I went to the “Freedom Convoy” rally in Queen’s Park today. I was working in the office this morning, just a block from Queen’s Park, and I went over to have a look. Given the media hysteria, and the dire warnings from police and politicians, I was curious to see for myself what it would be like. In the unlikely event that I am ever called upon to share my wisdom as an elder, two of my teachings would certainly be “The media lie” and “The police are not your friends.” Rather than trust them, I prefer to see for myself.
My first impression, heading into Queen’s Park North from the east, was visual: a sea of red and white, hundreds of Canadian flags. Once I got close enough to mingle into the crowd, I began to smell marijuana smoke. Lots of marijuana smoke. It’s a smell I find quite pleasant, as it happens. Brings back fond memories.
And now there was sound: Indigenous participants in the protest were doing a welcoming ceremony, drumming and chanting. They invited the crowd to join in, and hundreds of voices rose up together. It was a powerful moment.
There was more singing. A professional singer (I won’t mention her name to protect her from being subjected to online abuse) led the crowd in singing O Canada. That was followed by loud cheering.
Of course, since this was a protest, there were inevitably speeches. I have an extraordinarily low tolerance for listening to speeches, so I listened with half an ear while circulating through the crowd. I always do that at demonstrations: I don’t like standing in one spot very long. You also get to meet more people if you move around.
My overriding impression was one of cheerfulness. Smiles and laughter. Good vibes. I suspect for many of the participants, this opportunity to come together was a welcome break from being isolated because of their views and demonized by the media. For once, they were among people who weren’t hostile.
Judging from the signs, there is a lot of anger with the media. “The Media Lie” was a common message. But many of the signs had positive messages. I doubt if this was predominantly a crowd of NDP voters, but Jack Layton’s message “Love is stronger than hate” was certainly very much in evidence. “Love Not Hate” signs were quite visible in the crowd, along with “United We Are Stronger” and “Together for Freedom.”
A poignant irony: women holding signs proclaiming “My Body, My Choice.” How well I remember those signs from the days of the Pro-Choice movement. Now the dominant sentiment, especially among liberals, seems to be “Your Body, The Government’s Choice.”
Another sign: “I an Anti: Mandate - Racism - Discrimination - Hate - Segregation - Trudeau.”
Given the demonization of these protests in the mainstream media and on social media, I was paying careful attention to see if I could find any signs of racism. I saw nothing. No Confederate flags, no Nazi symbols, nothing of the sort. It was a diverse crowd. Probably around 50-50 female and male. Lots of young people (admittedly anyone under 40 looks young to me), including parents with kids in strollers. Not too many old people, but then snow and ice, along with minus-10 temperatures, aren’t the most favourable conditions for getting around. I saw Indigenous people, quite a few Asians, a relatively small number of Black people.
A few people carried signs promoting conspiracy theories about COVID and vaccines. Back in November, I accidentally came across a small anti-vaxxer protest, also in Queen’s Park. On that occasion, conspiracy theories were quite prominent, judging by the signs. Today’s rally was on a much larger scale, and conspiracy-theory signs were a minor element. One of the speakers implored us to ask Jesus to end the vaccine mandates. The others were more down-to-earth.
The speeches weren’t so different from what one hears at more traditionally ‘progressive’ demonstrations: the same calls for unity and working to make the movement grow. What was missing, as it has been missing from most demonstrations I’ve been to in the last number of years (environment/climate, anti-racism, Palestine, Occupy, G20, etc.), was any clear idea of how to organize, how to make this, or any, movement grow. What do you do when the power structure is rigged against you, when all of the major political parties refuse to talk to you, and instead shower you with hateful abuse? I don’t have an answer either, but there was a striking disconnect, I thought, between the rhetoric of unity and carrying on the struggle, and the burning question of a plausible strategy for achieving the goals of the struggle. For anyone concerned with changing the status quo, that is a crucial question.
As happens all-too-often in different situations, I felt somewhat out of place. I enjoyed the spirit of the crowd, the smiles and laughter and positive energy, but I couldn’t really feel part of it. I suspect that I’d have fundamental disagreements about politics with many of the people there, and furthermore – full disclosure – I’ve had three doses of the Pfizer/Biontech vaccine. On top of that, I got the flu shot in the fall, and in recent memory I’ve been vaccinated for Hepatitis B, Tetanus, Diphtheria, and Shingles. An anti-vaxxer, I’m not, not by any stretch of the imagination.
But then there were other people there who also said that they personally had been vaccinated, but that they oppose government mandates to compel people to be vaccinated. That is a position I am fundamentally in agreement with. I can see a case for requiring staff working in old-age homes to be vaccinated. Truckers? People going to the liquor store? I don’t think so.
It comes down to that old slogan of the abortion movement: “My body, my choice.” I see that not just as a catchy slogan for a particular struggle, but as an actual principle. I know that there are people who have thrown some of their old principles overboard amidst the panic and fear of Covid, but personally, I haven’t. I don’t believe that the government has the right to compel people to undergo particular health-care procedures or to inject substances into their bodies without their consent. I don’t think we should be supporting and cheering on the government when it declares what is in effect a permanent state of emergency and unilaterally assumes unprecedented powers. This is about freedom, however unfashionable that concept may have become among liberals.
Meanwhile, the main argument for vaccine mandates – that they reduce the spread of infection – has been undermined by the evidence. Two doses of the vaccine (which is what vaccine mandates require) are proving to have little or no impact on the risk of getting infected with Omicron. A third booster shot confers a modest short-term benefit, but that benefit wears off quickly. Nor does being vaccinated appear to reduce the likelihood of infecting others if you do get infected. The real benefit of getting vaccinated, it turns out, is that you’re not likely to get as sick if you do get infected. I think that’s important, but I don’t condemn those who see it differently, and would prefer to take their chances.
I think these are issues where people have the right to have different opinions and make their own decisions.
My impression of most of the people I saw today was that they were not particularly ‘political,’ certainly not in any left-right sense. Just ordinary working-class people who don’t like being pushed around. That would make them potential allies for movements for social justice. But all they get from that side of the political spectrum is demonization and hate, born of a generalized contempt for working-class people. Meanwhile, the right sees an opportunity, and is trying to take advantage.
We may not like how it all turns out.