The Canadian results for the Edelman Trust Barometer are scheduled for release next Wednesday. I’m sure the numbers will provide some fresh insights about the many dimensions of trust. I also really don’t need to wait to read the poll. I just need to look out of my window at the trucker protests or read my Facebook feed – the thin trust threads that exist between Canadians and their leaders are tenuous at best. Seeing Conservative MPs punting their leader while several Liberal MPs break ranks with their party might also be cited as evidence of broken trust.
The challenge of a trust deficit is very evident when it comes to affecting others’ behaviour. There are essentially only four ways to get someone else to do something you want. Coercion involves behaving according to someone else’s will in order to avoid negative consequences or gain some reward. Expertise is behaving according to someone else’s will because I think they know better than I do. Office has me obeying my employer, parent, or authority figure simply out of respect for the office or position they hold. Finally, relationship has me doing what someone else wants because I like and want to please that person. In three of the four (all except coercion), trust and respect are key implicit ingredients.
It’s a given that almost everyone these days is frustrated and wants to see a different state of social arrangements. We may argue about who deserves blame, what we should do, and who the good guys and bad guys are. Regardless, it’s pretty hard to find anyone who thinks all is well. When there is a trust deficit (which in crass terms, means we see many more bad guys influencing our lives than good guys), our interpretation of events around us changes significantly. We all wear trust-coloured glasses. As a result, we are more inclined to take a more positive view of the behaviours of those we like compared to those we dislike.
This all makes it rather difficult to judge whether there has been any progress in the past week toward a more stable social arrangement. To the 30% of Canadians who express sympathy for the truckers’ convoy in Ottawa, the announcements by the Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Quebec governments of timelines to remove various restrictions was evidence that the convoy was working. Not only is it therapeutic for frustrated Canadians to express themselves, but it’s making a difference.
Others point to the removal of restrictions by jurisdictions around the world, especially in Europe, the United States, and South Africa, as evidence that the end of the pandemic is near – convoy or no convoy. In fact, they would argue, the economic and political disruption is counter productive and will only slow the outcomes we want. We’ve all eavesdropped on these debates. It doesn’t take very long to get the cynical reminder that the original two weeks “to flatten the curve” have turned into 23 months.
I won’t try to parse the week’s events in terms of progress or regress. What will be, will be. However, I did find the public breaking of ranks by several Liberal MPs a significant development and an instructive case study relating to the process of trust. Changing your mind publicly (which is rare in Canadian politics because political parties almost always make it a career-limiting decision) takes courage. I found the transcript of MP Joel Lightbound’s remarks worth a careful read. They are a stark contrast to the prime minister, who on Monday evening told Parliament, “Our democracy is working,” before adding that “Canadians chose vaccines,” that the truckers’ stories “are not the story of Canadians in this pandemic,” and that the government “will continue to trust public health advice.”
MP Lightbound acknowledged that many, “who are for the most part vaccinated… have shared with me legitimate concerns about where we are heading collectively.” He acknowledged the confusion that has come when not all public health officials are providing the same advice. Lightbound also expressed the need, suggested by Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, that “all existing health policies, including vaccine passports, need to be re-examined and that we need to have longer-term sustained approaches and capacity building so we’re not in crisis mode all the time as we fight this virus.”
The Liberal MP laid out a four-step path which he suggested should replace the government’s current approach. First, the government should provide a “roadmap with clear and measurable targets (to) lift all restrictions within its purview.” Second, in the context where citizens are not trusting what they are being told, “the government should systematically publish the epidemiological projections and the scientific analysis underpinning the measures it imposes going forward.” Third, the government needs to be investing in increased health capacity immediately to deal with future waves. And finally, the tone of government needs to change. Lightbound regretfully acknowledged how “the tone and the policies” of the federal government changed just before and during the 2021 election campaign.
“From a positive and unifying approach, a decision was made to wedge, to divide, and to stigmatize,” Lightbound told an astonished Parliamentary Press Gallery. “I fear that this politicization (of) the pandemic risks undermining the public’s trust in public-health institutions.” Interestingly, on Friday, the prime minister did change his tone, telling pandemic-weary protesters, “We've heard you. It's time to go home now.”
As I read Lightbound’s remarks, the phrase from the Charter of Rights – “demonstrably justified” – came to mind. The Charter guarantees fundamental rights and freedoms to Canadians “subject to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” Ordinarily, we think of this in legal terms and as a decision. The government decides on a policy. Someone objects and goes to court, arguing their rights have been violated. The government admits (or the judge finds) that, yes, the government has violated those rights, but it was for the greater good and can therefore be demonstrably justified.
But Lightbound’s comments were not so much about a decision. Rather, they were more about a process. This Quebec City-area MP was separating himself from his government not so much for the decisions they had made or not made, but rather for how they explained those decisions to Canadians. The accusation was that the prime minister and his cabinet had chosen to politicize rather than explain. It was in the process as much as in the decisions that the government went wrong.
Lightbound’s accusation is an important one for leaders in all institutions. “Demonstrably justified” doesn’t only mean taking the responsibility to weigh the evidence and come to a decision. Arguably, the prime minister has done so and has consistently argued that his vaccination policy is supported by science. And there is no arguing; he can produce a good number of scientists who agree with him. However, the demonstration of justification also means engaging the counter-arguments and concerns (which the PM has chosen to ignore). If I understood Lightbound accurately, even if the prime minister was right in policy, he was wrong in not acknowledging or addressing others’ concerns.
Lightbound didn’t use the term, but I will. “Demonstrably justified” isn’t a decision to which leaders must come themselves. It is a process by which they weigh the evidence and bring along followers. And when we fail to demonstrably justify, relying on office, coercion, and expertise, we end up destroying trust and making social cohesion much more difficult. As the government caucus discussions continue, here’s hoping that MP Lightbound has done them all (and us) a service in reminding us of what should be a basic component of good leadership.
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Image: Dan Postma.