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Showing Up or Showing Off

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s appearance at an anti-racism protest in Ottawa wasn’t questioned for his support of the worthy cause, but for his ambivalence toward the sacrifices of Canadians during COVID-19, reports Peter Stockland.

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Topics: Government, COVID-19
Showing Up or Showing Off June 9, 2020  |  By Peter Stockland
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During the COVID lockdown, a family friend was forced to cancel her 50th birthday party and, some weeks later, her 25th wedding anniversary party.

Meanwhile, on a spring thaw day, gun-holstered police threatened to fine our neighbours up the street if they didn’t immediately vacate park benches that their tax dollars from a lifetime of work had helped install.

Neither example comes close, of course, to the far broader and deeper suffering endured by millions of Canadians during the past three months. Deaths (and the inability to bury our dead), unemployment, business and personal bankruptcies, threats to mental and physical health, enforced family separation, prohibitions on the right to freely associate for essential human activities including religious worship, have all become assumed as part of the natural – stunning word! – national affliction.

Yet in their very micro isolation, both illustrations above bring a terrifying clarifying light to just how deeply the State has forced itself into our lives for the sake of the greater good.

If you  predicted last December, for instance, that two senior citizens would soon be hectored out of a public place by police representing the State’s monopoly on the use of force, 99.923 per cent of Canadians would have looked at you as if you were loco and said: “Don’t be ridiculous. This is Canada.”

Likewise, if you had forecast that our Charter guarantees of free association would imminently be suspended and thereby make it impossible to hold life passage celebrations with family and friends, an even higher percentage of Canadians would have said incredulously: “Here? In Canada? Pfffttt.”

Here in Canada, that is precisely where we have been since mid-March. It’s where we continue to be in large measure even as we take cautious, halting steps to emerge blinking into familiar Canadian light. Even recent edicts relaxing violations of freedom to associate and “allowing” us to welcome up to 10 people in our own homes serve to underscore the depth of State intervention in our lives.

There’s a particularly grim irony to that in Ontario and Quebec. There, the very authorities who presume to police the home occupancy rate failed atrociously in their duty of care to nursing homes, leading directly to the overwhelming majority of COVID-19 deaths.

What’s most remarkable in all this, however, is how unremarkable it has been to Canadians. Stoic grumbling arises on social media and in private conversation, true, but it’s largely accompanied by a shoulder shrugging attitude of what’er ya gonna do? A few groups such as the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms have, vigilantly and valiantly, worked to remind us that these are Charter guaranteed rights and freedoms that are being suppressed.

The acceptance has not been roll-over-dog passivity. On the contrary, it’s a hugely admirable, active nation-wide willingness to shoulder burdens great and small for the common good. It’s of a sort, spontaneous albeit expected, that deserves to be upheld as a praiseworthy part of national character.

That very characteristic, alas, is what makes so disconcerting Prime Minister Trudeau’s choice last Friday to participate in a mass anti-racism protest in the streets of Ottawa and on Parliament Hill. The justness of the cause is not the issue. Make no mistake. Racism is real in this country. It has been historically. It is currently. The question is never whether it exists. The conundrum is how to most effectively eradicate it.

But by bringing the weight of his office and his personal charisma to one of the most ephemeral forms of fighting anything – i.e., marching around prioritizing placards and slogans over thought, strategy, and concrete action – the Prime Minister did worse than reduce racial justice to yet another fashionable solipsistic parade. He put combating bigotry in an entirely unwarranted oppositional position with the willing sacrifice of Canadian liberties during the COVID-19 lockdown. He made it either/or.

He either marched. Or he abided by the rules that he has almost daily for the last three months asked us to obey, and which we, in good faith, have accepted. He either joined the flash mob. Or he stood with the millions of Canadians who’ve kept the common good in the forefront despite the cost to their own daily lives and historic freedoms.

Is deliberate betrayal too strong to describe the choice he made? It’s the one that sprang most immediately to my mind, but I wouldn’t bet on it being right. What’s certain is it didn’t have to be that way. If the marchers were going to march, and the choice was between a peaceful and anarchic outcome if attempts were made to stop them, he could have given his blessing in absentia. He could have communicated as he has with the rest of Canadians throughout the lockdown: by video screen in a confined setting. He didn’t.

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There are those who would explain the PM’s insistence on marching last Friday, or alternatively his willingness to break faith, by marshaling ample evidence to show his paramount political motivation is the photo-op. It was, it is said, more important to have his picture taken front and centre among youthful social warriors than to fulfill his role as a leader for all Canadians.

If that instinct was giddily, at times goofily, apparent in his first term, I don’t see it as so present now.

Relatedly, Scott Stinson in a very compelling Maclean’s column last week, argued that Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump are both pure political actors who simply play out different character roles. Again, I don’t think so. Particularly as he has matured in office, this Prime Minister has shown genuine vision where Trump is wholly consumed with ambition. He is his father’s son, after all. It would verge on genetically impossible to be a Trudeau heir without a sense of vision for what Canada is, and should become, much as many Canadians might vehemently disagree with the diagnosis and the prescription.

Justin Trudeau’s failing is less lack of vision than it is hyper-focus, particularly on the causes and constituencies that gain his attention. We saw this in the SNC-Lavalin scandal when he appeared so intensely fixed on safeguarding a narrow corporate and political interest that he could not recognize his own Attorney-General’s alarm about the predominance of the rule of law.

We saw it in the Canada Summer Jobs debacle when his single fixed sight was on the pro-choice lobby’s point of view, leaving him unable to understand the impropriety of asking people of faith to act in ways absolutely antithetical to their consciences.

Now we see it in his choice to go walkabout, and literally kneel on the grass of Parliament Hill, to support a particular group’s specific reading on how to repair race relations in this country, leaving him no room to regard how that might affect all those who’ve foregone, oh, let’s say, birthdays or anniversaries or the funerals of their loved ones or communal worship or even just sitting together quietly on a park bench as spring arrived.

Where, the question must be asked, is the greater good in all of that?

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