Letter from Ottawa: now is the winter of our discontent

By on 07/02/2022 | Updated on 07/02/2022
Photo by michael_swan via Flickr

Opinion: the ongoing truckers’ protests against COVID-19 restrictions in Canada could be taken as a worrying sign of polarisation. But as Michael Wernick, former clerk of the Privy Council writes, things may not be as gloomy as they seem

Images of my quiet hometown rarely make the international news so I would imagine it may be disconcerting to see the video clips of rows of trucks surrounding Parliament Hill, and the ugliness of the signs and flags carried by some of the “Freedom Convoy” protestors. Is Canada having a Yellow Vests moment, or its own version of the January 6, 2021 US Capitol riots? Are we sliding into division and polarisation? Is our democracy crumbling? Certainly, there is a note of gloom to some of the emerging commentary. Public opinion research has tapped into a rich vein of pandemic fatigue compounded by our annual national version of seasonal affective disorder brought on winter days that are nasty, brutish and short. The mood is sour and irritable.

My own view is that a clearer view and a bit of historical perspective would vaccinate against this pessimism and catastrophising.

First, the base of support for the protestors in a country of 38 million is very small. The triggering issue is not a small one because of the integration of the North American economy and supply chains. There are more than 100 land border crossings with the USA and normally around 30,000 trucks cross the border every day. The current protestors initially mobilised to oppose a specific rule change – that instead of testing they show proof of vaccination. Their cause is not even shared by the majority of the people who drive trucks. More than 80% of them had already been vaccinated, and many are complying with the new requirements. The objection to the new mandate is actually somewhat pointless because the USA has imposed the same requirement.

The convoy’s initial agenda rapidly escalated into a demand that all public health restrictions of any kind be immediately withdrawn. This isn’t going to happen. Like many countries Canada was hit hard by the Omicron wave. Provincial and local authorities who control most of the relevant rules tightened public health measures or delayed easing them. Our hospital system bent but did not break. Canadians flocked to get booster shots, reflecting a strong consensus on the best way forward. As of early February, 89% of Canadians over the age of five have had at least one jab, 83% have had two. There is strong support for and compliance with mandates to wear masks or show proof of vaccination, which vary from province to province and industry to industry. But no-one in Canada is advocating the comprehensive mandatory vaccination being pursued in Austria and debated in Germany.

It appears that Canada has probably ridden the Omicron wave to the other side and across the federation, governments are now eager to slowly walk back restrictions in the coming weeks. We will see some race ahead and others be more cautious. The vast majority of Canadians who stepped up and did what they thought was right for their families and communities over the past two years are weary and crave a return to aspects of ‘normality’ but they don’t want to squander the success that has been achieved. Canada’s cumulative death rate (915 per million) is less than half of that in the UK or US and below that of more than 60 other countries. The vaccinated supermajority may be eager to return to ‘normality’ but they are impatient with the selfishness of the protestors and care about our health care system buckling.

There is even less support for the outlandish demands by convoy organisers that the federal government, freshly re-elected in September 2021, resign, or that it be somehow dismissed or deposed. So, there is very little ground for negotiation with the hard core of protestors. The convoy has targeted its anger very directly at the federal prime minister, which is convenient for our provincial premiers who actually control the pace of reopening. It was the leader of the federal opposition who lost his job last week, in part because he couldn’t wrangle his caucus of MPs into a coherent response to the protestors.

There is no obvious exit from the confrontation. Instead, it seems likely to spread to other cities and perhaps become a recurrent event like the French Yellow Vests protests that began in autumn 2018. Because it will be so difficult to winkle out the core group of protestors, the residents of downtown Ottawa likely face weeks of disruption and their frustration is growing. Canadians have been dismayed by the conduct of some of the protestors and images of Nazi and Confederate flags. The premier of Ontario, who faces an election in June, cannot ignore this or be indifferent to the million residents of the province’s second city.

‘Protests creating the antibodies to reject extremism’

My view is that whatever happens over the next week or two the protests are creating the antibodies to reject their extremism. Conflict around issues in Canada is quickly interpreted as dramatic and laden with crisis and danger. Our pundit class has a long history of fuelling pessimism and alarmism. The longer view is that these conflicts, while serious matters deserving of attention, appear bigger than they are. The track record shows a strong centrist consensus in Canada and an ability to come together to tackle challenges.

