Populist rebellion over vaccine mandates puts Canadian media in the crossfire
Journalists are getting bashed from the hard right and, increasingly, from the research and medical community who worry that reporters are too soft on public-health officials
When hundreds of vaccine-mandate protesters gathered on February 5 outside the downtown offices of CTV News Vancouver, Marcella Desjarlais had a message for them.
“I’m all for freedom,” the former People’s Party of Canada candidate, a.k.a. Marcella Williams, said from the stage. “I’m for truth and I’m for facts. And I just want to say, ‘The media sucks.’ ”
It was one of several demonstrations held that day outside Canadian television stations with the theme “The Media Is the Virus”.
Desjarlais, a charismatic speaker, delivered a carefully crafted presentation intended to counter some of the widely reported descriptions of people attending these protests.
First of all, she pointed out that she’s a “First Nations woman” who has been speaking out since April of 2020. She also insisted that she’s not racist. (In the last federal election, she ran for a party that wanted massive cuts to immigration.) And she claimed that her movement is “not anti-anything”.
“We are for choice,” Desjarlais declared.
Last month, media outlets across the country reported Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s scathing denunciation of Ottawa demonstrators for the display of hateful messages at their event.
This included the appearance of Nazi swastikas, Confederate flags, and blatantly anti-Jewish placards.
On January 31, Trudeau said that there was “no place in our country for threats, violence, or hatred”.
Five days later, Desjarlais described Trudeau’s words as “hate speech”.
“Trudeau—Trudy, as I like to call him—has gone all zero-tolerance tough guy on us in dismissing antimandate protesters,” Desjarlais told the crowd near the corner of Robson and Burrard streets.
Then she turned Trudeau’s words around on CTV News Vancouver, accusing it of writing hate speech targeted at “freedom-loving Canadians”.
How was this done? By journalists reporting that the prime minister was “calling us misogynistic, racist Trump lovers”.
In doing this, Desjarlais asserted, media outlets are creating divisions in the country.
“They are promoting their propaganda of separation,” Desjarlais said. “They are guilty of indictable offences and are liable to imprisonment for their hate speech and divisionary words that they are propagating daily in the newspapers, on the Internet, and on TV.
“We will not stand for that, and that is why we are here today,” she continued.
Moreover, Desjarlais pointed out that the media keeps doing this in spite of the law that prohibits promoting hatred against any identifiable group. And she encouraged people in the large crowd to fill out “notices of liability” to media workers to make them aware of the consequences of their actions.
“Are the unvaccinated an identified group? Yes!” Desjarlais shouted.
The next set of “The Media Is the Virus” rallies across Canada is scheduled for Saturday (February 19). In the Lower Mainland, it will take place in front of the Global News B.C. building in Burnaby.
Doctors and researchers also troubled by media coverage
By now, journalists are used to getting trashed by leaders in the movement to lift all restrictions in response to COVID-19. The words “fake news” are no longer shouted only at reporters working south of the border.
But increasingly, media outlets are also coming under fire from the other side in the national debate over COVID-19 measures.
After Trudeau announced that his government is invoking the Emergencies Act to deal with protests in many parts of the country, several media commentators expressed a fair degree of skepticism about the need for such a heavy-handed measure.
That prompted a social-media backlash from those who support the prime minister.
“If anyone other than a group of white supremacists were engaging in an anti-democracy, hate-fuelled convoy, they’d have faced consequences long before now,” tweeted Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth. “Perhaps #cdnmedia can stop saying this is about vaccines or trucks now. Emergencies Act is for anti-government threats.”
Another message on Twitter simply stated: “Excuse me, but perhaps #cdnmedia should actually introduce the Canadian public to the Organizers of the #TerroristTruckers that are holding Ottawa, hostage, refusing to speak to any mainstream media outlets.”
Then there are those in the medical and research communities who feel that too many journalists have given public-health officials a free ride in underplaying the impact of COVID-19.
A growing number of physicians and researchers are characterizing this as an airborne vascular disease that initially presents itself as a respiratory infection.
These same doctors and researchers, some of whom are part of a group called Protect Our Province B.C., think that if reporters did a better job reporting peer-reviewed scientific papers about COVID-19, the public, businesses, and government officials might take more precautions.
In the meantime, some have argued over Twitter that due to the media’s negligence, public-health officials and provincial governments are getting away with describing COVID-19 strictly as a respiratory illness.
This leaves much of the public under the mistaken impression that it’s like the flu—something that even Dr. Bonnie Henry raised in a January 28 interview on CBC Radio—rather than a disease that can cause disability, organ failure, and serious neurological problems months and possibly years down the road.
