Ottawa police are planning “unprecedented and unique” security measures in response to any return of anti-government demonstrations Friday for Canada Day.
They don't want a repeat of the events that unfolded in Ottawa in February, when the city’s core was held hostage for three weeks by a noisy, disruptive and sometimes violent protest by truckers and their supporters who were ostensibly opposed to the federal government’s vaccine mandate.
John Cartwright felt there was more to it than that.
As he watched news coverage of the trucker convoy clogging downtown Ottawa’s streets and blocking Canada-U.S. border crossings, the Toronto-based, 67-year-old chairperson of the Council of Canadians and former president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council viewed the hostile rhetoric that emerged not as a “flash-in-the-pan” pushback against the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Cartwright believed it was a sign the right-wing nationalism that former U.S. president Donald Trump encouraged during and on his way out of the White House was creeping into Canada.
“A lot of people are angry right now and feel the system has let them down, but I felt that this is not how we create a better future together,” said Cartwright in a recent interview. “I spoke to people across the country and they were concerned about the long-term impact of this right-wing populism.”
He said that initially, many organizations — including unions, and student and faith groups — were hesitant about what approach to take.
“They said a bunch of their own members were getting drawn into the message of the convoy, to ‘get rid of all this goddamned overreach of the government and don’t be forcing people to take a jab. We’ve had enough of this.’”
Cartwright believed the convoy had created a unique moment in Canadian history “at a time of uncertainty” amid the “politics of intolerance.”
He also saw an opportunity to “step up and provide courageous leadership in this time of crisis,” he wrote in an online essay.
He sought to create a “counter-narrative” to #FreedomConvoy2022 through a national initiative he spearheaded that's now called #TogetherWeCan. It’s part of the nationwide Community Solidarity Project that includes a handbook for unions, racial and climate justice organizations, faith leaders, students, and anti-poverty and social justice groups to “limit the influence of the extremist groups driving the politics of division.”
The coalition includes leadership from unions, such as the Canadian Labour Congress, the Public Service Alliance of Canada and the Canadian Union of Public Employees, as well as interfaith groups and the National Council of Canadian Muslims, along with the Canadian Federation of Students.
“The lesson of the pandemic and our own history as Canadians is that we do way better, not when we tear each other apart when the politics of hate and division prevail, but when we do things through public policies and programs — things like health care and the social safety net for the poor and elderly. That’s how we deal with adversity,” said Cartwright.
“It’s not just about me and ‘let me do whatever I want regardless of the health and safety consequences for the people I work with.’”
Diwa Marcelino, the Winnipeg-based national organizer for the Community Solidarity Project, said the initiative seeks to “organize folks on logic and appeal to our common humanity.”
“We’re actually a lot more alike on different sides of the convoy protests than we are different,” he said.
“We know people have been left behind, such as by the rising cost of living not matched by wage increases or the cost of housing, and we’re targeting those folks.”
The goal, as Cartwright explained, is also to “talk across the divide,” including within organizations.
“There’s always the question of do you just respond to an event or a crisis and the second it’s gone, you move on?” said Cartwright. “Or are you able to spend the time really digging down, really talking to people and being prepared in case something else happens?”
Cartwright is a carpenter by trade.
“I’m a construction worker, so we say that people who don’t want to take measures to fix climate are people who don’t want to fix their roof. Eventually, the roof will leak and then you’re left ripping out your carpet and drywall.”
“It’s the same thing with hate, particularly with the attitude that mainstream journalism is all fake news and the rise of the power of right-wing populism,” said Cartwright. “It will require ongoing attention and intention, and people of goodwill coming together and saying, ‘We actually believe in something quite different than what these guys are talking about.’ And hopefully, people that were drawn to the protest were not racists and xenophobes, and they will hear from people in their lives that it was not a good thing to be involved with.”
Marie Dolcetti-Koros, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, told The Tyee that students will participate in counter-actions across the country in response to anti-COVID-restriction demonstrations on Canada Day, and that their presence would provide “a great opportunity to demonstrate community solidarity.”
She said the federation contributed to the creation of a bilingual “toolbox” for the Community Solidarity initiative, which includes the “TogetherWeCan” motto, posters and templates for social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram that can be adapted for use by local or community organizations.
One example: “Years of underfunding our social safety net has left millions of Canadians feeling unheard, unsupported and forgotten. You’re not alone. Together we can demand economic justice. #TogetherWeCan.”
Dolcetti-Koros said the toolbox includes poster templates that can be filled in. The phrase “together we can achieve,” for example, can be printed and participants can add something like “education for all.”
The Ottawa-born, 25-year-old Dolcetti-Koros, who studies political science and contemporary philosophy at King’s College in Halifax, believes education is central to overall well-being.
“There are also a lot of equity issues at universities and colleges across this country, and the Community Solidarity Project is a tool that students have signed on to because we know that there are huge barriers to access and students are also combating hate on campuses,” she said.
“Students face hateful rhetoric on campuses and in their communities, which we saw emerge in a violent and vicious way on Parliament Hill. We can no longer deny that these sentiments exist in Canadian society.”