Two-and-a-half centuries ago in 2015 I had a video call with a Canadian friend who lives in my hometown of Toronto. As we spoke, she was putting together a Middle Eastern spice box for the Syrian refugee family she’d sponsored through her daughter’s school, carefully printing the labels in Arabic. Canada had recently committed to accepting 25,000 refugees, compared with the UK’s 10,000, which we both agreed was stingy. I explained to her that although there were lots of charities and refugee initiatives here, the public attitude was different. Not xenophobic, I insisted, just less precious. None of the parents at my son’s school, as far as I knew, were organising welcoming committees for the Syrians, let along putting together spice boxes. Also, I added, no one here would be calling them ‘New Britons’.
‘What will you call them?’ she asked.
My Canadian friend gasped and touched her throat.
‘So do people call you a foreigner then?’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘and it’s fine.’
‘Because that’s what I am.’
In Canada the term ‘immigrant’ has long been viewed as an outdated pejorative. Not as bad as the n-word or the c-word, which uttered even in the most high-minded public context will get you fired almost immediately, but definitely worse than other expletives. A few weeks later when the first planeload of Syrian refugees touched down on Canadian soil, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was waiting at the airport. He gave them each a puffer jacket and a hug, baptising them as New Canadians.
I offer you this anecdote first as evidence of the astonishing and thoroughly earnest decency of most Canadians — a culture of people who, by and large, really do see immigrants not as suspicious foreigners but newly arrived people looking for a better life — but also as a roundabout explanation for the alarming spectacle that is currently raging on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, where an enormous demonstration led by a convoy of angry truckers has gathered to protest Covid vaccine mandates. In much of Canada, regulations have been far more stringent than they have been here in the UK, especially in the wake of Omicron. I don’t mean Scotland-and-Wales stringent. I’m talking ‘Christmas is cancelled again and by the way we don’t know when your kids are going back to school’ stringent.
In my home province of Ontario, for instance, vaccine passports are required to enter restaurants, gyms, event spaces, concerts and sporting events and, most crucially, for employment in many job sectors. As of late last year, hospitals, banks, insurers, school boards and police, as well as many restaurants, event spaces and government administrations, adopted mandatory vaccine policies for all employees. This stands in stark contrast to the UK, where no such regulations exist and where the government has just scrapped plans to have a similar policy for NHS workers because it would worsen an already crisis-level labour shortage.
In Canada, people have by and large accepted the most recent regulations and mandates willingly — even enthusiastically. On the left — Trudeau’s base — there has been an audible public clamouring for more and stricter rules. I personally know of several small business owners who have enacted their own vaccine mandate programmes without being legally required to do so, and I also have a number of good friends who have kept their children out of school voluntarily post-lockdown because they are frightened for their kids’ safety, in spite of the fact their kids are vaccinated. Even if they weren’t, the health risks would be negligible. But try telling them that.
From where I sit, here in the Crazy land of Britain, the outraged truckers have an obvious point. Canadians have every right to be angry at the current regulations, for the simple reason that they don’t make sense when weighed against the risks. But in Canada, the Kingdom of Reason, stating this obvious fact out loud is tantamount to committing a hate crime. It’s not unlike calling a New Canadian an immigrant or a foreigner, even if technically that’s what they are. Saying the truckers have a point is different from saying anti-vaxxers are rational. They aren’t. But neither are progressives who clamour for more stringent rules when none are needed. Both groups are acting out of baseless fear, refusing to accept the facts. Right-wing extremists don’t have a patent on magical thinking. Wingnut libertarians come in all shapes and sizes. The difference with the progressive kind is that in Canada, they’re Trudeau’s core voters.
As the truckers and their supporters converged on the capitol late last month, Trudeau dismissed them as ‘a small fringe group’ who did not represent the majority of Canadians. He condemned their views as ‘unacceptable’ and refused to meet with them — but by dismissing the truckers as racist nutjobs, the PM is stoking division. By any reasonable measure, Canada’s Covid regulations are now hugely disproportionate to the risk. That’s what many of the truckers are saying — and they’re right. Yet to hear Trudeau talk, you’d think an American-style insurgency was brewing on Parliament Hill. ‘Freedom of expression, assembly and association are cornerstones of democracy, but Nazi symbolism, racist imagery and desecration of war memorials are not,’ he declared this week, calling the protests ‘an insult to memory and truth’.
From the outset, Canada’s vaccine up-take has been overwhelmingly strong. At present its rate is the highest of all G7 countries, higher even than here in the UK, where the rollout has been hailed as a huge success. As in Britain, vaccine hesitancy and opposition rates in Canada remain significantly lower than in Russia, France, America and even Germany. Canadians did not need to be coerced into getting their jabs in the same way that a significant minority did in France. So why all the extra lockdowns and school closures, the passports and restrictions to employment? It makes no sense — until you consider to whom Justin Trudeau is signalling his virtue. The earnest, decent, fearful, magical-thinking, progressive base.
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