As of October 1, visitors to Canada no longer have to provide proof of coronavirus vaccination, masks are no longer required on planes or trains with Canadian destinations, and the widely hated ArriveCAN app, which required that travelers submit a slew of personal and seemingly arbitrary information to the government upon entry to Canada, has been removed. The government decree announcing these changes removed the last major manifestations of the covid-19 pandemic from the lives of ordinary Canadians.
The moment invites reflection on the mark the covid era has left on Canadian politics and culture, a legacy that now seems far more significant than many observers originally anticipated. Early press accounts often portrayed the burden of the pandemic as something Canadians would simply endure, no questions asked, with gentle good humor, and to the extent that something would be “learned” about the country from this experience. experience, these would be flattering reminders of Canadian cooperation, respect for authority, etc. The tight embrace of such comforting conventional wisdom made what was to follow all the more disorienting.
For at least half a decade now, it has been fashionable to speculate on why Canada is supposedly “immune” to the kind of right-wing populist politics that is gaining traction elsewhere. I personally think the most compelling explanations are structural, but in retrospect it now seems that the lack of a single clear rallying point for Canadian populists was equally important. Here, progressive pundits can claim at least a half-victory: they seem to have been largely correct in assuming that anti-immigration rhetoric would never fully mobilize voters in a comfortably multicultural Canada. On the other hand, many of those same voices have misjudged the number of Canadians who are fiercely loyal to individual freedoms, an equally fierce storehouse of ideological energy that has been unleashed during the imposition of heavy security restrictions.
The rise of the People’s Party of Canada is a good illustration of this; as a party opposed to “mass immigration”, they only won 1.6% of the vote in 2019; rebranded as the country’s leading critics of covid lockdowns and vaccination mandates, they rebounded to 5% in 2021.
Frustration over warrants and shutdowns also spawned the rise of the notorious “freedom convoy” that occupied Canada’s capital earlier this year, and made the “trucker” part of the country’s political vocabulary. When Erin O’Toole, the moderate leader of the Conservative Party — whose leadership was already faltering after his failure to unseat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — was seen as dithering in his response to the movement, he was drastically dismissed by his party, just like the truckers wanted. From that point on, everyone knew the party’s next boss would be the far more pugilist Pierre Poilievre, a man who proudly wore his pro-trucker sympathies on his sleeve.
Covid restrictions imposed by Alberta’s provincial government led to an equally successful Conservative revolt, toppling Alberta’s Conservative Premier Jason Kenney, a man once hailed as the future of Canada’s Conservative movement. While Kenney was never a moderate in itself, he enjoyed a reputation for pragmatism, and it was this approach that he brought to covid. His downfall and the vehemence of those likely to replace him prove that his party’s philosophical consensus (at least in Western Canada) has moved closer to Barry Goldwater’s famous axiom that “extremism in defense of freedom is not a vice”.
A right-wing Covid revolt has even entered the political landscape in Quebec, where Premier Francois Legault has imposed some of the toughest pandemic restrictions in North America, including curfews that have severely disrupted daily life. In his bid for a second term, Legault, who has used cultural chauvinism to shore up center-right support, now faces unexpected opposition from the once moribund Conservative Party of Quebec, whose revival as a major player of the province’s party system is largely fueled by populist tendencies. backlash to Prime Minister’s covid policies.
Canada’s covid-era populists are easily portrayed as grumpy, conspiratorial or simply self-absorbed, and no doubt many are. But the rise of more dogmatic political stances on civil liberties in the country’s politics can also be seen as a response to the failure of other Canadian institutions over the past three years to provide a release valve for some of these anxieties. .
Canadian courts, for example, have dismissed virtually every major challenge to covid restrictions – including businesses challenging retail store closures, churches challenging bans on in-person services, public sector unions challenging mandates for vaccination for workers, out-of-province visitors challenging travel bans, returning travelers challenging mandatory hotel quarantines, and individuals challenging public curfews and limits on social gatherings. Trudeau resolved the truckers’ standoff not through negotiation or compromise, but through the brutal imposition of emergency powers. The press, as mentioned, covered much of the pandemic with a paternalistic and nationalistic tone that slandered the patriotism of skeptics.
It was inevitable that much of the covid policy would be questioned in retrospect. In Canada, those who dislike the cruder, more polarized tone of their country’s politics have a clear motivation to begin.