A lot of big trucks rolled into Ottawa this weekend and suddenly it became very dangerous to stand in the middle of the road.
Go figure. Sometimes everything you need to know about a political event is what you learned as a child: don’t threaten others or urinate in public; Nazis and white supremacists are generally to be avoided and yes, the middle of the road is not where you want to be when large vehicles are headed in your direction.
Of course, nothing about the so-called “freedom convoy” that paralyzed downtown Ottawa this weekend was child’s play — even if much of the proceedings had the feel of a long-simmering, collective temper tantrum from a fed-up, COVID nation.
As things stood late on Sunday afternoon, organizers were asserting that they had the resources to carry on the Parliament blockade for two years or longer, while Ottawa police were quietly signalling that the time was approaching for protesters to clear out — or be cleared out.
Finding the middle ground between those two views didn’t look particularly easy. But that’s the story of this protest that has landed on the literal doorstep of Parliament just as it is set to get back into business on Monday. Despite some participants’ assurances to the contrary, this is not the face of the moderate, Canadian middle.
Here is where Conservative leader Erin O’Toole and several of his MPs strayed into political trouble this weekend: they actually believed there was a way to simultaneously court the protesters and disavow the extremism on display.
MP Michael Cooper had to issue a statement distancing himself from a swastika that appeared in the background of a TV interview he did. Toronto MP Melissa Lantsman offered to give her full support to legislation making it illegal to desecrate public monuments — only to learn there is already such a law.
Pierre Poilievre, the Conservatives’ attack-dog finance critic, was a little more out there in his enthusiasm for the protest, as was Leslyn Lewis, the former Conservative leadership contender who is now a rookie MP for Haldimand—Norfolk.
The thanks they received could definitely be called mixed blessing: a call on Sunday afternoon from the protest organizers for O’Toole to step down and be replaced by either Poilievre or Lewis. First of all, is that what they were looking for? A Conservative leadership coup as a sequel? More to the point, if either of these MPs do have future leadership designs, being the darling of this particular “freedom convoy” doesn’t seem like an ideal way to attract middle-of-the-road Conservatives.
You could say it’s a little bit like getting an endorsement from Donald Trump or being linked to the Jan. 6 insurrectionists in the U.S. capital — which, by the way, also happened this weekend.
“We want those great Canadian truckers to know that we are with them all the way,” Trump said in Texas, in a Saturday speech that also dangled the prospect of pardons for the Jan. 6 mob.
Let’s be clear — this protest has tapped into real despair and frustration being felt by many Canadians as this dreadful pandemic nears the two-year mark. That’s not a “fringe” feeling — a word that some protesters wore as a badge of honour this week after Justin Trudeau labelled them as such.
But the event won’t be remembered for what it fixed. It will be remembered for the fear it spread around downtown Ottawa, forcing the closing of businesses that are tantalizingly close to the lifting of some restrictions this very week.
It will be remembered for the way some of the mob descended on a homeless shelter, the Shepherds of Good Hope, taking food from those who need it more in this dark January. It will be remembered for urine stains in the snow on the national War Memorial and the vandalization of Terry Fox’s statue.
Even the target was off. Much of the freedom that these protesters crave has been denied to them by various provincial government rules or, in the case of the truckers, a vaccine mandate also in force at the U.S. border. Holding a mass temper tantrum in Ottawa, disguised as a street party, won’t change the fact that the nation is still in the grips of a pandemic.
Somehow, in some form, the business of politics will resume again on Monday in Ottawa. Its challenge is to do what the truckers’ protest was never going to accomplish — to find the safe, reasonable, middle of the road out of COVID.
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