Opinion: The difference with these protests

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Flags in Ottawa During Freedom Convoy on January 30, 2022
Flags in Ottawa During Freedom Convoy on January 30, 2022

WINNIPEG – OPINION – Almost exactly two years ago, premier Brian Pallister wrote a fundraising email to Progressive Conservative supporters decrying what he called “two-tier justice” in Manitoba.

About a dozen Indigenous activists occupied a Canadian National Railway line west of Winnipeg for 24 hours in support of Wet’suweten communities resisting the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline in northern British Columbia. Criticizing the “illegal blockade,” Pallister promised to seek injunctions and arrests, and to “stand up for the freedom and rights of all people.”

Pallister’s point was that governments and police give Indigenous people special treatment.

“We won’t stand back while two-tiered justice happens in our province,” he wrote.

I wonder if Manitoba’s new premier would write that email today, as mostly white men and boys chant “freedom” and park their trucks and other vehicles wherever they want downtown and harassing anyone who dares travel down Broadway, tries to cross the border at Emerson or attends school in Steinbach.

I wonder what the difference is. Oh, yeah.

Former premier Brian Pallister’s wrote a fundraising email decrying what he called two-tier justice in Manitoba in regards to a 24-hour Indigenous-led protest of a rail line. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)
Former premier Brian Pallister’s wrote a fundraising email decrying what he called two-tier justice in Manitoba in regards to a 24-hour Indigenous-led protest of a rail line. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Ten months after writing that email, Pallister’s government introduced Bill 57, the Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act, a law that would allow police to arrest anyone “interfering” with “public infrastructure.”

At the time, now-premier Heather Stefanson supported Bill 57, which was a near copy of an Alberta bill and a part of Erin O’Toole’s 2021 federal Conservative platform.

The law also allowed police to “seize any motor vehicle, trailer, or other thing” standing in the way of institutions and services that “make a significant contribution to the health, safety, security, or economic well-being of Manitobans.”

Stefanson is probably thankful the bill was one of many scrapped after Pallister stepped down as premier in October.

If it had become law, Manitoba would look as terrible as Alberta does now, with a premier who has the power to stop “Freedom Convoy” protesters clearly interfering with public infrastructure but won’t because they are part of the governing party’s political base. Police officers arresting groups of angry, white men waving Canadian flags is also not exactly on-brand for Conservatives.

Unlike Indigenous or Black Lives Matter protests, which dissipate in hours, “Freedom Convoy” protesters don’t leave. Like colonizers, they arrive, stay and take up as much space as possible.

They also make inane, unreasonable and, at times, impossible demands such as the resignation of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the immediate end of all pandemic restrictions and vaccine mandates. They refuse to wear masks and are endangering others.

Premier Heather Stefanson has not told the protesters to go home. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)
Premier Heather Stefanson has not told the protesters to go home. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The “Freedom Convoy” is not about “freedom.” It’s about privilege, individualism and people who take rights from others and refuse to stop.

As seems to be her way as premier, Stefanson speaks through news releases, offering three statements on Thursday in response to the ongoing occupation.

The first was about a city council motion on taking action against protesters. Stefanson said the province does “not have jurisdiction, nor would it be appropriate to interfere with civic protests or police operations.”

Where was this Heather Stefanson during the introduction of Bill 57? The province clearly has the jurisdiction, and she can’t blame everything on Trudeau.

In the second statement, Stefanson and Education Minister Wayne Ewasko wagged a finger at protesters occupying Steinbach Regional Secondary School, stating “protesting at a school is not an appropriate place.”

While they called the occupation “dangerous,” Stefanson and Ewasko reminded Manitobans that “protesting is an essential right.” So much for the danger.

Stefanson’s third and shortest statement said simply that the premier met with Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, calling on protesters to “be respectful of the rights of others to live and work downtown in peace.”

Why hasn't the government clamped down on this protest when it opposed an Indigenous protest last year supporting Wet’suweten communities? (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press files)
DANIEL CRUMPWhy hasn’t the government clamped down on this protest when it opposed an Indigenous protest last year supporting Wet’suweten communities? (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Nowhere does Stefanson tell protesters to cease, desist and go home. Even federal Conservatives in Ottawa have done that, with interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen saying, “Take down the blockades.”

Instead, Manitobans got a fairly clear directive from Stefanson through Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen, who told Manitobans in a news conference “to step back (and) think about the reasons that other people feel differently than you do.”

Imagine, for just a moment, a premier or cabinet minister asking Manitobans — in the midst of a protest — to stop and consider how Indigenous peoples feel when their lands are stolen, their rights ignored and how they should step back and think about why some people feel differently.

Exactly. It’s unprecedented.

I wonder what the difference is. Oh, yeah.

Watching Stefanson’s provincial government stickhandle around a protest being driven by the very political base they need to survive the next election is incredible.

It’s also dangerous, irresponsible and evidence of a “two-tier justice” system.

I wonder who it benefits.

Oh, yeah.

Niigaan SinclairNiigaan Sinclair

Originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press in February 2022. Republished with the permission of the author.


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