Rupa Subramanya: Trucker convoy exposed hypocrisy of Canada's left-wing elite
March 3 2022
Re-printed without permission.
Class divides are the new solitudes
The “two solitudes” in Canada has historically referred to the English and French as two separate peoples inhabiting the same space. However, an entirely new meaning to the term has emerged in the two years of the pandemic.
The recent Freedom Convoy protests in Ottawa brought together a diverse range of people, along many dimensions of difference: geography, ethnicity, age, political ideology, and all the rest. What united them, however, was anger and disdain at the restrictions on their freedoms in the form of government mandates imposed by a technocratic, managerial elite who coped just fine under two years of pandemic living by working at home in the virtual world of Zoom and Peloton. Many shared a sense of alienation from that world that dictated how their lives could run, and found the protests therapeutic in being able to meet like-minded folks. By contrast, to those in the privileged digital world, the truckers and protesters largely belong to the brick and mortar physical economy which had been severely disrupted both by the pandemic and the restrictions imposed in response to it.
The anger and disdain run both ways. A well-known Canadian commentator, speaking on a CBC television panel, described the protesters as “anti-social yobs, with delusions of grandeur, a persecution complex and too much time on their hands.”
As I wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal the protests and the government’s crackdown have shattered myths about Canada, whose elite have a self-image of the country as egalitarian and caring, in contrast to the supposed social Darwinism that characterizes the United States. Class divisions, hidden beneath the surface, have come to the fore, revealing class privilege, which often goes unrecognized by those who enjoy it, in a way not seen in recent times. It was routine to see politicians and even journalists denigrate the truckers and protesters as “those people” who sought to “occupy” the nation’s capital, without any acknowledgement that these were fellow Canadians exercising their right of peaceful protest and civil disobedience in the seat of government power, which had so affected their lives in a profoundly existential sense. Rather, the protesters were dismissed as rednecks from the fringes of society whose presence in the capital upset an established social order.
The denigration of the protesters continued when the headlines had been taken over by the Ukraine crisis. Commentators, and an especially egregious cartoon in a major newspaper, mocked the protesters’ fight for freedoms, comparing them to Ukrainians fighting for their very lives after the Russian invasion. This devious and tendentious comparison between two very different situations is a little akin to doctrinaire Marxists who dismiss the concerns of the petit bourgeoisie as illegitimate because they benefit from the capitalist system. The truth is that the fight for individual liberty isn’t legitimate only when your country has been invaded but is an ongoing struggle against an overreaching state just about everywhere. Freedom doesn’t just happen but often must be fought for, whether the rights of women, minorities, or, in the case of the Freedom Convoy, a working class that have been all but forgotten.
The irony of the recent outbreak of class warfare in Canada is that the ruling elite have an ideology that theoretically comes from the left of centre and should, presumably, be mindful of the impact on working people of vaccine mandates and other restrictions. This is why the former Labour leader in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn, opposed vaccine mandates, as they would be most harmful to the working poor that his party claimed to speak for. By contrast, here in Canada, Jagmeet Singh of the NDP gushed enthusiastically in favour of the national emergency even before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared it. Likewise, initially recalcitrant labour unions quickly signalled their support for the government’s mandate-driven approach and some even took out a counter-protest in Ottawa to oppose the Freedom Convoy.
On the very first day the protesters rolled into town, anyone without blinkers on would have realized that the political establishment was so disconnected from reality that they completely missed the magnitude and scope of what was to unfold over the coming weeks. Trudeau and his echo chamber had blithely assumed that all Canadians would fall into line with one of the harshest and restrictive set of rules in any major country since the outbreak of the pandemic. What they had entirely missed was everyone in the “flyover” zone, truckers, miners, construction workers, retail employees, all of whom had to grind out a living in an increasingly restrictive physical economy without the possibility of escape to the digital economy where technocrats navigate physical boundaries as though in a computer simulation.
Trudeau’s invoking of the Emergencies Act managed to break up the protests, but it has if anything inflamed the grievances that led to it. Now much more than just about federal vaccine mandates and some restrictions still in place, the protests represent a people’s pushback against massive government overreach and constraints on individual liberty within which a largely left leaning elite appear to be content and to prosper but which frustrates and stifles everyone else.
The protests and aftermath are already leading to a realignment in the Canadian right and has sent ripples throughout the world. Erstwhile docile Canadians have finally experienced an awakening that they have fundamental freedoms and liberties that governments can’t mandate and legislate away. This awakening comes not from academic updates about Hayek and Friedman in Ivy League classrooms but from the lived, hard scrabble reality of those for whom freedom is not a theoretical concept but an existential one. Ironically, this awakening is being understood and celebrated everywhere, except in Canada, where the out of touch elite continue to mock and denigrate their fellow Canadians.