Many issues that roiled past parliaments and elections are settled and highly unlikely to return. There is no serious political constituency to reverse free trade agreements or close the doors to immigration. There is no constituency for isolationism in global affairs. We had two national elections in 2019 and 2021 and no one campaigned to reverse the 2018 legalisation of cannabis or roll back 2005’s implementation of same sex marriage. The consensus around public health care is so formidable it has arguably stifled any reform. Quebec separatism has been in remission for nearly thirty years. Even around climate change, or the pace of reducing debt and deficits, debates in Canada are played about one octave lower compared to other countries.

We shall see what February brings. Most likely some more political storms but the underlying trend, like the warming of the weather, is toward an easing of the pandemic and a return to more normal life, and a more normal, very Canadian version of politics. Our Conservatives will have to sort out what they are about as they choose a new leader, and the minority Liberal government now seems very likely to last the year without serious jeopardy. Its leverage to deliver its program has been increased by recent events.

Not to be underestimated in affecting the national mood, in May the comforting rituals of hockey playoffs return and later this year Canadians will experience the joys and heartbreak of a soccer World Cup for the first time since 1986.

About the author

Michael Wernick’s distinguished 38-year career as one of the key leaders of Canada’s world-class federal public service culminated in serving from 2016 to 2019 as the 23rd clerk of the Privy Council and secretary to Cabinet.

With 28 years as an executive in the federal public service, including 17 years in the community of deputy ministers, and three as clerk, Wernick is one of Canada’s most experienced and influential public sector leaders. He appeared frequently at parliamentary committees, participated in dozens of intergovernmental and international meetings, and spoke at many conferences. Wernick worked closely with three prime ministers and seven ministers and attended close to 300 meetings of Cabinet and its committees. He was the key public servant at the Privy Council Office during three changes of prime minister.

In October 2021, UBC Press released Wernick’s book Governing Canada: A Guide to the Tradecraft of Politics and Wernick undertook an extensive series of media interviews, podcasts and webinars to discuss this well-received practical handbook for Canada’s political leaders and those who aspire to understand them.

As a senior strategic advisor to MNP Inc and a fellow and adjunct professor of the Carleton University School of Public Policy and Administration, Wernick now provides advisory services and mentorship to emerging leaders and to new generations of students.

About Michael Wernick

Michael Wernick’s distinguished 38-year career as one of the key leaders of Canada’s world-class federal public service culminated in serving from 2016 to 2019 as the 23rd clerk of the Privy Council and secretary to Cabinet. With 28 years as an executive in the federal public service, including 17 years in the community of deputy ministers, and three as clerk, Wernick is one of Canada’s most experienced and influential public sector leaders. He appeared frequently at parliamentary committees, participated in dozens of intergovernmental and international meetings, and spoke at many conferences. Wernick worked closely with three prime ministers and seven ministers and attended close to 300 meetings of Cabinet and its committees. He was the key public servant at the Privy Council Office during three changes of prime minister. In October 2021, UBC Press released Wernick’s book Governing Canada: A Guide to the Tradecraft of Politics and Wernick undertook an extensive series of media interviews, podcasts and webinars to discuss this well-received practical handbook for Canada’s political leaders and those who aspire to understand them. As a senior strategic advisor to MNP Inc and a fellow and adjunct professor of the Carleton University School of Public Policy and Administration, Wernick now provides advisory services and mentorship to emerging leaders and to new generations of students.

2 Comments

  1. Ken says:

    Where were you during the BLM protests?

  2. Dr. J. R. McLane says:

    Michael Wernick is completely out of touch with the average Canadian. For the last two years most Canadians have had their individual rights of freedom and liberty stomped on by ,lockdowns, vaccine mandates and vaccine passports sanctioned and pushed by the Federal government. In fact, Brian Peckford, former premier of NFL and the only living premier left who signed the Canadian Constitution is suing the Federal Liberal government for violating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Peckford is in touch with the tens of millions of Canadians who support the Freedom Convoy, for they represent true democracy and the rule of law. Our PM does not even have the decency to meet with the truckers who are the urban farmers of our country who keep our supply chains running so we can have the high standard of living that we have been blessed with in this country. It is time to reclaim our democracy and get on with our lives.

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