When the trucker convoy to Ottawa was first announced, it was ostensibly a protest against vaccine mandates and the impact they would have on cross-border shipping and supply chains. But with 90 per cent of truckers vaccinated and the companies that employ them pooh-poohing the impact of said mandates, protesters quickly retreated to the firmer political ground of defending freedom, or at least their perception of it. That’s when things really took off.
Whether it’s self-declared CBC apostate Tara Henley, Fox News personalities like Tucker Carlson, or any number of far-right American agitators, the pro-freedom messaging is getting plenty of oxygen. Pierre Poilievre is taking advantage of this moment by declaring his candidacy for the newly vacant leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada. In a video that’s been seen more than four million times (how many of those are Americans is an important and unanswered question), Poilievre positioned himself as the pro-freedom candidate — and promised that he’ll make Canadians “the freest people on Earth.”
So far, this freedom frenzy has resulted in a brutal de facto lockdown for the citizens of Ottawa and blockades at three major points of entry at the Canada-US border. And while Ottawa has so far borne the brunt of the freedom convoy’s impact, that pain is about to spread to the rest of Ontario. Toyota Canada, Ford, and General Motors all announced they were either temporarily shuttering their factories in the province or reducing their hours as a result of the blockade and its impact on supply chains. One wonders how the workers who are negatively impacted here feel about their own freedoms.
But this convoy and the blockades that it has inspired begs a crucial question: In what way are Canadians not free right now? Freedom, after all, isn’t the right to do as you please, regardless of the consequences that might have on others. As CPC MP Michael Chong said in the House of Commons earlier this week, “Freedoms are limited by how they interfere with other people’s freedoms.”
And while the American constitution may have a maximalist view of rights and freedoms, Canadians tend to be much more circumspect. The very first section of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms explains why other rights enumerated in that document can be limited — situations just like the one we’ve been dealing with over the last two years with COVID-19.
Unvaccinated Canadians are still free to exercise their freedoms of speech, mobility, and democratic participation. They can move freely within the country, hold and express opinions about the merits of vaccines, and organize with like-minded people around a common political objective. The extraordinary display of patience that the authorities have shown the convoy encampment in Ottawa — and now the copycat blockades in southern Ontario, Manitoba, and Alberta — is all the proof you’d ever need of that.
But being free to speak, move, or organize politically doesn’t mean that you’re automatically free from the consequences of doing so. It also means others are free to exercise their own freedoms — say, to collect licence plate information from commercial trucks and share that with the relevant authorities and/or insurance companies — in ways that might bring those consequences to bear. Freedom isn’t a blank cheque, and it isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card to do or say whatever you want.
This will come as a shock to many of the people involved in the convoy, who seem to think our rights are unimpeachable. But the idea of freedom isn’t as simple or straightforward as they would like to believe, and the nature and purpose of freedom is one of the oldest philosophical debates in western society — one that tends to inform our outlook on the world.
In Two Concepts of Liberty, the 1958 essay by British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, he outlined the differences between what he called “negative” and “positive” freedoms. “The former want to curb authority as such,” he wrote. “The latter want it placed in their own hands. That is a cardinal issue. These are not two different interpretations of a single concept, but two profoundly divergent and irreconcilable attitudes to the ends of life.”
The irreconcilable nature of that disagreement (the protesters are clearly focused on negative freedoms) has never been more obvious than it is right now. But whether the convoy protesters understand it or not, Canada is not the country of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That’s the United States.
Opinion: This #convoy and the blockades that it has inspired begs a crucial question: In what way are Canadians not free right now? asks columnist @maxfawcett.
Here in Canada, we’re supposed to be guided by a commitment to “peace, order, and good government,” none of which have been on display in Ottawa over the last two weeks. The sooner we can restore those values to the forefront of our political discourse, the better off we’ll be.
That may not be in the best interests of Conservative politicians like Poilievre, Doug Ford, and Jason Kenney, who have been conspicuously silent on this important distinction. Poilievre will almost certainly ride his pro-freedom platform to the leadership of his party, whenever it decides to hold the vote.
And when Canadians next get the chance to vote, they will have to decide whether they subscribe to his distinctly American interpretation of what the word “freedom” means — and what that entails for our relationships with each other as citizens.
As we’re seeing with the convoy right now, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.