This article originally appeared in the National Post.
By Ken Coates, February 24, 2022
Canada is hurting. The pandemic was bad enough, but Canada’s exit from the crisis is looking just as disappointing. The government has run up several decades’ worth of debt. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s support appears to be collapsing. The official Opposition and the other national parties are lost in the political weeds. The Freedom Convoy exposed huge fault lines in the country and demonstrated the unwillingness of the provinces and the federal government to enforce the rule of law.
The country limped through the most meaningless election in Canadian history in September 2021. The Liberal government garnered only tepid support, while other political parties were sidelined to the opposition benches in a rudderless and increasingly ineffective House of Commons.
Many passionate and committed Canadians now despair the future of this country. Some worry, not without reason, about government over-reach and rapid state expansion. Others see a lack of respect for public order and imagine a future of endless protests and increasingly powerless governments. Parliament has been seriously weakened and the prime minister’s initial retreat in the face of the occupation of Ottawa raises doubts about the state’s willingness to defend the interests of its citizens.
The United States faces its own challenges, but seemed to be the only force capable of mobilizing the federal government to take action on the civil disobedience and economy-wrecking actions of the Freedom Convoy. It wasn’t until after U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration urged Canada to take action that Trudeau finally came out of hiding.
Internationally, Canada has rarely been as irrelevant as it is today. Trudeau’s “Canada is back” message of yesteryear sounds distressingly hollow in the wake of the fiasco in Afghanistan, our desperate and unsuccessful attempt to secure a United Nations Security Council seat and Canada’s continued marginalization on the global stage. Few countries see Canada as a major international player and our influence on the world stage has been steadily declining.
Ordinarily, when a national government seems incapable of responding to the challenges of the day, the country can turn to another party waiting in the wings. Not now. The New Democratic Party appears lost in a fog. The Conservative party has abandoned its long-standing centre-right position in favour of populist policies and self-immolation.
Say what you will about those involved in the Freedom Convoy — and there are many reasons to be upset at their prolonged occupation of Ottawa and closure of numerous border crossings — they are the only Canadians in recent months who stood up to be counted. Putting aside the radical fringe, thousands of travellers and tens of thousands of supporters still lined the nation’s highways. Disagree, as I do, with the convoy’s assertions about Canadian tyranny, but try to identify any other large group that has dared to criticize the government and back up its frustrations with action.
Canada is truly at a crossroads. In the months and years to come, citizens are going to have to step forward.
People of a conservative bent will have to battle — and it will be a real and urgent fight — for the soul of the Conservative party. Liberals will have to discover their backbone, as two Quebec MPs have already done, and stand up to a centralized and personality-obsessed party machine. New Democrats will have to reinvent their party and invest it with the passion, humility and nationalism of the past. Supporters of the Freedom Convoy will have to articulate a more coherent view of a libertarian-centred movement and perhaps even enter the political fray with the People’s party or another alternative.
For now, the decline in civic spirit, economic output and political unity will likely accelerate. The disappointments of 2020-2022 weigh heavily on a nation that is exhausted, frustrated, directionless and filled with hostility and despair. From such weakness might spring renewed commitment to this remarkable country, but only if the citizens pick up the key lesson of the Freedom Convoy: that people of passion and commitment must stand up to be counted, regardless of their political persuasion.
The future of Canada does not rest with the House of Commons or the government in Ottawa. It rests, as it always does, with the citizens of the country. The Freedom Convoy did a great deal wrong and alienated more Canadians than it brought on board. But unexpectedly, it has pointed the way for the country. It is time for the people of Canada, from all political persuasions, to take back their country and fight for Canada’s future.
Ken Coates is a distinguished senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and a Canada research chair in the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Regina.