On mandates, the convoy, and the Canadian pandemic Overton window

As I write this, we are into a third year of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated changes to life that have come along with it. At this very moment in Ontario, we are likely seeing record numbers of infections in a sixth wave and are waiting on the subsequent additional strain on the healthcare system. Our provincial government has indicated that we are ready with 3000 ICU beds, but ask any nurses you know and they will tell you that it doesn’t matter how many beds there are if there aren’t nurses to work them. Slews of doctors and other medical professionals in the province (and Canada as a whole) have indicated that this is not the time to relax or remove protections for citizens (i.e., mandatory masking, proof of vaccination status). However, across the country we are marching methodically toward the end of any mandatory public health measures. This march has been accelerated by the so-called “Freedom Convoy.”


Roughly seven weeks ago, after a full month of occupation, disruption, and hot tub parties, the “protest” by truckers, far-right activists, anti-liberal government voices, and hangers-on was (finally) broken up by combined police forces in Ottawa. This unprecedented invasion of the nation’s capital was telegraphed by the protestors, but still allowed to happen, and the result was weeks of near-constant news coverage, airing of the ideas that underpinned the protests, and a media landscape beyond the news that was so inundated with coverage and discussion about the occupiers’ ideas that they became inescapable. This was an exhausting and even terrifying time for many in the country, and it is important to examine the forces undergirding the protest, as well as the ripple effect it continues to have on Canadian society.


While these “protests” started under the guise of truckers having personal difficulties with vaccine regulations in place to cross the border (as if there are not already significant regulations for this type of work that they engage with and abide by every day significantly more invasive than a vaccine passport [see the work of Karen Levy]), they quickly (d)evolved into more general anti-COVID regulation, anti-government, and F*ck Trudeau screeds that sometimes showed less than fulsome understandings of Canadian law, political process, and jurisdiction, let alone COVID guidelines and health protection measures. It is also important to note and understand that the “truckers” and supporters in these occupations (I am including the Coutts and Peace Bridge occupations as well) are a particular sub-set of the Canadians who work in this area, and not others. For example, the Sikh truckers who were stranded in the US by the Coutts occupation, are not the truckers at issue here. Indeed, a high number of truckers are fully vaccinated and continue to work. Included in the protest group, however, are those who were able to leave their homes and work for weeks or months, travel across the country without difficulty, and occupy Canada’s capitol city with deeply disruptive and highly antagonistic protest without the fear of police violence brought on other Canadians who have been far less disruptive and a whole lot more racialized.

 

Now, these two situations share a focus on the pandemic, but the connections between the general moves in Canada toward fewer pandemic related health protections and the actions of the convoy occupiers are quite a bit deeper than simple coincidental agreement on (not) wearing masks. They evince the ability of far-right rhetoric to affect Canadian discourse more broadly. This results, at least in part, from Canadian’s constant exposure to US media and political coverage, but also the penetration of Canadian consciousness and politics about health and healthcare via that information ecosystem. But, the convoy/occupation, and specifically the quantity and amplitude of its coverage, has had an outsized influence on the Canadian political landscape around health protection measures creating a rapid shift in the Canadian Overton window.

The Overton Window of Political Possibility (named after Joseph Overton) is a way of understanding how ideas about what is socially acceptable change over time, and how these changes effect what can happen in the limited range of political policy – a way of understanding what is considered “radical” at any given time, and how this shifts over time. As explained by the Makinac Center for Public Policy, the Overton Window “doesn't describe everything about how politics works, but it does describe one key thing: Politicians will not support whatever policy they choose whenever they choose; rather, they will only espouse policies that they believe do not hurt their electoral chances.” They go on to explain that “the range of policy options available to a politician are shaped by ideas, social movements and shared norms and values within society.” The basic form of the Overton window is shown in the diagram here, and this can be applied to any area of political policy from energy subsidies, to education polity, to health policies mid-pandemic.


In the case of health policy during a crisis, public need can shift the Overton window rapidly. At the onset of COVID-19, health protection measures (recommendations, followed by orders) were adopted in short order as we dealt with historic challenges. As a nation, we were faced with uncertainty, and this created space for possible change. Despite the need for safety and security, the rapid onset of the pandemic and the subsequent protection measures taken by governments and health units were a jolt to many. Measures that citizens were told would likely be short and fleeting turned into months, then years where we needed to be constantly vigilant to protect ourselves and others. People got tired, and frustrated, but beyond the grumbling we might have done to friends or family about the situation, we generally stayed the course.


Through the entire pandemic though, we have been faced with those (credentialed in the areas of public health and epidemiology or not) who have denied the virus, the need for public health protection measures, and the need for vaccination. While vocal, these voices seemed (largely) ineffectual in altering the course of public health policy in Canada. Or perhaps that is what we wanted to believe (see the work of Kathleen Mah). This is perhaps why many were so shocked by the length and impact of a protest carried out by White anti-establishment Canadians, even though these ideological positions had maintained strong undercurrents in Canadian discourse since the beginning of the pandemic. Yet, it is undeniable that the far-right backed and populated occupations presented a real and significant threat to Canadian democracy. The unprecedented nature of these protests, as well as the seeming lack of recognition and action by police services, was absolutely newsworthy, but it did something significant to how we thought about pandemic health measures in Canada, and not for the better.


