If politicians and police forces don’t want to see a repeat of this winter’s protest in Ottawa, they would be well-served to take a step back and try to understand why the protests happened rather than obsessively trying to chase down and punish citizens who were found to be supportive of them.
The truckers' Freedom Convoy protest in February was an event unlike any seen in Canadian history. Thousands of people supported by hundreds of thousands chose to cross the country to protest federal pandemic restrictions peacefully. Parts of Ottawa were occupied by protesters for weeks, and the nation is still trying to come to grips with what happened and with how the state chose to break up the protest. The country is still divided in opinion on whether the protest was justified, and whether the invocation of the Emergencies Act was an appropriate way to deal with it.
What purpose is being served in pursuing and possibly ending the career of a police officer who allegedly donated some money to a protest during its early stages? Will the world be a better or safer place if Neilson is fired? Will the police force be more respected? Do the heads within the OPS think it will lead to more unity within the force or improved morale among officers?
The Freedom Convoy protest didn’t represent the views of just a tiny segment of Canadians, as is the case with many protests. Despite the constant attempts to label protest supporters as being fringe extremists, polls consistently indicate that millions of Canadians were supportive of the protests. Tens of thousands of citizens opened their wallets to support the protest, and these were people who usually aren’t politically engaged. We should be trying to understand why so many Canadians who are typically politically passive felt that such a protest was necessary. Their concerns were serious, and they had a right to be heard. Taking a punitive approach with that many citizens won’t quell the discontent.
People attending the convoy protest felt they were at the end of their rope. They had lost jobs, lost the ability to travel, and lost access to loved ones and events because they chose not to be vaccinated. These are not people who will be deterred from future protests by any threats of punishment. The state, including police forces and courts, knows this. Their motivation in the pursuit of convoy supporters isn’t the prevention of future protests and citizens’ actions—it is vengeance.
There can be no doubt the protest embarrassed the government and police forces alike. They underestimated the size of the protest and the dedication of those involved in it. The state lost control and acted in panic rather than with a measured response. Nobody likes to be embarrassed, and a person’s first instinct when embarrassed is often to lash out at whoever caused the embarrassment. The government is supposed to be better than that, though. The state is appearing petty and insecure as it relentlessly pursues peaceful women such as Tamara Lich and police officers like Kristina Nielson.
The country has endured over two miserable years of fear, restrictions, and pressures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are tense, tired, and eager to put those years into our collective rear-view mirrors. People won’t be able to feel closure and the ability to move on with their lives as long as vendettas continue against citizens for having supported the Freedom Convoy.
If authorities had simply offered the protesters a modicum of respect at the beginning of the protest, the situation may have been defused in a matter of days. Just meeting and listening to the thousands of people gathered in Ottawa would have calmed the situation, even if the demands of the protesters weren’t met. Instead, the government labelled convoy supporters as racists, fascists, and extremists, which infuriated and inspired the protesters to dig in.
Canada is divided and it's not impossible to imagine another round of protests if any form of pandemic restrictions are imposed again.
Historically, state efforts to quell rebellion through martyring citizens only served to add fuel to the fire.
The government can’t turn back the clock, but it’s not too late to learn from its mistakes and start treating upset citizens with respect. It can begin by ending the vindictive pursuit of Freedom Convoy supporters.