The Convoy is No Mirage

Ottawa at nightBy Gretchen Fitzgerald, National Programs Director, Sierra Club Canada

Monday of last week one of our volunteers, Jake, offered to go to downtown Ottawa to take air quality readings around the truckers convoy. As a volunteer with our Breathe Easy project, Jake justifiably wanted to see how the trucker convoy and their idling, honking trucks were affecting the air breathed by Ottawa citizens as they endure what is now widely understood to be a political and illegal occupation.

My reaction was one of genuine fear for his safety since I suspect people in the convoy are largely unvaccinated against COVID, and also for his physical well-being, having heard reports of some of the occupiers threatening citizens trying to go about their daily lives – targeting people of colour, women, and those daring to wear a mask to protect themselves and others from spreading COVID. Someone wearing a mask and taking air quality readings might be a great target!

To fear for a volunteer’s safety who wishes to carry out citizen-science work because they could be assaulted or infected with a deadly disease is a new one for me.

The occupation of our capital city we are experiencing now is a new one for us all.

It’s very important that we face the forces that created this juggernaut and not dismiss the occupiers as a “basket of deplorables” or a mere COVID- and media-inspired mirage that will dissipate as we approach safer ground in the pandemic with replenished inner reserves.

This is no mirage. In fact this issue is fundamentally linked to a wider political agenda about individual rights versus communal, shared rights and responsibilities. If you look at the pathway taken in the US in recent years, these tactics, successfully deployed, could have a lasting impact of shifting the agenda of the major political parties, and therefore what we do to confront climate change and biodiversity loss for many years. One major political party has offered support for the demands of the occupiers and some elected political leaders have even brought the occupiers coffee and donuts. Commentators are speculating that Ontario’s Premier is hesitant to act decisively to end the occupation because he fears challengers from those further to the right of his Conservative Party in an election year. This is serious.

The National Observer wrote yesterday about how the truckers’ rally is being well-funded and actively egged on by right-wing forces and media outlets. Canadian leaders of the movement have been revealed to be linked to far-right and hate groups. The funding and the organizing behind this occupation speak to successful movement building, and a receptive segment of the population for whom the message of this movement resonates.

And frankly, this message is actually similar in many ways to our own at times; the government and its agents have let you down and cannot be trusted; the people need to act to show them how to do better. But that’s where the similarities end. The key difference is how that horrible sense of being let down is to be fixed.

I’ve felt for a few years now that we are at a turning point in history, and that the necessity to make change gets more acute with every IPCC report, every lost species, every climate disaster, and every bad political decision. The forces of the occupiers will grab the wheel and take us in the opposite direction to where we need to be.

The power of the occupiers shows that although they are the few they have access to power. Their very individualistic ethos, their privilege and access to resources (not to mention the large vehicles they are using as weapons), their predominantly white skin colour that makes police treat them with kid gloves  –  all of this is in and of itself is an accelerant, fuel to a flame.

If it’s me versus you, then MY concerns, MY fear, MY rights, MY power to say no to a vaccine overwhelms everything else, they seem to proclaim: It’s ME and those like ME first, and damn the rest. Where the rights of others, where those with less privilege sit in this world view is a confusing conundrum, of course.

Stopping climate change, stopping the freefall in biodiversity will take good science, good regulation, and a shared sense of responsibility to protect what we love and need. Individual action and unlimited freedom to do what we please, what we can choose and afford as individuals  – and damn the rest –  just won’t cut it. And it will not result in a world we want to create.

And as we saw very clearly with COVID our governments have the reach and resources – and massive political support from Canadians – to confront emergencies with expertise, laws and policies, and financial resources.

Perhaps that is what the forces supporting the occupiers now fear most of all, our potential to confront future crises with rules that will hurt those who already have more than their fair share.

Such collective action is what is needed to confront climate change and protect and preserve biodiversity. And as with public health care – which the vast majority of Canadians support, even in its flawed state – climate change and biodiversity loss will change our perceptions of what is necessary, possible, and desirable in our society.

It is this collective action and community care that the forces behind the convoy oppose – and will oppose successfully unless we provide political space and momentum for the change we want and need right now.

And like with COVID measures, we know we need to step up together and stop the forces that will hurt us all, particularly the most vulnerable in our society: stop approving and subsidizing new fossil fuel projects, start funding a just transition for those affected, and make polluters pay the price for the damage they are creating. We need to support and create new rules and generate the capacity needed to protect nature. We need to foster our connection to nature and each other even more. We need to take care of and protect each other while we protect and enjoy our environment.

I wish we did have readings for air quality in downtown Ottawa: it would make a great sound bite. And of course, we won’t ever give up on air quality or any other issue we care about. But I take the threat of the occupiers very seriously, and I am not willing to put someone else at risk to get this information. It’s a start.