Conservative leader Erin O’Toole took a refreshing stand earlier this month against Justin Trudeau’s vaccine mandate for Canadian and American truckers. It was a rare foray into the Covid culture war O’Toole has generally avoided, except for non-specific criticisms of lockdowns.
Despite O’Toole’s previous opposition to the trucker mandate, this afternoon he wouldn’t say whether he supported the thousands of truckers convoying to Ottawa protesting that very mandate.
Truckers and allies are on their way to Ottawa this week – set to arrive Saturday – to stand up to the policy that will jeopardize their jobs and harm the already-strained Canada-U.S. supply chains. Nearly $4 million has been donated to the convoy, which has been cheered on by hundreds, if not thousands, of supporters as it has rolled through Canadian towns.
The convoy’s message has been clear: it’s not about vaccines, but about freedom. There was a time when supporting such a movement would have been natural for a conservative leader. Unfortunately, O’Toole is not positioning himself as either a conservative or a leader.
It was curious that O’Toole spoke out against the trucker vaccine mandate after refusing to take up similar fights in the past year. I suspect it was an attempt to speak to the growing chorus of Canadians – including most of the Conservative base – fed up with pandemic theatre and its accompanying restrictions on liberty, but in a manner neutered enough to avoid uncomfortable questions from the media.
Given the Conservatives have defaulted to the safe comfort of being the Official Auditors of Canada, talking only about inflation and pocketbook issues, the trucker mandate created an opportunity to speak to the base in the same language used to address the centre and the media.
I can’t reward the political savvy because it hasn’t worked. O’Toole was asked numerous times this afternoon (I lost count at eight) where he stands on the convoy before ultimately saying it’s “not for the leader of the opposition…to attend a protest on the Hill or a convoy.” (Politicians appear at Parliament Hill protests and rallies regularly).
Soon after, he gave a bumbling answer in a CTV interview about his plan to meet with “truckers and with the industry” this weekend – leaving out whether he was talking about those in the convoy or not.
It’s clear he doesn’t support the convoy, so it would be easier to respect his position had he simply said that. Attempts to appease conflicting sides of a debate only serve to alienate both factions.
O’Toole is obviously uncomfortable taking the principled stand for vaccine choice, because doing so involves defending people whose decisions he does not respect. This should be irrelevant. Just as standing up for free speech is not an endorsement of particular expressions of speech, defending the right to be unvaccinated is not discouraging vaccination.
His language hasn’t been about the freedom to make your own medical decisions or the importance of protecting bodily autonomy from the state, but rather the practical implications of the trucker mandate in the produce aisle.
By combatting the trucker mandate with pictures of empty grocery store shelves, O’Toole is demonstrating an unwillingness to deal with the realities of the mandate and where his supporters are.
O’Toole’s approach prioritizes Canadian consumers, but not so much the truckers themselves whose jobs are in jeopardy if they don’t get a vaccine they oppose.
This may be politically wise, as there are more grocery shoppers than grocery shippers, but it misses the point that vaccine mandates are wrong for moral reasons. Their economic effects are important, but incidental.
Some of O’Toole’s caucus members get this.
Alberta Conservative MP Martin Shields tweeted earlier today he was eagerly awaiting the convoy in Ottawa, sharing its concern with the government’s “freedom-curbing restrictions.”
Yesterday, firebrand Tory MP Pierre Poilievre pointed out how “COVID has become a never-ending excuse for power-hungry authorities to replace our freedom with their control.”
Oshawa MP Colin Carrie published an essay earlier in the week defending the unvaccinated against Trudeau’s vilifying rhetoric.
Right now, Canadians are facing restrictions on life and liberty like this country has not seen for generations. These are problems created by the political realm, and therefore in need of solutions from that realm.
Much like your local grocery store, O’Toole has no red meat to offer.
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