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When the loudest voices win out

Rob Shaw: Threats from an angry mob forced Justin Trudeau to cancel a rally. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a unique event – regardless of region or party.
These have been going on for a while. (Yvonne Hanson /

It looked more like a mob than a protest - 200 people, angry, screaming obscenities at a rally for Liberal leader Justin Trudeau near Toronto on Friday.

A woman with a child shouting that Trudeau is a “fucking asshole” and another screaming that COVID-19 was nothing but “a fucking cold” that the government was trying to use to take away her rights and civil liberties.

Across the country, similar protests are occurring with more regularity, as anti-authority, anti-government and anti-vaxxer movements combine into a swirling mess that borders on violence.

It’s especially worrying in BC, where standing alongside them appears to be some business owners who are refusing to follow BC’s new mandatory vaccination policy for non-essential businesses.

That has swollen their ranks and added an air of legitimacy to what would otherwise be dismissed as conspiracy theory crackpots, as restaurant and gym owners and other respected members of the local business community add their voices to the mobspeak about “freedom of choice” and “anti-discrimination” against the unvaccinated.

For Trudeau, it meant the cancellation of his rally, after police determined they could not ensure the safety of the volunteers and Liberal supporters from the mob.

“There’s no doubt that if the 200 or so protesters in Bolton, a town 50km northwest of Toronto, had been able to get their hands on the Liberal leader, they would have torn him limb from limb, such was the manic rage,” reported John Ivison in the National Post, who was there at the rally and said it was a “kind of frenzied contempt” unlike anything he’s seen in two decades of covering politics.

Trudeau admitted later that “I’ve never seen this sense of anger on the campaign trail or in Canada, not even when I was a kid with my dad visiting out west where we did see anger.”

Trudeau as a child was once inside a rail car in B.C. when it was pelted by protesters hurling tomatoes at his father, former prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, in 1982 on a trip in which the elder Trudeau infamously gave protesters in Salmon Arm the middle finger.

“We’ve seen over this past year in the pandemic an increase in anxiety, an increase of anger and frustration, a sense of powerlessness, and a whole bunch of people who feel like the world is unfolding in a whole bunch of ways they can’t control,” Trudeau said, at a different location Friday night following the cancellation of his event.

“And that’s really scary for an individual and a community.”

He urged Canadians to “reflect” on the anger and “listen to each other.”

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh condemned the protest, as did Conservative leader Erin O’Toole. The local Conservative candidate for Bolton issued a statement saying if any of his volunteers had attended the Trudeau protests, they were no longer welcome on his campaign.

Singh was also asked by a reporter whether the heated rhetoric of the federal election campaign was playing a role in stirring up the protesters, and if the party leaders describing each other as corrupt, unfit to govern and operating on hidden agendas does more harm to democracy than good to their respective campaigns.

That seems like an important part of the issue. That the anger is rising at a time when the country is blanketed by attack ads and divisive wedge issues, is no coincidence.

Here in B.C., Premier John Horgan found himself face off against a small group of protesters while eating at a restaurant in Vernon. The crew videotaped the confrontation, accusing Horgan, his staff and local officials of taking up a table of eight when health restrictions in the central Okanagan only allow a maximum table size of six.

They were wrong – Vernon is located outside of those rules. Instead of generating a viral moment of righteous indignation, the protesters just looked like idiots.

Further north, Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier found his Dawson Creek constituency office blocked by as many as 150 protesters in the past week.

What had started out as a meeting requested by two local business owners refusing to follow the new mandatory vaccine certificate blossomed online into a mob of angry anti-vaxxers.

“About 10 minutes before the rally started the RCMP showed up and said there had actually been death threats that had come through against me at the rally,” Bernier told CKNW host Jas Johal on his program Friday.

Bernier’s riding has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the province, just above 55 per cent with a first dose.

He said he’s been trying to spread as much information as possible on the benefits of the vaccine and opportunities to be vaccinated, in conjunction with the Ministry of Health. But his riding has a unique mix, including deeply rural British Columbians who have far different views than those in Metro Vancouver or Victoria.

“We have a lot of people who are anti-establishment, anti-government,” said Bernier.

“It’s not just this issue but a lot of concerns. We’re far away from Victoria, far away from decision-makers, and in rural British Columbia there’s not a lot of trust for government.”

Almost 25,000 unvaccinated people in that part of the province will suddenly be unable to visit restaurants, gyms, movie theatres, and other businesses starting Sept. 13.

Bernier said many in the local business community are fearful they will suddenly have to enforce a public health order made 1,200 kilometres away, with no help, limited enforcement powers and frightened staff having to turn away half the region’s population from their establishments.

The situation in B.C.’s north and Interior is further complicated by the rhetoric over the wildfires, where some local MLAs, mayors, and municipal politicians have accused Horgan and the BC NDP government of ignoring the region and the hardship faced by those who’ve had to evacuate.

That’s added another layer of resentment and anger onto those already at the edge of their anti-establishment perch.

There’s no clear or easy way out of any of this.

Dialing down the political rhetoric is step one. That may be impossible during a federal election campaign, with parties tempted to use the protests facing Trudeau as ammunition against him.

But it’s a losing proposition. Whoever wins will face the same protests. And pandering to an audience of anti-authority/anti-vaxxers, even incidentally for short-term political gain, does long-term damage to our country.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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