In past protests and conflict situations, it was sometimes typical to see mask wearing protesters holding a line against police, but last week in Kemptville, it was nearly a reversal of that scene, when mask wearing police officers confronted a group of barefaced protesters, while masked onlookers, looked on.
I have a long history of training in peaceful protest with my former work as an Indigenous rights activist and in my anti-nuclear activism days. I have been on my share of protest lines, which were peaceful demonstrations of calls for social or ecological justice. I am a long time and ever learning student of people like Ghandi, Martin Luther-King, and John Lewis.
John Lewis was a civil rights activist in the southern United States in the 1960’s. He wrote:
“Dr. King would often say that we’ve got to love people no matter what. Most of all he would say, we must love the unlovable. Love the hell out them….If there is hell in someone, if there is meanness and anger and hatred in him, we’ve got to love it out.”
These leaders taught us the value of peaceful protest to change society for the better. Part of the ethics in this work includes a challenge to us all to try to understand conflict and protest, and civil unrest, and what drives people to public action. We must understand what people are angry about. We will never agree with every opinion, but we all hold a community responsibility to at least try to understand what the issues are because, at the end of conflict, we will again be neighbours.
Last week was a mixed bag of bewildered unmasked people standing around, some curious onlookers, some folks chanting about “freedom”, some police assessing the situation, an MPP shouting about how we have to resist fear mongering and rail against authoritarian governments, and public health officials putting their own health at risk to assess the rally. I listened to understand what the protesters wanted. Apparently, they want life to be as it was, with businesses open, and people free of the confines of masks. They want to live as if there is no pandemic. But as much as we would wish otherwise, we are in a pandemic and we have to live as though we are. Through their chants of freedom, what I heard was fear, and lack of trust. Someone once asked me, what is the first thing I would do if I had a magic wand and could make any political change I wanted. My immediate answer was, that I would implement a Guaranteed Liveable Income for every single Canadian to raise each and every one of us above the poverty line. (I’d also wave that wand to extinguish COVID).
My sense has always been that insecurity lies always at the heart of conflict. This pandemic has created the most uncertain and insecure economic climate that we have ever lived through in our lifetimes. Fear, panic, unrest, and anger are the feelings that result when we face scarcity, and when we realize the systems we live in are inequitable and unfair. If we could remove the fear of scarcity, we could alleviate some of the burden of fear that people live with.
The other issue that seemed to be at the heart of this rally was a lack of trust in health authorities, and a lack of trust in government. We knew the mixed messaging from the last stay-at-home order created a lot of distrust and lack of confidence in government, because government officials were traveling out of country while we were all told to stay home. There is a lack of trust and an escalation of fear caused by the actions of some government officials.
Fear brings out the worst in all of us and pits neighbour against neighbour. Let’s name that fear. Let’s understand what it is. It is economic uncertainty, fear of not knowing what will become of us, fear of losing all that we have worked for, fear of bankruptcy, and fear of slipping way below the poverty line along with 5 million other Canadians who are already there. Let’s free ourselves from the burden of that fear.
To me, when a former parliamentary budget officer has costed out a six-month national basic income program at $47.5 billion, money which we well know will end up right back in the economy, it seems like universal basic income is an idea whose time has come. We know this pandemic is going to cause the worst economic crisis of our time, and we have to ask about UBI, if not now, then when?
And as for our government leaders, we expect better. We expect clear messaging and we expect leadership by example. We are asked to hold the line, and stay-at-home. Don’t make a mockery of our efforts to keep our families and communities safe. Do not squander the social license we have given you to lead.