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A driver hangs a Canadian flag on the front of a truck parked near Parliament Hill on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Remember how it was, two years ago? Remember how Canadians were united in a sense of solidarity that, however bad things were, at least we were all in this together?

That was then. And this is now.

At a press conference on Monday morning, and later that afternoon in Question Period, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took a particularly personal and divisive line of attack against the protesters who took to the streets of downtown Ottawa this past weekend.

Given that the misnamed Freedom Convoy and those who gathered around it want an end to vaccine mandates, or even an end to vaccines, the PM was of course right to reject these calls. Obviously.

However, in responding to the people honking horns in front of his office, the PM went far beyond just dismissing their demands. Instead, from Mr. Trudeau on down, ministers and MPs spoke words that seemed designed to polarize and radicalize the situation, by demonizing the protesters rather that calmly refuting their ideas.

The government essentially declared the people in the protest to be so deplorable as to absolve itself of the democratic responsibility of arguing with them.

That will surely play well among some voters on one side of the spectrum, which is why the Liberals went there. It is also, after a decade of immersion in social media, how more and more people think democratic discourse works – you find a way to declare your opponents beyond the pale, and then you cancel them. It’s hard to see how that approach, at a time of increasing division and building frustration, serves the national interest.

These days, the Canada of our collective imagination has blurred with the country that we regularly see on TV – American TV. But the United States of America of CNN and Fox News isn’t Canada. Yet the Freedom Convoy, as it approached Ottawa, began to be pictured as a CanCon take on the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol. And the national media prepared to cover it as if it was going to be something of such a scale and menace.

It wasn’t. Instead, there were a few hundred road-blocking trucks and a few thousand people on foot. A mid-sized inconvenience, not an insurrection. Like a lot of protests, it had a street-party atmosphere, as participants basked in the affirmation of the like-minded. And yes, some idiots climbed on the National War Memorial; some decided to demand a free lunch at a homeless shelter, some marched through a shopping mall without masks, and among the thousands of Canadian flags, a few had swastikas drawn on them. But the truth is that the protesters were, on the whole, mostly peaceful.

The issue is not that the people who turned up in downtown Ottawa on Saturday and Sunday (and with the exception of a shrinking fleet of trucks were largely gone by Monday) are all dangerous, violent extremists. The problem is that what they believe, about the pandemic and vaccines, is mistaken and misguided.

The government should not adopt the policies they propose. Of course not. But that’s not because they’re monsters who are beyond the pale. It should not give in to them because the answers they’re proposing are the wrong answers.

Vaccines have saved many thousands of Canadian lives, and prevented many more hospitalizations. They’re the reason that shuttered restaurants in Ottawa and the rest of Ontario were allowed to reopen on Monday. Some protesters carried signs saying “Freedom isn’t free.” They’re right. In this particular fight, getting vaccinated is the “cost” of freedom. Compared with the price paid by the Canadians commemorated at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, it’s not much of a price.

Every MP of whatever party should always defend the right of Canadians – particularly Canadians with whom they disagree – to peacefully protest, in a public space, at a time and place that doesn’t overly inconvenience their fellow citizens. But anyone with half a whit of sense should also disagree, forcefully, with the views of the Ottawa protesters.

They had the right to protest, and to be seen as fully Canadian while doing so, particularly by their government and their prime minister. At the same, the government and the PM had every right to tell these citizens that, with all due respect, their views are mistaken. It’s a fine balance, and Mr. Trudeau didn’t even try to maintain it.

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