For the better part of the last two weeks, a short phrase has lingered in the throats — or more accurately, at the fingertips — of people who live in Ottawa.
“We’re on our own.”
Since the start of a now weeks-long occupation by people protesting COVID-19 mandates and the Trudeau government, those exact words have been tapped out more than 40 times in Twitter posts from residents of Canada’s capital.
“We’re on our own” isn’t a call to action. It does not appear to be shared to bring people or ideas or solutions together.
It is about as far away as “we” could get from “we’re all in this together” — the prevailing, if inaccurate, political and public message of the pandemic’s earliest days.
The sentiment “we’re on our own” seems to have emerged quietly as residents saw hate symbols on display, Ottawa’s core taken over, people put at risk, a provincial state of emergency and city police describing themselves as overwhelmed.
At best, the phrase reads as recognition things are not as some expected them to be. A criticism that systems in place to ensure “our” safety failed. A surprise to those privileged to see a state’s structures as in place to keep them safe.
At worst, it reads as resignation.
“So basically, we’re on our own,” one person wrote as they shared an Ottawa Police statement on Jan. 30 that “due to safety concerns, management of the protest and traffic must take precedence” over “complaints relating to parking, idling, noise making and other inappropriate behaviour.”
That sentiment appeared again and again in the days following.
Opinion: During this pandemic, the phrase “We’re on our own” is not a sentiment that immediately mobilizes solidarity, putting it in stark contrast to the message, “We’re all in this together,” writes @taudette. #emergencies #cdnpoli #onpoli
After Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson described officers being outnumbered and swarmed, and said the police chief had to assess how or whether interventions might “throw gas on a fire.”
After a CTV reporter posted photos of a structure being built and fuel gathered by protesters in the core on Feb. 3. After the city’s police board asked for more help from the provincial and federal governments during a special weekend meeting on Feb. 5. After a provincial state of emergency was declared on Feb. 11 and little seemed to change.
As a researcher and journalist, I look at how people use social media to tell stories, connect and issue calls to action around common causes. Hashtags such as #cdnpoli (used to curate news related to Canadian politics) can channel information and make shared messages findable. In social movement or advocacy contexts, hashtags can build or renew connections.
Living in Ottawa, I first saw “we’re on our own” as an anti-hashtag, appearing randomly in my social media news feed, absent a pound symbol (#), not a point of connection or discussion.
I wanted to understand what such a sentiment, expressed publicly and seemingly without co-ordination, does. I used Twitter’s search tools and an Excel spreadsheet to find and gather 42 tweets that were posted between Jan. 30 and Feb. 13 including the phrase “we’re on our own,” and written by people who appear to live in Ottawa based on their profiles or the topics they discussed.
Since Jan. 30, “we’re on our own” was sometimes accompanied by hashtagged calls to defund the police or elect a new provincial government in Ontario, and sometimes put to the attention of decision-makers or city police.
But by itself, “we’re on our own” is not a rallying cry. It is an observation, a response, a criticism in a city where most have had enough. (A recent Abacus Data and spark*advocacy online survey of 500 Ottawa residents done between Feb. 4 and Feb. 7 found 67 per cent of respondents opposed or strongly opposed the protest, and “even four in 10 of those who support the convoy say it’s time for them to leave the city.”)
“We’re on our own” is not a sentiment that immediately mobilizes solidarity, putting it in stark contrast to the message, “We’re all in this together.”
Considering deeply uneven access to health care, housing, guaranteed income and child care, and different guidelines and advice between provincial and territorial jurisdictions, the notion we’ve all been living through and battling the pandemic together has been a troubled one from the start.
But two years ago, there was something aspirational in the collective ideal of being in “this” together. Something hopeful about imagining and making changes — even drastic ones — to centre each other’s health and well-being.
In March 2020, Canada’s National Observer contributor Courtney Howard suggested this could be a time for a “generational pivot,” for meeting the challenges of COVID-19 “with courage and unity” and “surg(ing) into a post-pandemic world” with renewed commitment to health and climate resilience.
If we could depend on each other to “flatten the curve,” to ensure hospitals weren’t overwhelmed and the lives of those most at risk were valued, what else could we do?
In hindsight, “we’re all in this together” hinged on mutual trust. Trust that collectively staying home and reorganizing “our” lives could meet shared goals. Belief that governments cared about “our” safety.
“We’re on our own” seems a wary expression of loss, even as trucks began to move out of residential areas and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergency Measures Act Monday to “end the ongoing illegal blockades and occupations across the country.”
Can such wariness be productive? Can it activate or empower people to place their trust elsewhere, or do something?
There are people in Ottawa who have taken it upon themselves to engage with, try to persuade, and sometimes confront the protesters. On Sunday hundreds of residents blocked would-be protesters from joining the convoy. City councillors have met constituents and responded to their fears. Rolling Stone reported on activists working to introduce chaos to protesters’ online organization, including by interrupting communications channels with a “porno-metal song about gay cowboys.” More than 13,000 people donated to an Ottawa homeless shelter after people there were harassed and a client and security guard assaulted.
Last week, 21-year-old Zexi Li’s lawsuit quieted the blaring horns of protesters in downtown Ottawa. In an interview with the Globe and Mail, she said, “I decided I’m going to channel all this hopeless, disappointing and sad energy into actually making a difference and standing up for what I believe in.”
Resigned criticism may not work — or be intended to work — as a demand or call to action. But through acknowledging “we’re on our own,” can people find new opportunities for solidarity and community-building?
What should political leaders make of this sentiment?
This year, Ottawa residents will cast ballots twice, first in June to elect provincial representatives to Queen’s Park, and then in October for a new mayor and city council. How will potential candidates go about bringing together and winning over the deeply disappointed?
Trish Audette-Longo is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University in Ottawa.