Let’s all just take a step back from the abyss, shall we? Let’s get off Twitter, take a break from Facebook, turn off the news.
Perhaps in the days to come, the police will move in on the truckers and others encamped around Ottawa, in an attempt to end the siege that has immobilized large parts of the capital. Perhaps, less likely, the government will capitulate to their demands, in whole or in part.
Each will seem attractive to some section of opinion. Both are fraught with the potential for disaster. The protesters – occupiers would be a better word – are by now well entrenched, with funding and supply lines and infrastructure. They should never have been allowed into the city centre, but they were, and while the majority may only be confused or resentful, it is clear there is a hard core embedded within them – effectively using the rest, including the children they have brought with them, as human shields – who are fanatically devoted to whatever cause they imagine themselves to be defending and spoiling for a fight. They must be deprived of this opportunity, not only for the sake of avoiding needless bloodshed, but for the propaganda and recruiting victory a violent outcome would present them.
The blockade of the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor is another matter. This was a strategic mistake for the convoyards. The numbers are smaller, they are less entrenched, and the threat – a chokehold on international trade, including the food supply – is more obvious. A dismantling operation there would very likely find favour with public opinion, and would be worth the risk. But in Ottawa? With no imminent threat to the life or health of the population – the horns having been muted by court order – it would be harder to justify whatever casualties ensued.
On the other hand, giving in to their demands is out of the question. Not only would it reward the political use of force in this instance, but it would send a clear signal to other groups, with other agendas, that this was the route to achieving their objectives. We have no shortage of those groups, in a country stretched long and thin like a horizontal Chile, with plenty of exposed critical infrastructure to exploit. Left and right have spent the past couple of weeks arguing over who were the biggest hypocrites, those who supported (or at least indulged) the pipeline blockades in 2020 but oppose these now, or those who opposed the former and support the latter. Both should simply agree that blockades – hostage-taking, in effect – are out of bounds, an illegitimate means of making a point. Which means not rewarding it with concessions.
What, then, should be done? Is there a third way, beyond either confrontation or capitulation? Let us recall first that greatest of political maxims, where there’s time there’s hope. Time allows for more creative thinking, for more pieces to be put on the board, for complicating what had had seemed to be simple and simplifying what had seemed to be complex – and for that uniquely Canadian solution to seemingly insoluble dilemmas, boredom. Russia, it was said, had General Winter on its side in any great conflict. Well, we have General Torpor, and should exploit this advantage to the fullest.
Much as many may be desiring a quick end to the standoff, that option is not realistically open to us. The better course is what might for want of a better word be called containment, neither assaulting the encampment nor allowing it to spread, but slowly squeezing it: shrinking its footprint, restricting access in or out (a perimeter fence could be useful in this regard), controlling and curtailing its supply lines, increasing the legal and financial pressures on the participants (licences and insurance would both seem points of vulnerability) and depriving them, as much as possible, of the oxygen of publicity – smothering them, as it were, with inactivity. As time goes on, nothing happens, and the media gets bored, so will many of them. That will make it easier to separate the hard-core ideologues from the ones who are just along for the ride – not all at once, most likely, but by attrition, an arrest here, an injunction there.
Meantime, what will have been happening outside this strange, hallucinatory demimonde? The pandemic, with any luck, will have receded – the case numbers are already plummeting, with hospitalizations and deaths not far behind – allowing the restrictions imposed to prevent its spread, many of which have already been relaxed, to be eased further: not suddenly, in a bunch, but gradually, and as steadily as circumstances permit. That is not actually the issue at the heart of this – the leaders of the convoy have a much broader agenda, and were planning this or something like it long before vaccine mandates became an issue, indeed before the pandemic – but it has been a useful propaganda tool. They are about to lose that, as well, not by their own actions but by the combined offices of mass vaccination and viral exhaustion.
But there is a third theatre to this conflict: the world of conventional politics. Both major parties have done a great disservice to the country over the past weeks and months: the Liberals, the Prime Minister in particular, by using the vaccine mandate as a wedge issue, and vaccine refuseniks as objects of scorn; the Conservatives, their probable future leader in particular, by supporting and encouraging the lawlessness in Ottawa. Both are heavily invested in their positions, but both are equally at great risk of public opinion turning on them, especially should events spin out of control. It is time for each of them to come in off the ledge they have put themselves on, and negotiate a truce – not with the hostage takers, but with each other. That will deprive the occupiers of their last advantage, a divided political establishment, leaving them isolated and alone.
Who should lead those negotiations? I nominate Michael Chong and Joël Lightbound. Both have distinguished themselves in recent days, not least for their willingness to buck the party line. Mr. Chong was highly critical of Justin Trudeau, in his speech to Parliament, for his divisive tactics, but was clear that the blockade was wrong and had to stop. Mr. Lightbound doesn’t support the protest, as he emphasized in his press conference, but was equally adamant that his party has needlessly contributed to the tensions on which it has fed.
Add a representative of the NDP and the Bloc. Form a committee to report back at some interval, with findings that are appropriately critical of both parties. Allow the leaders of each – as they should – to accept the report’s conclusions, and to express their regret – this, too, is critical – for their part in inflaming the issue. Let time do the rest.
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