Opinion: Healing from the Ottawa occupation

The following is a submitted Op/Ed written by Kingston City Councillor and local teacher, Robert Kiley. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Kingstonist.

I don’t know about you, but when I tune into the tenor of debate in Canada and think about the last three weeks in our nation’s capital, my heart hurts.

What appears to be the end of the pandemic – after two years which started with “we’re all in this together” – concludes in deep division, mass arrests of protestors and occupiers, and a fragile and shaken city and country. Perhaps what hits me the most is that I struggle to find voices, especially at the federal level, who are working to move forward for everyone. We all need to heal.

A rally in front of Kingston City Hall involving those both for and against the “Freedom Convoy” and occupation of downtown Ottawa. The anti COVID-19 mandates movement began at the end of January 2022. Photo by Cris Vilela.

Indeed, the rhetoric of unity and compassion embraced by so many at the start of COVID-19 has devolved to name calling: from “Racists and misogynists,” for anyone who shows a semblance of support for the truckers and anti-mandate crew (a few million Canadians), to “tyrannical and dictatorial” for those who try to bring them to heel and continue with coronavirus precautions (many more millions). EKOS Research said on Family Day weekend that their polling found that almost 25 per cent Canadians “personally identify with the protesters” (for context, that’s roughly the same number of people who live in the Prairie provinces, territories, and the Maritimes) with another approximately 10 per cent who do not know. That leaves about 60-some per cent against the truckers/protesters. We are divided.

It’s not that these fissures have not been here before, at least quietly. Rather, their entrenchment and presentation are now explicitly and unapologetically unleashed by both sides. Our perspectives are polarized and many call for the cancellation of those with whom they disagree. There are too many examples to name. Chastisement and banishment are easy, it seems.

Yet, as a non-partisan municipal politician (who finds great joy in finding a way to work with people from all parties) and as a public educator (who is genuinely blessed to hear from, learn with, and instruct students of all ideologies), I feel that where we are, no matter our political persuasion, misses the mark.

Indeed, I consider what makes for a good discussion and way ahead at City Hall, and what makes for a rich and informative class activity and education opportunity. It is never in presuming the worst in each other, generalizing, or shutting down dialogue. More information, nuanced investigation, and trying to discern the reasons why various people hold various positions are conditions for success in these environments. Am I, or is anyone, perfect in that regard? By no means. But I’ve seen it work many times and I believe that it’s a path for success at all levels of government and all relationships – personal and professional – even though it’s hard to realize.

Undeniably, this generous civic and pedagogical spirit must have ground rules. It is right and good to clearly denounce hate which elevates the dignity and worth of one group of people over another. We are all of equal value: That must be the cornerstone for honest conversation and attempts to grow together. I also believe strongly in referencing the best data or, at minimum, ensuring it is an explicit part of deliberations. In other words, the quest for truth and a comprehensive vision of reality (facts over emotions, while still acknowledging our deeply held feelings) is vital to walk forward. Finally, all participants must keep an open mind and an open hand. Closing down inquiry, demonizing those opposed to your position, or blindly/self-righteously valourizing your takes, immediately limits almost all of the ideas above. The opposite is required.

In my classes, for example, we sign a covenant that says we will “listen to each other, actively; be kind to one another, always; and share our opinions without judgment.” I find many of those attitudes usually happen naturally around the Horseshoe, too, guided in part by the Councillor Code of Conduct. The rewards of these guidelines are many, including a sense of unity, and better comprehension and decision making.

So, what if that happened between Liberals and Conservatives, pro-and-anti-mandate? What if we slowed down enough to honour the humanity in each person and admit that we all have motives and reasons for believing and acting as we do? Could we hold space for each other to hear – that is, really seek to understand – what would drive a mom and her kids to downtown Ottawa to live in a truck for three weeks? Why would the single young man, now out of work, feel justified in honking endlessly, knowing it would traumatize those around him, or maybe not even considering those people he impacted? Can we listen to the desperate parent whose immunocompromised child or elderly parent is jeopardized by the action (or, more accurately, lack of action) by unvaccination rates in our communities? Or what about exploring why the medical doctor takes to social media to snipe at those who challenge his views? There are a thousand such questions to pursue. And pursue them we should. They are questions of the soul, of ourselves, and of our nation.

At the most fundamental level, even when we’re hot under the collar, can we seriously ask: ‘if those on the other side did or said what I am doing or saying now, at a principle level, would I be okay with it?’ My inclination is that the answer to much of what we’ve seen of late – in word and deed – would be ‘no.’ We would not be okay if someone disrupted our home life continually; we would not be okay if someone mischaracterized why we did what we did; justified freezing our assets; disrespected our profession and education; and so on and so forth. When it comes to politics specifically, flip the script. Look at the policy you’re championing and ask: would I be okay if (insert the other leader/party) took these same actions against (insert your cause/position)? If not, why not?

Of course, this is a messy business that can take a long time. However, it’s worth it. We have to look deeply within and carefully without. We have to actually interact, pop our bubbles, and step outside our echo chambers. Intentionally. 

Doing so takes the sting out of speech and exposes fundamental realities we all share, an act of intrinsic reconciliation, learning, and progress. This relational approach could show that many of our motivations are, in fact, the same and expressed differently based only on our different context (I’d also suggest it exposes those truly bad actors and calls them back to a place of compassion, correction, or rehabilitation). We are then in a position to create policy that works for more people. An empathetic and grassroots approach that I hope brings more than 60 per cent of folks on board.

To be very short, if we are to restore our community, we need to respect one another and live it out accordingly in all contexts. We need to love our neighbours as ourselves.

Robert Kiley is Kingston City Councillor for Trillium District and a high school teacher. He writes a monthly “behind the scenes” Op-Ed article for The Kingstonist. He tweets at @robert_kiley.

Share your views! Submit a Letter to the Editor or an Op/Ed article to Kingstonist’s Editor-in-Chief Tori Stafford at [email protected].

2 thoughts on “Opinion: Healing from the Ottawa occupation

  • Thank you, Robert – too bad our politicians didn’t have the same common sense & standards.

  • A voice of reason. Too bad this person isn’t our Prime Minister.

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