The taste of freedom is the sweetest for those who (re)gain it. The more people are accustomed to their freedom, the more they may be inclined to take it for granted. The current pandemic lets us experience novel sights, sounds and tastes of freedom. This includes the increasing calls that we should fight for it.
I concede that freedom is precious and fragile and needs our protection. But from whom? The ones shouting loudest that they want to take back “their” freedom may not at all be concerned with “our” freedom.
Struck by COVID-19, we saw many of our preferred choices limited and several advisories imposed and even enforced on us. In the early days, the focus of attention was on elderly people confined in nursery homes, many of whom died without their loved ones—the most painful of deprivations! Debates on closure or conditional reopening of schools and restaurants as well as on the benefits of facial masks are ongoing.
How we experience the pandemic also depends on the concepts with which we approach COVID-19. Empathy with those faring worse than us eases our own pain, as does trusting in the slogan that “we are all in this together”. Whenever we experience solidarity, we are less inclined to lament the limitation of our freedom. How we experience the pandemic also depends on the concepts with which we approach Covid-19. Whether we ascribe it to Mother Nature, call it a “hoax”, label it the “China virus”, regard it as divine vengeance, or begin blaming the “Anti-Vaxxers” for its continuation explains little of the phenomenon itself, but reveals much about the ideological filters through which we communicate. It likely correlates with our anger level, too.
The greater our dissatisfaction, the easier we can be made to believe that our freedom is being stolen from us. Widespread frustration and sentiment of loss is in fact what extremists typically prey on. We may not yet have seen the same level of radicalization in Canada as in Europe or the US, where demonstrations against COVID-19 measures more often result in open violence. Who of us have at least one close friend or relative who continues spreading fake news, in the firm belief that our health and freedom are at stake? The tragedy is that their honest attempts to deflect evil plays into the hands of those who want to undermine our society. Proportionate criticism of governmental action is of course permissible, but we need to be on the watch against a rhetoric that seeks to undermine our democratic institutions and the pillars of our democratic freedom.
The government may be challenged in Parliament, where it has a minority of seats, but a majority of MPs still supports its decisions. We can confront steps of the administration in public debates, though current polls seem to confirm a high level of agreement. And the way to challenge our rulers at the Supreme Court is also open to us. Our democracy seems to work reasonably well. But democratic freedom does not mean that decisions made by our legitimate representatives within the legal framework can be ignored if we disagree with them. This would imply a belief that freedom is an absolute right, irrespective of how someone’s free decision might affect other people’s wellbeing. Nothing of this has been included into the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Yes, everyone’s personal choices deserve consideration and respect, but if there is an emergency, then the sovereign has the right to make its decision through its legitimate institutions, which is the government elected by the people.
Gone are the days when we were concerned with the supply and roll-out of vaccines. The emphasis of the public debate has shifted towards finding a proportionate and legitimate balance between the wellbeing of the vast majority and the rights of individuals. Its most conspicuous manifestation has been the “Freedom Rally”, in the course of which up to 30,000 trucks headed to Edmonton or Ottawa. At an earlier stage of this (still ongoing) event, a CBC news report explained, with reference to the Canadian Trucking Alliance and the American Trucking Associations, that 26,000 of the 160,000 truck drivers who regularly cross the Canadian-American border will “be sidelined as a result of the vaccine mandate” put in effect by both countries on Jan. 15.
By now, the Canadian Trucking Alliance has officially distanced itself from an event whose organizers have been identified as extremists (while this article undergoes revisions on Jan. 26, the highly instructive Wikipedia page “Freedom Convoy 2022” has been released). Be this as it may, the discomfort of the protesters became manifest, so far peacefully, and even their arguments could be heard and considered nationwide. One of them might even resonate with many Canadians: a government is obliged to explain transparently why one professional group is targeted and another is not. At the same time, the protesters do not make it sufficiently clear to me why they should be privileged when crossing the border: a vaccine mandate for other international travellers has been in place for months. Arguments have been exchanged. Democracy has been served.
Otherwise, I fully agree with the declaration of the Canadian Trucking Alliance that vaccine acceptance among their members is as high as throughout Canadian society, and further that increasing this rate is the safest way out of the Covid crisis. And yet, bystanders waving banners with the slogan “Let’s take back our freedom” tell me that we should all stand on guard for our democratic freedom.
Altay Coskun is a professor in Classical Studies at the University of Waterloo. He is interested in constitutional and legal matters, interstate and intercultural relations, imperial policy and propaganda, as well as the status of migrants and foreigners. Every third Wednesday, he hosts the Seleukid Lecture Series with guest speakers.