This week’s truckers protest in Canada, which may end up setting a record as the world’s largest convoy, isn’t as straightforward as it seems. It started as a protest against the federal government’s requirement that truckers be vaccinated in order to cross the Canada-U.S. border, or else face a quarantine period. Those who object to such mandates argued that such policies aren’t scientifically shown to be effective. They added that taking truckers off the roads would only aggravate supply shortages. However, with the U.S. government implementing the identical policy effective January 22nd, the power to answer the protesters’ request no longer rests with just the Canadian government.
Since then, however, aggrieved Canadians with a potpourri of concerns have latched onto the protests. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Trudeau dismissed them as “a small fringe minority of people… who are holding unacceptable views …. (that) do not represent the views of Canadians (and) our freedoms, our rights, our values, as a country.” The Toronto Star called on the organizers to “call off their protest” as it was just amplifying “the most toxic voices.” To their credit, the official organizers of the convoy have been unequivocal in distancing themselves from extremist rhetoric, insisting that their purposes are peaceful and that they are cooperating with police to maintain security.
Although my own “pro-vaccine, anti-vaccine-mandate” position is similar to the majority of reasonable interviews I have seen this week, I will confess the website of the protest organizers does cause me significant hesitation. The official request of the protest is a bizarre “Memorandum of Understanding.” The memorandum suggests the Senate and Governor General can take over government and ditch vaccine mandates. The delusion on the webpage is more of an irrational, childish tantrum than a serious attempt to deal with a public health issue.
I understand the frustration of some that is overflowing into protest. Many feel that no one is listening to or respecting their point of view. Worse yet, as the response to the protest confirms, they become the target of unnuanced slogans and vilification for not agreeing with the cultural majority on questions around fundamental rights and freedoms – a legitimate matter of debate. In that context, the attraction to join the crowd and make some noise that authorities cannot ignore is understandable.
For Christians who feel this way, I have two words of caution. Protest is a legitimate form of political expression. By all means use it, but do so reflecting your Christian convictions. Remaining civil, respecting authorities, and denouncing (and doing everything you can to stop) all violence that comes along with mobs is a given and the first step. I would also caution about messaging. You can’t do much about the signs around you, but you can control your own messaging. And when you are joining a protest whose official requests amount to amateur nonsense, it is incumbent on you to articulate your own responsible requests clearly.
The more significant message from this week’s events is for our leaders. Leaders cannot simply dismiss the thousands who are travelling across the country to Ottawa and the tens of thousands who collectively are gathering at roadsides to cheer them on. Authorities cannot credibly argue the convoy represents something other than a genuine grassroots frustration at the current state of affairs. The Prime Minister would’ve been better to recall his promise when elected in 2015, “I will be the prime minister of all Canadians.” The derisive dismissal that was his mood this week only widens gaps and just turns up the heat. Frustrated public opinion, like boiling water in covered pot, needs a means of expression. Otherwise, it will boil over.
And when it boils over, leaders ought to listen.
Even amidst fierce and principled disagreements, leadership requires engagement and listening. How many of us in our businesses or workplaces have not learned this, usually long after we should have at the cost of significant relational damage? A rabble-rouser causing discontent needs a venue to “unload” accumulated frustration, the knowledge those concerns have been legitimated by being heard, and a role in the process of addressing the issues raised constructively. Even when rabble-rousers are fringe, there is often at least a smidgeon of injustice that has ignited their passions.
It is fair to conclude that few of our political, public organizational, or media leaders have taken the time to take critics of the status quo seriously. Thursday’s Globe editorial characterized the convoy as “a small group of denialists in big rigs.” Those editorialists should re-read the “No Silver Bullet” article the same paper published last Saturday. At considerable length, the article reviewed the range of scientific exploration that has neither been discussed nor received follow-through. It provides as balanced an overview of the issue as I have read in the mainstream media. Five days later, the publisher opines as if that article didn’t exist. Small wonder there are protests.
There is a lot of muddy confusion that has gone into this protest. It definitely stands for different things in the minds of different people. In addition to the rallies and the convoy weaving across the country, almost 100,000 Canadians have contributed over $6 million toward an expression of grassroots support that any political leader, including the prime minister, would envy. Depending on the source, we will hear very different messages. But there is one message everyone should be hearing: the enforced consensus approach of leadership that silences and marginalizes all difference is not only unscientific (as The Globe pointed out last Saturday), it is undemocratic. Stifled voices will not stay stifled.
Protests are a symptom of a leadership that is not attuned to the diversity of perspectives, including minority ones, that exist in a society. The health of every organization requires paying attention to those who differ and taking steps to draw them in. At a minimum, we need to honestly hear and listen to them, simply out of respect for their dignity.
And who knows? Honest listening, accompanied by a little humility that concedes we might not have all of the answers, might inform a more nuanced response to the challenges we face. New solutions might emerge and it certainly would help us get along better.
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