For almost two months, the lead-up to and occupation of Ottawa was front-page and lead story news on every outlet of every political orientation in the country. Social media was inundated with coverage and different takes on the protest actions – Canadians were altogether consumed by it. Regardless of the anti-government, far-right, coup-focused undertones of the whole thing, the central message that Canadians were hearing was that a large and vocal sub-set of Canadians wanted (and needed) COVID-related health protections to end – that these things were an affront to their freedom. The fact that many of these people were caught up in a kind of first amendment/constitutional US-based multiverse Canada where those laws also applied here aside for the moment, their loud voice was amplified so significantly that it was easy to believe that perhaps they spoke for a significant portion of Canada – and certainly a much larger portion than we thought. It was easy to believe that these honkers and hot tubbers spoke for a lot of people. However, polls conducted during the height of the protests indicated that about nearly seventy percent of Canadians opposed or strongly opposed the actions taken by the occupiers and their message, leaving a little less than 1/3 of Canadians in support of, or indifferent to, the protest actions and methods. The public health fallout from the messaging of that one third though, has been dramatic.


Since the end of the protests (by police action) the dramatic situation of mass infection and hyper-transmission currently gripping Canada has evolved. As this wave was coming on (a wave predicted by medical officials) provinces gradually reduced public health measures, including removing masks in schools directly after the busiest March Break season in 3 years. This has resulted in surging child infections, estimates of infection rates as high as 100,000-120,000 per day in Ontario, and some of the most careful and aware among us being infected with the virus. No return to public health measures has occurred.

This disconnection between the reality of citizens getting very sick and dying from this (preventable) disease and government response is evidence of the shifting of the Overton window in Canada toward the kind of neo-liberal individual-responsibility that is rhetorically so popular in the new and far-right. Data from Abacus shows that supporters of the People’s Party, Conservatives, and (notably) the Green Party felt they had the most in common with the protesters, and that their actions were appropriate and respectful. The differences between this supporting group and the feelings of Liberal, NDP, and Bloc Quebecois respondents were stark. But even with the strong opposition from Liberal, NDP, and BQ Canadians, the coverage of the occupation protests, with undertones of anti-establishment and possible violence, moved the general perception of public appetite for health protections, and the policy window, towards “more freedom.”


Freedom in this case implies less government oversight on people’s lives and ignores the fact that viruses don’t care about your personal freedom – your choices affect everyone. But this approach to a collective public health emergency – a collective action with no collective decision-making – is precisely what we should expect from the right. Norberto Bobbio explained that what distinguishes the right is that individuals lean more towards the needs and benefits of the individual, and so we get a focus on the personal implications of health protection limitations. This is not in and of itself problematic, as sometimes an individual focus is important for our own wellbeing, but the far-right actors at the centre of the convoy and occupation protests in Canada in early 2022 leverage this inclination to turn actions that are about protecting your neighbour, into affronts to personal liberty and a kind of Canadian nationalism based on this premise. The loud and disruptive messaging coming from the group was that Canadians have been co-opted and controlled. And it resonated.

As humans living in the complex societies of the 21st century, we are all susceptible to this kind of influence. We saw it in the US during the 2020 election cycle with Bernie Sanders, and we are seeing now in real-time with the rise in popularity of Pierre Poilievre running for Conservative leader in Canada; especially with young people. When people are tired, disaffected, or scared, they grab onto the ideology that seems to provide what we think we need in that moment. What politicians do is to observe the way these winds are blowing and graft policy to them. We are seeing this now with the pandemic.


What the convoy/occupation/protest did was provide an ideological construct that policy makers could latch onto, and in the case of Ontario that was to continue with a reduction in health measures and return to “life as normal” when life is far from it for most people. For me, this illustrates Overton’s point, that politicians will only enact policy that fits within the window of acceptability, but that window is pretty broad. Imagine if, in October of 2021 (prior to the convoy), cases of COVID had begun to spike and move toward 100,000 cases per day in Ontario. The idea that we would not have reinforced public health protections seems unconscionable. But post-convoy this is exactly what happened. The convoy’s penetration into the psyche of Canadians (and especially Ontarians in my example) moved the window far enough in their direction to allow for the public health crisis to deepen in this province in favour of “personal freedom” and “the economy.” But, for those of us with partners, parents, family, or friends with compromised health, fragility, or youth (under 5), the changes in public policy in the name of freedom have limited us in new and significant ways. For over 2 years we have been careful and prudent in the hopes that this too would pass, and now entering the third spring with aging parents, a child under five, and COVID more virulent and dangerous than at any time before this, I am more limited than ever before.