Cross Country Checkup

How COVID-19 energized a new crop of political activists, community advocates

A number of activist and advocate groups have formed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, calling on governments for COVID-related relief, but also raising awareness about other issues that affect their communities.

Grassroots groups form to critique government's pandemic responses, other local issues

Cheryl Johnson is a teacher, taxidermist and now, a member of the Flip Saint John advocacy group. (Submitted by Cheryl Johnson)

Cheryl Johnson was one of the thousands of Canadians who lost their job when the COVID-19 pandemic forced a massive economic shutdown earlier this year.

Falling short of the qualifications for employment insurance, the 36-year-old mother, teacher and taxidermist found herself home caring for her children who had been taken out of school, with no income until the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) was introduced.

Worries started to creep in about what might happen to herself and her family if the pandemic continued long after the CERB's eventual sunset.

"Since I was receiving money from the government, I started following more on what the government was doing and I became more politically aware and politically engaged," she told Checkup.

While reading more political stories and opinions online, she found people who shared many of her concerns. Eventually they came together to form a local advocacy group called Flip Saint John (short for Free Local Independent Perspective). Johnson now serves on its three-person executive board.

She's one of the many Canadians who have been politically awakened by the pandemic, calling on their governments for COVID-related action but also other issues that affect their communities.

Some of the issues Flip St. John speaks out about include access to health care and abortion and poverty support and awareness. Flip members have also spoken up on local issues like policing and transit.

When you're around like-minded people… who are so passionate about the policies and the topic, it just makes you want to do more as well.- Maryama Ahmed

Dr. Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia, isn't surprised that the pandemic has served as a catalyst to political action for some.

"We're living in unusual circumstances in which there's a lot of uncertainties. And people are trying to take charge of their lives to feel like they're in control," Taylor, author of The Psychology of Pandemics, told Checkup.

Protesters carry signs indicating a variety of motivations and ideologies in opposition to face coverings during a rally in Montreal on Aug. 8. (Jean-Claude Taliana/Radio-Canada)

That compulsion manifested early on in the form of panic-buying supplies like flour and toilet paper. He expressed some optimism that it's since evolved to "community-based altruistic activities" for some.

But he cautioned that it's also sparked some controversial movements as well, such as conspiracy theories about the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and vocal anti-mask agitators.

Maryama Ahmed was already interested in politics, having graduated from the University of Toronto with a political science degree in 2019. But the pandemic spurred her into advocacy with greater urgency than she anticipated.

Less than two weeks after starting a new job in the hospitality sector, she found herself without work thanks to the COVID-19 lockdown. She didn't work long enough to qualify for the CERB, and having already graduated she didn't qualify for the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB), either.

"Essentially, I was being penalized by the federal government because I had graduated from university too early and I had started my job too late," she said.

Ahmed joined the newly formed Don't Forget Students group to push for more action from the federal government, which she says "completely failed" to support students who graduated last fall, many saddled with student debt, and were left to face dire employment prospects during a widespread shutdown.

She feels empowered by working with students and recent grads with common experiences and a common cause.

"Joining DFS has been amazing," she said. "When you're around like-minded people… who are so passionate about the policies and the topic, it just makes you want to do more as well."

Pandemic people power

Taylor noted that humans' "tribalistic" nature means they often come together "when we are so-called battling a common foe," whether that be a pandemic or a rival sports team.

He said that it remains to be seen, however, how long some people's political motivation will last after the heights of the pandemic ends — whenever that may be.

With a single tweet, Caitlin Grogan put herself at the centre of a political moment in Saint John. She's part of a burst of online activism that politicians have been unable to ignore. 4:53

"We're already seeing the fizzling out of the 7 p.m. cheering for our health-care workers," he pointed out. "So I mean, I hope it persists. But it may just fizzle out."

Looking back, Johnson can't quite believe how engaged she's become. But she's happy to have found other people who share her newfound "intensity" in working towards positive change.

"Just seeing how things have changed throughout [the last three months] has been pretty spectacular. So I guess I managed to make something good out of this," she said.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Kirthana Sasitharan, Kate Cornick and Mrinali Anchan.

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