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Protesters against Canada's Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and COVID-19 vaccination hold up signs during a campaign stop by Trudeau in Newmarket, Ontario on Sept. 5.

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

It is a beautiful thing in this country that members of the disgruntled electorate can offer political leaders their middle fingers. I say that sincerely. There are relatively few countries on earth where individuals can make obscene gestures at the people that form government, and then go home to enjoy a nice meal with their families without worrying about a knock on the door or worse. Canadians have thus made use of this extraordinary freedom throughout generations and toward various prime ministers, and the odd prime minister riding in a railcar through a protest has been known to make use of it right back.

It is with some irony then that the tribe of protesters – the self-declared anti-vaccine freedom fighters – who have been following Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau as he campaigns across the country have gone beyond the finger-wag and adopted slogans and tactics familiar to some of the most repressive and autocratic places around the world.

They have, in recent weeks, carried signs with images of Mr. Trudeau standing next to a noose with the words “High Treason” scrawled across the top, as if seeking to turn Canada into 1990s-era Afghanistan where we might hang our very own Mohammad Najibullah. They’ve blocked routes to hospitals, some espousing a bizarre 2021 version of a Soviet-era conspiracy that doctors are in the business of poisoning patients. And they’ve hurled rocks and gravel at media and political leaders, just as the Islamic State and likeminded operatives might do toward an adulterous woman or gay man.

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Among other things, these actions have made clear that these gaggles of confused libertarians need new and more accurate slogans. Perhaps “Freedom fighters for stoning” or “Stalin was right about doctors!” Maybe even “Vote Liberal,” since they appear to be doing the party a favour by presenting themselves as a convenient foe against whom Mr. Trudeau can flex his prime ministerial chops. “There are health care workers across the country who are getting harassed and intimidated and bullied as they are going into work to keep people safe and alive,” Mr. Trudeau said Tuesday. “Those are the people that I think about. Those are the people I want to defend.”

Some Canadians are questioning where the police are in all of this, particularly with protesters blocking ambulances and cancer patients being forced to walk through hordes of unmasked anti-vaxxers to get to their treatments. It’s a good question.

We know that effective protest will cause some degree of inconvenience – few will pay attention to a polite demonstration on the lawn of Queen’s Park the way they will a rally that disrupts rush hour traffic – but protest that incorporates violence or threatens the welfare of bystanders hardly falls under the umbrella of protected freedoms of expression and assembly. Yet ideology and political influence can often muddy the public’s perspective on these things; those who are calling for the police to bust up protests outside of hospitals today, for example, wouldn’t necessarily be the same ones calling for police to step up in tracking down those who set churches ablaze across Canada a few weeks ago. Both forms of protest put lives in danger; neither should be tolerated.

There is a reasonable case to be made against vaccine mandates, and it is to the misfortune of sensible people who hold that view sincerely that their spokespeople have opted for violence and intimidation to make their voices heard. Had they remained merely offensive and uncouth – by trying to drown out the Liberal Leader’s public announcements, by flipping him the bird, by carrying confused signs and shouting obscenities – it would have been more tenuous to call for measures to shut them down. We’re allowed to raise a middle finger to a political leader in Canada; it is, very paradoxically, a beautiful thing.

But physical abuse and intimidation is obviously not allowed, whether it’s a shoe thrown at a president, a pie in the face of a prime minister, an egg smashed on the head of a minor party leader or rocks thrown at the Liberal Leader. We’ve seen, even in Canada, how these attacks can escalate, and protests that block access to urgent medical care pose a real and present danger. The Liberal Leader – and the country, for that matter – has been patient with these protesters as they waved their flags and accidentally adopted Taliban imagery to try to make their points. But that patience runs out when the first rock is picked up. Shut it down.

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