Blockades expose a polarized nation

The political response to Canada’s blockade crisis so far has been to erect another loud and noisy blockade, right in the heart of Parliament.

Federal politicians are choosing up sides, polarizing the House of Commons into us-versus-them camps, angrily accusing each other of making the blockade crisis worse.

They’re yelling at each other about the need to see both sides, when they themselves can’t do the same. They’re yelling at each other about the blockade holding up Canada’s economy, while their shouting is paralyzing the work of Parliament.

If the Commons is truly a reflection of the national mood in this blockade crisis, we are a sharply divided country.

If the divisions reflect how Canadians are feeling about the grievances aired during this dispute, Indigenous reconciliation is not being furthered by the blockade crisis — and may be getting more, not less, contentious.

Justin Trudeau presides over all this as a polarizing figure himself, cast by the Conservative opposition as “weak” and “pathetic” for his expressed desire to talk his way through this crisis.

In reply, the prime minister has drawn his own lines, shutting out outgoing Conservative leader Andrew Scheer from a meeting of opposition leaders to discuss the impasse on Tuesday.

Trudeau’s appeals for widespread dialogue, in other words, stopped short when it came to hearing from the official Opposition.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was throwing out suggestions for a mediator in the blockade crisis on Wednesday. Parliament looks like it may be in need of one too, judging by just two days of Commons sittings since the protests this month escalated into a full-fledged crisis.

What is clear is that this divided Commons won’t be acting as any mediating force in the dispute over the Indigenous protests. Middle ground is not occupied territory on Parliament Hill at the moment.

Conservatives have arrived to work this week at the Commons determined to be the voice of frustration over the Indigenous protests, and in particular, all those who have been negatively affected by the resulting railway shutdowns — from the laid-off workers to those dependent on train transport to do their jobs.

They are expressing scant sympathy for the protests or the roots of the grievances, calling the blockades the work of “radical activists” who have the luxury of disrupting the lives of thousands of Canadians and suffering no legal consequences.

This is a view shared by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who said on Wednesday: “Reconciliation doesn’t mean letting a couple of people shut down the national economy.”

It’s not an uncommon view. It may even be a popular view, especially among conservative-minded people in Canada, but Trudeau also has lumped it in with “populism,” a force he sees in opposition to the liberal world order.

“Yes, there is always a place for Canadians to protest and express their frustrations, but we need to ensure we also listen to each other,” Trudeau said in his speech to the Commons this week.

“The reality of populism, and its siren song in our democracies these days, is a desire to listen only to ourselves and to people who agree with us and not to people of another perspective.”

The prime minister uttered these words approximately four hours before refusing to invite Scheer to the opposition leaders’ meeting on the blockade.

Singh had no problem with the exclusion, which was decided by PMO officials after hearing the Conservative leader’s speech in the Commons.

“What he said was so divisive that it rises to the level of racism,” Singh told reporters.

At the heart of the polarized debate over the blockades is a fundamental dispute on the worst-case scenario and how to avert it.

Trudeau and most of the other opposition leaders appear convinced that the worst case would be for the blockades to get violent and pitch protesters against the police. Scheer and the Conservatives fear widespread economic chaos, to individuals and the economy as a whole.

Neither side is ignoring the other’s worst-case scenario, but they are divided on what they say is their biggest fear if this is mishandled. Of course, most sensible people outside the hothouse of politics fear both.

If there are people in Canada who are simultaneously sympathetic to the protests and angrily frustrated by the chaos they’ve caused, there is no party in Parliament that speaks for them both.

The political debate in Canada’s top legislature this week has pitched the situation into two, mutually exclusive positions: You’re either pro-reconciliation or anti-protest.

To see both sides is a contradiction that the current state of partisan politics cannot handle.

But how a political, partisan blockade fixes a series of pan-Canadian blockades is a question that has not yet been answered by politicians in Parliament this week.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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