The critics’ argument unfolds along these lines: by failing to make a big deal about the science around COVID-19’s long-term effects in some patients, public-health and infectious-disease leaders across Canada have given governments a free pass to put a premium on maintaining economic activity.
This, in turn, caused COVID-19 case counts to rise to dangerous levels in various waves.
As these waves gathered strength, governments then imposed lockdowns, which are very blunt instruments to limit social and financial damage from the pandemic.
Had a more strategic approach been employed—such as introducing portable filters and carbon-dioxide monitors in classrooms and advancing policies to encourage as many people as possible to work from home—case counts might not have shot up quite as sharply in previous waves.
For the most part, Canadian media outlets are not putting this on the public radar in a big way. You have to go to Twitter to gain these insights.
Moreover, lower COVID-19 case counts would not necessitate the types of heavy-handed lockdowns that have fuelled people on the far right, such as Desjarlais and other People’s Party of Canada members, to organize demonstrations and recruit new followers.
Indeed, it’s conceivable that if public-health officials had done a better job containing the pandemic, there might not even be any of these large “The Media Is the Virus” protests taking place this month.
This, then, raises another intriguing question.
If large numbers of the Canadian public come to a realization that public-health leaders have disregarded scientific papers published in prestigious medical journals in responding to the pandemic, will this, in turn, bring the whole public health-care system into more disrepute? And will that only fuel more alienation?
U.S. tactics migrate north
For the past couple of years, Canadians could complacently look to the U.S. as the place where democracy is in peril. Republican lawmakers in many states are introducing measures to make it far more difficult for poor, racialized people to vote.
The upshot is that this could enhance the Republicans’ chance of winning back the White House in 2024, even if a majority of Americans would prefer that this didn’t happen.
Plus, many Republicans continue to insist, in the absence of any hard evidence, that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
One of the Republicans’ tactics in advancing this story line has been to constantly disparage and discredit the U.S. national media.
By turning Republican voters against publications like the New York Times and Washington Post, anything these outlets report can be more easily dismissed as biased and pro–President Joe Biden.
But now in Canada, we’re facing our own democratic crisis. The prime minister is invoking the Emergencies Act—for the first time since it became law in the 1980s—to quell internationally funded protests aimed at thwarting trade with the United States and overthrowing the government. In Alberta, RCMP seized a large cache of weapons at the protest near the border town of Coutts.
And through “The Media Is the Virus” rallies and alternative platforms such as BitChute, the hard-right People’s Party of Canada is convincing more supporters that they can’t believe what they’re seeing on the news.
At recent rallies in front of CTV Vancouver and Global News B.C., “The Media Is the Virus” organizers even brought along media “whistleblowers”.
In front of Global, Common Ground publisher Joseph Roberts urged journalists to defect in the name of truth.
Outside CTV Vancouver, former entertainment and traffic reporter and morning-show producer Anita Krishna made the pitch that the mainstream media couldn’t be trusted in its coverage of COVID-19.
“I kept my mouth shut for most of 2020 because if you ever spoke up, you got into trouble,” Krishna said. “As soon as I started to speak up, I got suspended.”
She also claimed that Global News B.C. broke her heart with “bullshit reporting” on the pandemic.
“So don’t let anybody tell you that you are misinformed,” Krishna told the crowd.
The pandemic has provided cover for the People's Party of Canada to borrow from the Republicans' populist playbook by repeatedly disparaging the media.
At the same time, the media is also getting slammed by those who think governments are wantonly ignoring advancing scientific understanding about the very nature and transmission of COVID-19.
It's creating a dangerous cocktail for Canadian politics and the Canadian public—and it's still too early to tell how it all might play out.
Emergency rule harmed Gandhi's career
Perhaps we can look to India as an example of what can happen when a national leader of a democracy declares a state of emergency.
When Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi imposed an 18-month state of emergency to quell disturbances in her country in 1975, it backfired on her less than two years later in the next national election.
Her once mighty Congress Party suffered its first electoral defeat, losing to Morarji Desai’s Janata Party—a coalition of opposing parties—for the first time.
One of those who went into hiding during this emergency declaration was none other than Narendra Modi, the current populist, right-wing prime minister of the country.
Modi, a Hindu, pretended he was Sikh to avoid being arrested.
The experience of India can serve as a lesson to Trudeau as he considers the longer-term consequences of his decision to invoke the Emergencies Act, no matter how popular it might be today.
For Trudeau, the biggest political danger is that it will encourage the People’s Party of Canada and the Conservatives, like the Janata Party, to set aside their differences to defeat the Liberal Party of Canada.
And for media outlets, they can only expect the attacks on them to continue—particularly now that they've become an effective organizing tool for some of those who want to take down Trudeau.