On January 29, 2022, truckers and protestors from across Canada convened in Ottawa for an occupation that would last roughly 21 days. Galvanized by their opposition to vaccine mandates and restrictions and a mistrust of the Trudeau government, the group reportedly swelled to 18,000 at its height with 3,000 people assembling in front of the parliament buildings. The protestors blocked central downtown routes with big rigs numbering in the hundreds. The demonstration turned into a long-term occupation including at one point a hot tub and bouncy castle, and makeshift systems for delivering essential supplies like food and fuel, with some protesters living with their children in the truck cabs. On February 11th Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a provincial state of emergency, and on February 14th Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau employed the never-before-used Emergencies Act. The Act was engaged to address not only protests and blockades that had brought Ottawa to a halt but others which were also taking place at several Canada/US borders, jamming trade routes and prompting US President Joe Biden to further press Canada to take action. QAnon followers, Canadian separatists, conspiracy theorists, and white supremacists were among the organizers of the protest, some demanding Trudeau’s resignation. Along with the Canadian flag, some protestors displayed Nazi and Confederate flags. The group managed to raise an unprecedented 10 million Canadian dollars through GoFundMe, but the sum was withheld and donors refunded by GoFundMe once it was clear that the protest violated their terms of service. Twice during the three-week protest demonstrators flooded 911 emergency call lines preventing Ottawa residents from securing emergency services. The Canadian government and the Ottawa Police Services came under scrutiny for allowing the protest to go on unabated for nearly three weeks before taking measures to remove the blockade and arrest protestors. By February 21st the protests were all but removed through police intervention.
Kevin Sutton is a community worker in Guelph, Ontario, who reflects on what kind of “care” is or isn’t possible in the face of this type of demonstration, rife as it is with racism and white supremacy. They reflect on how caring in the face of unsafety feels like an impossibility as an individual community worker, and they examine the ways in which government inaction and ineptitude has fomented this time of unrest.
Is caring for everyone possible? Reflections on the 2022 occupation of Canada’s capital city
by Kevin Sutton
How can we have a community based on love, care, and safety when there are people in our community whose actions threaten that vision? In principle, those working toward a caring society want a world where everyone’s needs are met. On the other hand, there are those who are so focused on their own needs that they are either unable or unwilling to consider the needs of the people around them. And while in principle, we want everyone’s needs to be met, it is almost impossible to reconcile this impulse with the apathy of those who seem to act only in their own self-interest.
Although this is not a new challenge, the pandemic has amplified this conundrum into a crisis. There has been a shift toward a society based on care, with projects like the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, and the Wellbeing Alliance Canada gaining traction among environmentalists and care workers alike. However, in Canada, two years of restrictions and the government’s fumbled pandemic response has mixed with a White nationalist opportunism which has preyed on the justified fears of a panicked population. This has culminated in a frustrated population aligning with rabid anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, and violent White supremacists in the abusive occupation of the City of Ottawa.
As the Community Resilience Facilitator for the Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition in Ontario, I work toward helping people living in Guelph experience a greater sense of care and belonging, and I have compassion for how the stress and trauma of the last couple years has affected people. Many have become vulnerable to misinformation and prone to being triggered into making rash and horrible decisions. However, as a Queer Black person, I can only meet the vocal support for this astroturfed White supremacist movement with heated tirades on social media and a liberal smashing of the block button. In practicality, setting clear and healthy boundaries like these in defence against their harmful rhetoric is essential for me to continue to do my work with care, compassion, and devotion. When I include care for myself like this (yes, social media tirades are a part of my self-care regimen), I’m able to maintain my emotional connection to caring about others.
None of us is immune to weighing our particular needs over the needs of those around us. Most of us aren’t proud of those moments. A lot of us regret when we become “that person,” especially in the age of social media and camera phones where a stress meltdown could land us in a YouTube “Karen” compilation. However, no matter how caring a person we think we are, it’s easy to care for people when they are kind and considerate—and almost impossible when they are callous and abusive. There have always been natural limits to our capacity to care. We only have so much energy to spend being engaged and connected to meeting someone else’s needs before we exhaust ourselves and burn out.
We are all intimately familiar with the policy limitations of the historically oppressive and colonial institutions that we must work and partner with, the boards rife with bias against the populations we serve, and the compassion fatigue that comes with trying to be the oasis in everyone else’s bad day. None of us are 100% caring all of the time, especially not now under the weight of our current circumstances.
There has also been a failure to effectively prioritise care on the part of our governing institutions in Canada. Questionable vaccine mandates have been issued, but not paid sick days. Emergency powers have been sought, but not the Universal Basic Income that would leave people who have lost their jobs because of their choice to not be vaccinated less desperate and therefore less susceptible to manipulation by bad actors and influencers. And while the seditionists may be wrong about a great many things, not the least of which is joining a movement rooted in White nationalist separatism, they aren’t wrong about the gross inadequacy of the care afforded them by their government.
And that’s what’s at the core of this crisis: people don’t feel cared for. It’s not that their rights have been violated—they haven’t been. It’s not that their freedoms have been denied—they just had a three-week-long terrorism party in the nation’s capital. It’s that they don’t feel cared for. In fact, their need for care has reached a point where they no longer care about others who don’t share their views—and they are even willing to harass, bully, assault, and otherwise harm the residents of Ottawa in order to feel heard about the lack of care that they are experiencing.
It’s not a stretch to say that this is a crisis created by our system of governance. A misinformation-fuelled revolt against sketchy public health policy is a natural consequence of decades of defunding education and healthcare, and of promising proportional representation and then balking because it would dilute governmental power. This crisis is a direct result of an economy that revolves around the shareholder value of a select few instead of the love and wellbeing of the population whose care governance is responsible for.
I’m left imagining what could have been, not just because of this Klanvoy, but during this entire pandemic: What if our healthcare and education hadn’t been so ruthlessly weakened by the corporate political opportunism incentivized by our system of governance? What if we already had a functioning Universal Basic Income that would have allowed more people to stay home during earlier waves, and allowed people to opt out of vaccination whether it cost them their job or not? What if we had the resources in place to support communities through the life transitions, like loss of family, friends, and career, that the pandemic has often required? What if our culture was driven by love and care instead of competitive consumerism and capitalistic greed? I’ve been asking myself these questions with my amazing colleagues at the Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition in Guelph, Ontario, as we endeavour to reimagine care and safety for and with our local community.
A great many of us remain committed to a vision of a just and caring society. It will require setting healthy boundaries for ourselves against threats and abuse, and it will require that we address failures in governance that left our population so desperate and vulnerable to manipulation. However, this vision is possible. If we can care enough to achieve it.