We all lost something in the pandemic. That should bring us together, not drive us apart

The Freedom Convoy’s occupation of downtown Ottawa managed to make Canadian politics resemble American politics more than most of us are probably comfortable with, writes Ethan Nicholls.

I believe the unvaccinated and conspiracy theorists are more misinformed than they are malicious

Protesters gather at Parliament Hill in Ottawa on the first weekend of the demonstration against vaccine mandates and other pandemic restrictions. According to University of Ottawa student Ethan Nicholls, talking to some of the protesters was an eye-opening experience. (Alexander Behne/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Ethan Nicholls, a student at the University of Ottawa. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Dominating the news for three weeks, the occupation of Ottawa by what protesters called the Freedom Convoy managed to make Canadian politics resemble that of the U.S. more than most of us are probably comfortable with. 

It is a point of pride in Canada to have measured political discourse, despite the massive partisan carnival so close to our southern border. Yet somehow a small group of truckers and their supporters managed to immobilize the capital city's downtown core, hijack our democratic ways and polarize the politics of the pandemic. 

Canada is better than this. 

At first, I too only felt outrage at the protesters (how dare they?). I blamed them for all this chaos. But now, after reflection, I can understand some of their frustrations and I am even second-guessing where to put the blame.

First-hand experience

I had the unfortunate privilege of living in Ottawa for the three-week occupation. During this time, I saw all the institutions we trust to keep our systems and cities running smoothly crumble without even the slightest resistance. As a student at the University of Ottawa, living in the neighbourhood of Sandy Hill, and an employee of a restaurant closed by the protest, I was able to experience the action first-hand. 

As the convoy rumbled across the country, my Instagram and Twitter feeds, heavily biased due to my liberal Toronto upbringing, informed me it was just a bunch of racist idiots like those who stormed the U.S. Capitol. I did not take it very seriously. What could a bunch of trucks and right-wing weirdos do to my life? 

The first weekend the convoy arrived, it seemed our boring cold city was filled with life. My friends and I went downtown on the O-Train to check out the excitement. We wore masks in the crowd to show we were merely observers as we walked up and down Wellington Street. We marvelled at the number of people who had come out to voice their disapproval at the government.

To me, that experience was very eye-opening. While I still disagreed with what the protest was about, it was nothing like my social media bubbles portrayed. Hearing the people gathered in Ottawa that first weekend talk about why they were upset was different than I expected, which made sense because I didn't really know what to expect.

Trucks bound for Ottawa pass through Enfield, N.S., in late January. According to Ethan Nicholls, there's a difference between the people who supported the convoy and the protesters who locked down downtown Ottawa for three weeks. (Robert Short/CBC)

I think it's important to draw a line of distinction between the people who say they support the protests, and the actual protesters who stayed after that first weekend. Many who stayed seemed to me too radical to empathize with. When they started waving abhorrent flags, QAnon banners and pro-Trump placards, it seemed that they were co-opting the protest into something really disturbing that has no place in Canada. 

But I don't think it's necessarily true that the people who want the lockdowns to end don't care about others and just want to do whatever they want. For many of them, the lockdowns are putting great financial strain on their lives that, from their perspective, is worse than an ever-spreading virus. 

A couple of times, I listened as the protesters faced off with the counter-protesters and citizens of Ottawa who wanted them to leave. I heard the protesters argue that it didn't matter that Ottawa businesses were closed, because the lockdowns had done even more damage across the country. From their perspective, it seemed that the government was forcing them to sit by while they lost more and more. Which was something I had not considered before. 

When the government tells you to close the business you relied on to feed your family and then gives you $2,000 a month — which to some was a lot less than what they were used to — it hurts. Then add the fact the financial pain of the pandemic seemed to hurt certain populations more than others. 

My family was fine. My parents simply moved to work online, and I even got money because I qualified for CERB benefits. At the time this seemed fair, but now I believe I would be outraged if I came from one of the groups hurt more from the lockdowns while it seemed like half the country did not care or notice. 

Seeing things with a new perspective is something Canadians are good at. We have a political system that allows for compromises, making it function decently well. The people who oppose COVID-cautious policies do care about the health-care system, and the people who support COVID-cautious policies do care about the financial pain. But we are humans and each of us can only view things through our own lens, which is why we have priorities. 

Time for compromise

I believe the unvaccinated and conspiracy theorists are more misinformed than they are malicious.

The government needs to step up and focus on helping all Canadians regardless of their beliefs. The anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists are still Canadians, no matter how misinformed they are.

Instead of alienating the anti-vaccine and anti-mandate crowd like Justin Trudeau has, or encouraging their lawless shenanigans like the Conservatives have, our politicians at all levels of government should be working together and compromising to smoothly get us out of this pandemic. 

Now is not the time to throw accusations around to try and score political points. We made it through two years of pandemic life mostly united. It would be a shame to see us descend into politicized factions in the final days. 

We should all strive to leave the pandemic behind us united as Canadians and resist the urge to look down on others who do not hold the same beliefs. So many of us have lost loved ones, friends, jobs and two years of our lives. We all lost something. That should be what brings us together, not what drives us apart. 

It is all too easy to end up like our southern neighbours, focusing on what makes us different rather than what makes us similar.

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Ethan Nicholls is a second year student studying physics at the University of Ottawa.


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