party in Canada is immune from people who are angry enough or stupid enough to embrace these antics. But every credible political leader has a responsibility to oppose this type of behaviour, to tone down the rhetoric and avoid finger-pointing solely for political gain. Whatever their policy disagreements, surely this is one issue, an issue important to our democratic process and to orderly elections, on which they can stand shoulder to shoulder.
Or is that too much to ask?
Hugh Mackenzie has held elected office as a trustee on the Muskoka Board of Education, a Huntsville councillor, a District councillor, and mayor of Huntsville. He has also served as chairman of the District Muskoka and as chief of staff to former premier of Ontario, Frank Miller.
Hugh has served on a number of provincial, federal and local boards, including chair of the Ontario Health Disciplines Board, vice-chair of the Ontario Family Health Network, vice-chair of the Ontario Election Finance Commission, and board member of Roy Thomson Hall, the National Theatre School of Canada, and the Anglican Church of Canada. Locally, he has served as president of the Huntsville Rotary Club, chair of Huntsville District Memorial Hospital, chair of the Huntsville Hospital Foundation, president of Huntsville Festival of the Arts, and board member of Community Living Huntsville.
In business, Hugh Mackenzie has a background in radio and newspaper publishing. He was also a founding partner and CEO of Enterprise Canada, a national public affairs and strategic communications firm established in 1986.
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