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Dispatch from Ottawa

As this goes to press, we enter day 21 of the unlawful siege of Ottawa’s parliamentary precinct and downtown core by a rag-tag group of protesters. Local, provincial and national governments have invoked emergency measures.

A peaceable town, in normal times Canada’s national capital plays host to as many as three million visitors each year. Its citizens are accustomed to protest groups from many horizons who come to the seat of government seeking to exercise their right to free expression. Most law-abiding demonstrators return home peacefully to pursue their various causes through the channels of Canada’s democratic institutions.

Upon their arrival, leaders of the “freedom convoy” presented a “Memorandum” calling upon the Governor General and Senate of Canada to force the resignation of a duly elected government and accept its replacement by their self-appointed citizens’ committee. Their charter reflects the values of the nationalistic, racist and anti-democratic movements to which they belong. Parliament Hill has been draped with the flags and insignia of right-wing extremists, Trump 2024 regalia and the vulgar taunts of “F--- Trudeau,” shocking the staid sensibilities of decent Canadians. Money is pouring in from crowd funding sites, more than half of it from anonymous or pseudonymous American sources.

Make no mistake, while co-opting the sympathies of antivaxxers and the waning trust of the COVID-fatigued, the hard core of this band is bent on disrupting the peaceful democratic process and weakening Canada’s democratic institutions. Ostensibly, they represent truckers opposed to vaccine mandates for entry at the Canada-U.S. border. Yet, from the outset, Canada’s Teamsters Union and the Canadian Trucking Alliance, over 90% of whose members are vaccinated, have distanced themselves from the movement and its message. Unions on both sides of the border have denounced the recent escalation of illegal blockades erected at border crossings and disrupting the free movement of goods.

Back in Ottawa, citizens are at their wits end. Road closures and unruly demonstrators ostensibly fighting for “freedom” from public health measures hinder the most basic freedoms of city residents. Ironically, the convoy arrived just when many health restrictions were being relaxed, thanks to the subsidence of the most recent wave of COVID-19. Businesses and schools were re-opening. Workers were returning to their offices. Yet health-care workers, mask-wearing shop keepers, and area residents were systematically harassed by unruly unmasked protesters to the point that restaurants, shopping centers, offices, schools, libraries, theatres, museums—and even city hall, were forced to close. Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica cancelled its Sunday liturgies after “ugly” encounters with disruptive visitors. Residents no longer feel safe going outdoors, their neighborhood transformed into a raucous carnivalesque encampment.

Sadly, some Christian groups have chosen to identify with the cause of “freedom” and its claims of victimhood, underestimating the extremist elements at play. Preachers give succor, organize prayer meetings, or recite rosaries to nurture the religious zeal of a defiant cult. Online “news” outlets abet a hyper-scrupulous resistance to Vatican-approved vaccines. They promote the views of discredited Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, long given to conspiracy theories, as he denounces Canada as a country “infiltrated by globalists” and praises protesters’ opposition to “the establishment of the New World Order.” They welcome Bishop Joseph Strickland’s (Tyler, Texas) support for the occupiers’ defense of the “basic values … of individual freedom.”

Those claiming to fight for “freedom of choice” are, in fact, quite free. There are no “forced” vaccinations here. But choices have consequences. Individual freedoms have limits and must be balanced by social responsibility. Science has shown that the unvaccinated and unmasked are far more likely to become ill and spread COVID-19 to others. Public health measures aim to reduce such consequences until the pandemic has well and truly ended. Governments and health care professionals have sought to persuade, not coerce, people to protect themselves, their families, their communities. Their overall success has led Canada to have among the highest vaccination rates and lowest death rates in the world.

Similarly, in a free and civil society, those who exercise the right to free speech and public protest must do so in a responsible manner, one that respects the rights of other citizens, the rule of law and the role of public institutions. Failure to do so has consequences. There are no absolute freedoms in Catholic social teaching, no individuals unaccountable to the wider society. It ought to trouble us when the common good is portrayed as an un-Christian value. Even more disturbing is the uncritical support of forces actively seeking to undermine the institutions that serve it.

Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.


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