A Look at the Local ‘Freedom Convoy’ Donors
They might not be who you think they are.
A few weeks ago, I published an op-ed about the meaning of the Ottawa trucker protest (or the ‘Freedom Convoy’).
Because my academic research revolves around free expression, I’m often immersing myself in the fringes of public discourse to try to understand how the boundaries of free expression are constantly renegotiated in everyday talk and text. On both a personal and professional level, I’m fascinated by previously fringe arguments and ideas that slowly trickle into the mainstream.
At the same time, over the past decade, I’ve witnessed an incredible degradation of our public discourse, one that doesn’t bode well for the future. That degradation was in motion well before the pandemic, but the latter has sharpened and deepened the former to an astonishing degree.
For me, the Ottawa trucker protest is a substantial turning point. It’s where a festering working-class outrage with populist contours overlaps with a more widespread frustration with pandemic related restrictions and disruptions. That frustration means that individuals are probably more likely to gravitate towards extreme positions. And this is why crises are always such pivotal movements, socially and politically. It’s because we’re not making decisions, individually and collectively, with the benefits of due diligence.
I wasn’t particularly surprised to see politicians and pundits who already find themselves at the margins of public discourse using opposition to public health mandates to boost their own profiles and bank accounts. What continues to surprise me, however, is the amount of otherwise intelligent people, some of whom I respect, finding themselves deeply immersed in a subculture of pandemic-related misinformation. As I mentioned in the op-ed, one needs to choose their battles wisely. It would be exhausting to confront every expression of untruth with the vigour it deserves during the pandemic.
My employment in the field of post-secondary education means that I’m a part of what you can now call the ‘Zoom class’ of society. The last two years haven’t been easy, especially raising a child, but the pandemic has had nowhere near the effect on me that it’s had on others, many of whom instantly became dependent upon government subsidies and saw their social and familial connections crumble. I suppose the point is that one ought to be as non-judgmental as possible, recognizing that efforts to understand a phenomenon, even an incredibly harmful one, are not the same as giving it license.
As I argued, it’s clear that we need to figure out a way to increase trust in public institutions and improve our political literacy. But it’s not clear how we’re actually supposed to do that.
In general, I’m not a fan of naming and shaming, unless there’s a compelling public interest at stake. Instead, I genuinely want to understand the motivations of the protest supporters that aren’t already predisposed to conspiracy and misinformation, ones that might have adopted an extreme position gradually over time (and not as a matter of reflex).
Well, the ideas that have come to the fore during the protest in Ottawa aren’t disappearing anytime soon. They’re out there circulating unopposed in many quarters of society and will unfortunately connect with and motivate scores of additional people that are vulnerable, mostly due to a volatile mix of pandemic related frustration and poor quality information gathering.
Therefore, a viable long-term strategy to disarm conspiracy and misinformation includes addressing the conditions that give rise to extremist political subcultures: low quality information and polarized public discourse, unaccountable and non-transparent public institutions, and sharp class divisions and income inequality, to name a few.
Countless journalistic venues across Canada have run stories exposing the identities of donors to the Ottawa trucker protest. Anonymous social media accounts have also combed through the donor lists and revealed donor identities.
In a local context, these efforts made for an interesting headline: it was subsequently revealed that the President and CEO of the (Sault Ste. Marie) Group Health Centre, Alexander Lambert, was one of the donors. There were a few other headlines about prominent donors from Northern Ontario, but Lambert still stands out because of his health-related role.
But Lambert wasn’t the only local donor. Here’s a shortlist of some of the others:
A doctor in public health care
A nurse in public health care
Engineers and a superintendent in local industry
Multiple owners of local businesses
An official in Indigenous governance
A manager in municipal administration
A teacher in a local school board
A professor in a post-secondary institution
These are some of the most educated and respected people in the city.
The most concerning are those who work in health care and education.
How can it be possible for people to financially support a movement based on distortions of fact when their job is to hew closely to evidence and analysis?
The bigger question, however, is what accountability should look like in this scenario, depending upon the particular circumstances of each donor.
In my opinion, there are only rare occasions where the public interest is served in identifying some of these donors, local or otherwise. I also think that people need to be able to make mistakes without those mistakes defining their entire existence. I’m willing to bet that there are at least a few donors who are experiencing regret, and not just because they’ve been publicly humiliated and/or facing more serious repercussions.
On principle, I’d much rather see someone change their mind than change their employment status, which seems to be the case with Lambert given his strident tone. That goal might be too idealistic given the state of political polarization at the moment, but I remain unconvinced that those deeply down the rabbit hole are just too far-gone.
As an academic that’s also interested in journalism, I know that skepticism, like patience, is a virtue. But skepticism also has its extreme variants. As we’ve seen, extreme skepticism can morph into a conspiratorial and unhealthy distrust in media, in government, and in expertise itself. This type of skepticism makes it impossible for someone to make qualitative distinctions between different forms of information, because everything fits into a coherent (but wrong) architecture of belief.
It’s a fascinating phenomenon to behold: legions of people distrust mainstream sources of information but they’ll enthusiastically embrace the views of people with absolutely no claim to authority or expertise as an alternative. Based on the list above, it’s also not something consigned exclusively to a specific segment of society. Even the most educated and respected among us can be persuaded by bad ideas given the right conditions.
The broad takeaway of this story, I think, is that we also need to think long and hard about how to actually change peoples’ minds, even when we think that their beliefs and behaviour are harmful. In that sense, our problem is not really about drawing lines between types of behaviour and expression that we find acceptable or unacceptable. It’s actually about assessing the most effective communication strategies when the stakes are so high.
This doesn’t mean agreeing to disagree or calling it a day when we confront immovable ignorance, malice, and stupidity. It means rolling up our intellectual sleeves and figuring out where each of us can actually have an impact on others.
That’s no simple task, but the alternative is clear: a chaos spiral to which we’ve become accustomed with shocking ease.
P.S. If you’re reading this and still waiting for the first installment of A Toxic Legacy, don’t fret – that series will start in earnest in just a few weeks!