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Long before COVID-19 spread throughout the world and forced us to self-isolate, China’s behaviour towards freedom and information was seen as abhorrent and authoritarian. Many of us in the western world rejoiced in the fact that we should never be in such a situation where the government becomes authoritarian and restrictive towards our freedoms.
After all, we live in enlightened liberal democracies, where the tenets of freedom are seen as sacred and we would surely not surrender them so easily.
Sadly, we now sit homebound. We are glued to our social media walls being flooded daily with examples of authoritarianism right here at home. Alike any nation with restricted freedoms, the justification is and always has been built on one thing: safety. This perceived safety is being offered by the government to quell our fears. The only cost is our freedoms.
In this moment, our freedoms are being infringed upon in a myriad of ways. Firstly, Dominic Leblanc, President of the Privy Council, is now introducing legislation that would target “misinformation” during this pandemic. "Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures and it is about protecting the public," he said. In other words, for the sake of safety, we must surrender our skepticism as it may cause “havoc.”
There is certainly a conversation to be had regarding the influx of false information during this pandemic. It’s not difficult to see the issues that arise once you have a population that is consuming information from various uncredited sources. That said, perhaps there also must be a conversation as to why individuals opt to seek out information that is otherwise absent in mainstream sources.
Many of the institutions that we have held up as beacons of truth, have now revealed themselves to be deceptive. The elephant in the room is WHO. Only a short while ago, people were told this virus had no human to human transmission, that China’s numbers are valid, and that masks won’t be of help. These “facts” are now known to be false causing us to question what other lies we may be told.
This is not to say promoting conspiracy theories as a result of WHO’s misinformation is advisable. Rather, truth should not be dictated by the government or any other institution. It is thus dangerous to trade in your freedoms for a sense of safety via a pre-packaged government approved sense of truth. Limiting freedom is precisely what WeChat, a government sponsored social media app, does for the Chinese population. Many individuals have shared their skepticism of their own government on WeChat, only to later have a visit by the police for committing wrong think.
During a time of crisis, it is the natural tendency of the government to consolidate as much power as possible which is not exclusively restricted to speech. Just recently, the Trudeau Government introduced emergency legislation that would give the Liberals the power to tax and spend for the next two years with no parliamentary approval. This absurd piece of legislation was accurately exposed for the power grab that it is and tossed out. In Alberta however, we see Bill 10 quietly passed, which gives the provincial government the power to pass new legislation without approval. Therefore, it is paramount to inform the public about these unconstitutional power grabs. If we can identify attempts to seize greater power, we should continue doing so.
Grasping for power is not limited to the federal government but also highly relevant provincially, and municipally. In Ontario, a Toronto man was fined $880 for doing chin ups in Centennial park. A fiscal gut punch to any citizen during this time. The local city councilor Stephen Holyday said he would have fined him $5,000 if he wrote the ticket. “People need to get this message,” he said, “someone can die if this virus is spread.” Once again, safety is propped up to tug away at your fears.
Elsewhere, we are seeing completely counterproductive penalties such as the Ottawa teen, who was fined $700 for playing basketball by himself. This is something the teenager’s father found "disgusting," equating it to "bullying." He goes on to mention his 17 year-old son has Type 1 diabetes and tries to get exercise every day. In other words, the system is punishing this teenager for staying healthy. This is a clear example of how authoritarianism often backfires on itself, and nobody wins.
These criticisms should not signify that we should be frivolous during the pandemic. Of course, we should be prudent, but should it be the governments place to force safety or should it be the place of the individual? Furthermore, should it be to the government’s benefit to force safety, with the introduction of fiscal or power incentives?
During a time like this, we should be encouraging the best in people, and that is found in individual responsibility. It is not found in encouraging snitching, which is currently present in Ontario with dedicated phone lines. Perhaps the most interesting part of this is revealed in a recent Leger Marketing poll, which found that “a respondent’s likeliness to snitch is significantly higher if they also report feeling more fear or anxiety since the beginning of the pandemic.” Once again, we are witnessing the dichotomy between freedom and safety.
Although the dichotomy between freedom and safety is deeply evident, it is nonetheless dangerous, and it is something that continues being relevant. Many are aware of the ongoing issues students face on Canadian campuses in relation to free speech. Over the past few years, we have seen numerous events cancelled or overloaded with security costs due to “safety concerns.”
I myself have been caught in the cross fires of this issue, even as recently as January when UBC cancelled my event with American Journalist Andy Ngo over “safety issues” regarding ANTIFA. The irony being the topic of the event, “Understanding ANTIFA Violence.” This cancellation has now led me into a lawsuit against UBC alongside the JCCF (Justice Centre For Constitutional Freedoms). I am not alone in experiencing the loss of these freedoms. Meghan Murphy, a Prominent Feminist Pundit, understands exactly what losing your freedom in exchange for perceived safety is like as she also has been cancelled for “safety reasons.”
Thus, a tendency that began on Canadian campuses is now becoming part of everyday life. It is not to say that human life should not be of paramount value, of course it is. Of course this virus is incredibly serious and we must slow its spread as much as possible. However, on our journey back to the new normal, we should tread carefully as to not become like the country from whence this crisis began. Along the way, should strive to not give into our fears and trade away our freedoms, to a snake oil salesman peddling safety.