The protest convoy carries a combustible load. Politicians can exploit it — or confront it

The Conservative leader is calling on all sides to "take the temperature down." But if the temperature needs lowering, it's all the more unfortunate that the words and actions of some Conservative MPs have contributed to raising it.

O'Toole says it's time to 'take the temperature down.' Some of his colleagues haven't gotten the message

A person supporting a cross-country convoy protesting measures taken by authorities to curb the spread of COVID-19 holds a flag with an expletive targeting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in front of Parliament Hill as truckers arrive in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

With a convoy of protesters gathering in the nation's capital, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole addressed reporters Thursday evening and called on everyone — protesters and others — to "take the temperature down."

That's not a bad notion. A calm discussion about the vaccine mandate for cross-border truck drivers — its purpose, its consequences and the merits of the alternatives — might be useful right now, especially after a long and painful two pandemic years.

But it doesn't necessarily follow that compromise or unanimity is possible here. And if the temperature needs lowering, it's all the more unfortunate that the words and actions of some Conservative MPs have contributed to raising it.

Pierre Poilievre, an increasingly prominent voice in the party, has referred to the mandate as a "vaccine vendetta." His phrasing implies that the Liberals were somehow driven by personal animus toward truckers when they decided that they must be vaccinated to cross back into Canada without quarantining. (It also ignores the fact that the U.S. has adopted the very same policy for truckers who want to drive into the United States.)

Conservative MP Leslyn Lewis said federal mandates — which also cover public servants, air and train travellers — are "unscientific, vindictive, mean-spirited and promote segregation." Former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer tweeted this week that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is "the biggest threat to freedom in Canada."

And that's all in addition to Conservative claims that the mandate is leading to empty grocery store shelves.

Asked by a reporter Thursday to reconcile his call for calm with the rhetoric coming from his own caucus, O'Toole said "we all have to play a role to take the temperature down." He then proceeded to claim the prime minister is wielding mandates to divide Canadians.

WATCH: O'Toole calls for peace as protest convoy heads for Ottawa

O'Toole says he will meet with truckers heading to Ottawa to protest

1 year ago
Duration 1:39
Opposition Leader Erin O'Toole says he wants to hear the concerns of truckers who will be in Ottawa to rally against vaccine mandates.

Almost immediately after O'Toole's news conference ended, a video was posted to his Twitter account with a message accusing "Trudeau and his Liberal allies" of wanting "to smear and demonize" truckers.

This would hardly be the first time a politician's rhetoric has been more inflammatory than absolutely necessary. But even if this is just the way partisans talk sometimes, that wouldn't be an explanation or a justification for the current tone. It would be an excuse.

O'Toole said on Thursday that this week's demonstration is "a symbol of the fatigue and the division that we're seeing in this country." The exact nature and motivation of this protest is at least debatable. In some ways, O'Toole might be right. But even then, it would be necessary to decide which parts of this protest can or should be bargained with.

Beyond the "F--k Trudeau" flags and the reports of journalists being harassed, convoy organizers are promoting a "memorandum of understanding" calling on the Senate and the Governor General, in collaboration with a committee of citizens, to issue edicts to federal, provincial and municipal governments to repeal all vaccine-related restrictions. If the Senate and governor general decline to go along with that plan, the memo says, they're expected to resign.

In an interview earlier this week, one organizer called Trudeau a "criminal" and said the goal of the convoy is to "compel the government to dissolve government." Organizers reportedly plan to stay in Ottawa until all pandemic restrictions are lifted.

At the risk of stating the obvious, calls to overthrow Canada's democratic order are not something that can be entertained or humoured, no matter how tired some people are.

A person pumps their fists as they stand on top of a transport truck after arriving on Wellington Street in front of on Parliament Hill as part of a cross-country convoy protesting measures taken by authorities to curb the spread of COVID-19 on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

O'Toole's video cast the Liberal policy as "an attack on truckers." But that sidesteps the fact that vaccination rates among truckers are reportedly on par with the rate among the general population. Approximately 78 per cent of all eligible Canadians have received two shots so far.

And it's not just the unvaccinated who are tired and frustrated right now. If anyone has a claim to fatigue, it's the doctors and nurses who have been dealing with unrelenting waves of sickness and death for two years. But the frustration felt by the vaccinated is connected to the additional risk and burden that comes from people choosing to go unvaccinated.

A health care worker holds a sign reading "death by fatigue" during a protest demanding time off for COVID-19 fatigue in front of Maisonneuve Rosemont hospital in Montreal on Wednesday May 27, 2020. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

O'Toole said Thursday that he fears the mandate could lead to people losing their jobs or homes. That's not an unreasonable concern and governments would be foolish to ignore the potential downsides to a policy like this.

But that must be weighed against the extent of the imposition (is it too much to ask that people get vaccinated?) and whatever additional protection is provided to the rest of society by ensuring that people who regularly travel around the continent are vaccinated.

The current tumult isn't a uniquely Canadian phenomenon — protests against vaccine mandates have happened in several European countries. It may have been inevitable. But it's still up to Canadians and their leaders to find a way to muddle through.

People attend a demonstration called by the French nationalist party "Les Patriotes" (The Patriots), to protest France's COVID-19 vaccine pass in Paris on January 22, 2022. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)

In his own comments this week, Trudeau emphasized the importance of vaccination and described the convoy (parts of it, at least) as a "small fringe minority" with "unacceptable" views. His government has shown no interest in changing its policy. (Even if it did, it would have to also persuade the Americans to do likewise for any change to really matter.)

During last year's election, Trudeau called out the extreme views expressed by some of the protesters attending his campaign events, hurling invective (and, in one instance, stones) in his direction.

But he was more nuanced in his comments after public safety concerns forced him to cancel a campaign event in Bolton, Ontario. That evening, Trudeau said that "anger" needed to be met with "compassion" and he acknowledged all leaders — himself included — needed to reflect on their own words and actions.

Members of an RCMP security detail put their hands up to protect Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau from rocks as protesters shout and throw gravel during a campaign stop in London Ont., on Monday, September 6, 2021. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

"One of the challenges we face right now is there seems to be a lot of concern that perhaps the desire to bring Canadians together is at odds with the desire and the responsibility we have to keep Canadians safe," Trudeau said.

"Science tells us that the best way through this pandemic is to get vaccinated. That's how we end this. That's how we get back to normality that so many people so desperately want. So we have to stand strong for what we know to be true …

"But we have to make sure we are hearing those real concerns and responding to them as best we can."

"Real concerns" are generally worth hearing out. But one can debate how much compassion should be directed at this convoy.

Ideally, cooler heads would prevail and the extremists would be marginalized. Canadians may have rallied over the last two years around the idea that we're stronger together. But the simple reality might be that not everyone is going to agree on the best way out of this pandemic.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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