Understanding rights and responsibilities: Are Canadians’ freedom of expression being curtailed?

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Many newcomers come to Canada expecting to exercise their human rights more freely here especially if they’ve come from countries with repressive regimes. This is a reasonable expectation as Canada is regarded as a pioneer in the field of human rights.

However, recent events may have made you doubt this distinction. Some sectors, particularly a loud minority, have been pushing the narrative that Canadians’ freedom of expression and the right to protest peacefully are being taken away. Never was this issue given more emphasis than during the trucker protests earlier this year.

Is their claim true and is it something you should be concerned about?

The “Freedom Convoy”: A case study

The protest began when the federal governments of Canada and United States issued vaccine mandates for the truck drivers in January 2022.

Truck drivers were required to have vaccination certificates when crossing borders from USA and entering Canada, irrespective if they were returning home or if they were truck drivers from the US. Even though more than 85 per cent of truck drivers were already vaccinated according to the Canadian Trucking Alliance, a small group of in their ranks decided to stage a protest outside Ottawa demanding the Canadian government to withdraw the mandate. This became the so-called ‘Freedom Convoy.’ The group believed they were fighting for the rights and freedoms of Canadians. The protest gradually expanded to include the demand for the withdrawal of all restrictions related to Covid-19. It also grew to include other protesters who were not truckers.

The movement gained so much popularity that it inspired other groups to stage similar protests and demand the same from their respective governments. It expanded to other provinces and attracted activists who started including issues unrelated to the vaccine mandates and Covid-19 restrictions. In Manitoba, a similar convoy caused traffic and disrupted the routines of Winnipeggers working in the Manitoba Legislative building and areas in the vicinity (CTV News).

A clash between rights and responsibilities

Many of these smaller protests were peaceful and non-violent despite causing inconvenience to motorists and prompting some small businesses in the vicinity to close. However, the original Ottawa Freedom Convoy was another story. For almost a month, residents of downtown Ottawa experienced the following, making them feel unsafe:

  • More than 500 trucks full of fuel blockaded the city while other trucks parked in residential areas and outside government buildings in Ottawa. The police were anxious about removing these trucks for fear of violence.
  • While the truckers carried out their protest in the name of freedom, their rallies curtailed the freedom of the local residents who couldn’t send their kids to school or attend office for days in a row.
  • The convoy deprived malls and local shops of their freedom to run their businesses as they were forced to shut down operations.
  • Instances of anarchy included intimidation (a group of un-masked protesters demanded staff of a local restaurant to feed them), defecating in public, desecration of a war memorial, and constant honking which frustrated residents for more than three weeks.

Truckers protest at US-Canada border over vaccine mandates, ABC News

A historic moment in Canadian history

With the protest spiralling out of control, the Ontario Premier declared a state of emergency in February 11 placing legal sanctions relating to impediment of trade routes, highways, airports, bridges and railways. A few days later, the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act.

The deployment of the Emergencies Act was a historic moment in Canadian socio-political history since it was the first time the Act was deployed since its passing in 1988. The Act provides temporary additional powers to the federal government when existing tools are no longer sufficient to deal with a serious issue. This enabled law enforcement to suspend the rights of protesters from staging their dissent. As a result, most protesters were cleared from Ottawa, with some organizers and violent protesters arrested by February 21.

Let’s think about it

Freedom of choice and freedom of speech are integral parts of the Canadian value system. In fact, Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms clearly outlines the right to peaceful assembly and freedom to protest.

In this particular instance involving the Freedom Convoy, do you think it was lawful for the participants to be stopped from protesting and to be arrested? Do you think that this was an instance where Canadians’ freedom of expression and the right to protest peacefully were taken away?

Living in a democratic country allows us to enjoy freedom and live our best lives afforded by our human rights. But let’s not forget that together with this freedom and rights come responsibilities. These responsibilities relate to keeping order and helping others enjoy their freedom and rights as well. Each of us must fully understand and balance these elements in order to live in a truly free, safe and equitable society.

References: What every Canadian should remember about the ‘freedom convoy’ crisis, Sean Richmond, The Conversation; Whose freedom is the freedom convoy fighting for? Not everyone’s, Gerald Walton, The Conversation. Accessed June 8, 2022.
By Tanveen Tatke

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