Leadership… in a polarizing time

Written By Fran Yanor

Two years into a global pandemic and Canadians have achieved the almost unfathomable – nearly 90 per cent of adults have gotten vaccinated. Twice. In little more than a year.

Despite this unity to a common cause, we seem an increasingly disrupted citizenry.

Protesters against COVID-19 restrictions have risked personal financial ruin and jail time to occupy our nation’s capital and clog up international border crossings.

Old-growth logging and pipeline protesters have held front lines in Fairy Creek and Wet’suwet’en territory respectively, until police forcibly removed them following court-ordered injunctions.

Last Friday, a very organized group of axe-toting intruders attacked an isolated northern Coastal GasLink drill site, terrorizing workers, injuring a police officer, and causing millions of dollars in damage to equipment and buildings in what Premier John Horgan called a “reprehensible” and “violent criminal act.”

The pandemic is wearing on everyone, but still…

Cost of uncertainty

“I attribute it largely to the after effects of COVID and two years of uncertainty within our personal lives, within our communities, and across the country,” Horgan told CBC’s Rosemary Barton last week. “But that is not a justification for criminal violence. Nor is it a justification, quite frankly, for taking hostage of a community, as has happened in Ottawa.”

“I attribute it largely to the after effects of COVID and two years of uncertainty.”

John Horgan

There was consensus between provincial premiers that the Ottawa protests were “beyond what we would expect to be legitimate civil discontent” and required action, Horgan said, stopping short of defending the Emergencies Act invoked by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to dislodge the protesters last week.

For nearly three weeks, demonstrators blocked downtown Ottawa, disrupting neighbourhoods, forcing the closure of businesses, and dominating the news across the country. Organized bottlenecks at the Canada-U.S. border caused workplace shift reductions, auto manufacturing shut downs, job loss, and the delayed delivery of goods in what the Surrey Board of Trade called “an unacceptable sabotage of the economy.”

Point taken, now go home

According to the non-profit Angus Reid poll released on Feb. 14, Canadians lost patience with the Ottawa protest before the Emergencies Act was invoked. Seventy-two per cent of those surveyed said protesters had made their point and should return home. About 70 per cent said the police or military should step in if protesters didn’t leave, with 62 per cent supportive of arrests, if necessary.

According to an Angus Reid poll released Feb. 14, 72 per cent of Canadians surveyed said protesters in Ottawa had made their point and should go home. [Angus Reid graphic]

“I do absolutely recognize the right of people to dissent to public policy,” Horgan said on Feb. 8 in Victoria. “I come from a party of dissent. I couldn’t count the number of protests I’ve been to in my life.”

Neither could he recall threatening, intimidating, or trying to deny the rights of other citizens at those protests.

“That’s just not on in a democracy.”

Confusing jumble of causes

Truth is, recent demonstrations have evolved into a confusing jumble of causes and conspiracy-hawking, from the comprehensible to the outrageous and improbable:

  • Vaccines are unnecessary/dangerous/nefarious biological agents of state control. 
  • Trudeau is cruel/arrogant/self-profiteering/evil.
  • The media, governments, corporations, politicians, police are in collusion and peddle fake messages.
  • The elected Canadian government must cancel all public health restrictions or be overthrown.
  • COVID public health measures are discriminatory, oppressive, bullying, a violation of personal rights and freedoms, and the beginning of Canada’s slide into authoritarianism.
  • Vitamin D will prevent COVID and parasitic deworming medication will cure it.
  • There is no one sick in hospital with COVID; the pandemic is a fiction.
  • The pandemic has gone on long enough – it is therefore over.
A protest in front of the B.C. legislature in Victoria on Feb. 5. [Photo Fran Yanor]

“While the internet brings some very good things to us, it also has a dark side,” said newly elected BC Liberal Party leader Kevin Falcon. “I’ve always been very concerned about how the algorithms reinforce bias, and they get people down, frankly, rabbit holes, to where they start really talking about some pretty odd things, and reinforcing some really bad things that are not helpful in bringing society back together.”

Whereas many federal and provincial politicians are divided in their support of public health restrictions, others may be leveraging unrest for political gain.

By comparison, B.C.’s elected representatives seem almost circumspect.

“Political leaders have a higher responsibility to ensure that the language we use, and the way we talk about issues isn’t done in a way that’s going to help create more cleavages in society,” Falcon said.

“Political leaders have a higher responsibility to ensure that the language we use, and the way we talk about issues isn’t done in a way that’s going to help create more cleavages in society.”

Kevin Falcon

In a public health emergency, people look to their elected officials to demonstrate leadership and a common front, BC Liberal Opposition leader Shirley Bond said in an interview last fall. Bond will remain Official Opposition leader in the legislature until Falcon is elected as an MLA.

“That’s why we’ve chosen to be very supportive of the drive to get people vaccinated, despite the fact that some of our members live in regions of the province where that is very hard for them to do personally, because of the pressure and the strong feelings that people have,” Bond said.

Opposition MLAs have the job of holding government to account, said BC Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau. “(But) both of the opposition parties recognize that this is not something that you politicize.”

Critical of many aspects of policy around the pandemic, Furstenau has nonetheless been supportive of public health measures as a whole.

“Both of the opposition parties recognize that this is not something that you politicize.”

Sonia Furstenau

“I think in some ways that we benefited from the first six months (of the pandemic) where all three parties were very constructively and actively engaged, and very much focused on having a pretty unified and public health-oriented approach to it,” said Furstenau.

Don’t worry, they still disagree

Which is not to say B.C. politicians don’t engage in political grandstanding and repetitive I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I debates. They do. And while the BC Liberals and the Greens have been more cooperative with each other of late, there is no shortage of disagreements between Opposition and government caucuses on all matters of public policy, as almost any exchange in Question Period will attest.

While Horgan is no stranger to heated verbal joists with political adversaries, he’s also jokingly referred to as the “dad-Premier” for his straight talk delivery style, an approach that seems to have gone over well with most British Columbians. Throughout the pandemic, he has polled as one of the most popular of the provincial leaders.

The performance ratings of all provincial governments have dropped since the beginning of the pandemic with the B.C. New Democrats currently enjoying the highest approval in the country regarding management of COVID-19.  A recent survey from Research Co. indicated 60 per cent of British Columbians surveyed thought the Province was managing the pandemic well, compared to Premier Jason Kenney’s lowest-rated provincial government, which scored 33 per cent approval by Albertans.

Approval of the provincial government’s handling of COVID-19 has dropped, but British Columbians remain the most satisfied with the management of the pandemic. (Graphic Research Co)

“People want to put COVID behind them, I get that. I’m at the front of that line with Dr. Henry, and Minister Dix,” Premier John Horgan said, referencing Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix. “But we want to make sure that we don’t do it in a reckless and cavalier manner just because people are honking horns.”

When asked about Island Health workers recently being verbally harassed by opponents of COVID-19 public health restrictions, Horgan’s immediate reaction was “profound disappointment.

“We can disagree, but we shouldn’t be disagreeable,” Horgan said. “The last thing these heroes need, quite frankly, is thuggery and belligerence.”