‘Freedom Convoy’ advocates have misguided idea about individual rights

The “Freedom Convoy” rallied around rights. The right not to be bossed around by government. The right to keep government from requiring people to put dangerous or iffy stuff inside their bodies. The right to express views in public, in the streets, in the mall, and on the square.

The media featured some of the rights talk at the convoy earlier this year. On the free speech issue, I remember several clips of demonstrators saying that they were there to exercise and protect their First Amendment rights.

In Canada, it is Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that protects freedom of expression. The First Amendment is in the U.S. Constitution. Is this a quibble, something just a snooty over-educated member of the elite would raise?

No. The right to freedom of expression in the Charter of Rights is “subject to such reasonable limits” as are “demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society.” This limitation applies to all of the rights in the Charter. It does not apply to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

This winter, the convoy’s freedom of expression was accompanied by, and accomplished through, parking their trucks and blocking downtown streets (along with the bouncy castles and hot tubs, of course), impeding the movements of Ottawa residents and visitors by their constant presence in the street and their often aggressive actions. This included the loud honking of horns well into the night, even after an injunction against that honking had been secured.

Is it reasonable for Canada — and the residents of Ottawa — to say that the convoy’s freedom of speech should not be accomplished in ways that intrude upon the rights and well-being of thousands of others?

Is it demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society to expect that those wanting to express their views will do so in a manner that does not bring the lives of thousands of others to a complete halt, making them prisoners in their own city?

The protesters who came in the convoys this winter were given extraordinary liberty to express their views, both in words and by their actions. They were given far too much liberty, in my view, allowed to hold Ottawa citizens hostage and imperil many businesses in the affected area.

Individual protesters might say they were quiet and orderly. That might be the case. In fact, the television coverage often gave the impression that some of the occupiers were there simply to enjoy community and a sense of freedom after almost two grim years of COVID isolation. But overall, the blockade and occupation of downtown Ottawa was an exercise in aggressive expression seldom seen before in this country.

Let’s consider for a moment the need for such a virulent way of expressing their views: government orders that people put noxious or worrisome substances (that is, vaccines) into their bodies or be liable to lose their jobs. The demonstrators’ position, at its root, was that they should have been able to carry on as usual, engaging in their work and other activities, as if there were no pandemic, and as if there were no concern about the spread of the coronavirus.

At its kindest, it may be seen as a view that other people could, or maybe should, protect themselves from the anti-vaxxers, if they wanted protection. They shouldn’t expect such protection to come from the government oppression of others.

In the time of a pandemic, this position is an extraordinary assertion of personal liberty at any cost. Unless, of course, the premise underlying the position is that there was no pandemic, no concern about transmission or communication of the virus, and no need to act, not just with respect to particular limited situations (one neighbourhood, one job), but on a national scale.

The claim that the convoy was a simple and justifiable exercise of civil rights does not stand up to scrutiny. Let us hope that those who are planning future convoys will take a basic course in Rights 101 before again making audacious, but unfounded claims, about their right to disrupt a city.

Mary Eberts is a senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto, and a lawyer whose national practice includes cases under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.