I did not know that attending an anti-mandate protest would be the last thing I would do in Québec. My balcony overlooked the route between la Terrasse Dufferin, where protesters often gathered, and la colline du Parliament. On nice days, I would go to la Terrasse, listen to the speeches, and ask people why they were protesting. Most of the time, I have found that protesters are pretty inarticulate after two or three slogans.
This group was not inarticulate, probably because a lot of them were doctors and nurses. Yes, there were the usual carnival barkers and rodeo clowns, but they seemed to be relatively few. It was a beautiful day, so I walked along with them on their way to Parliament and asked a few of them what they wanted. One woman, who was with her husband and young son, made herself very clear.
She explained to me that she was a nurse who had worked mandatory overtime for a year-and-a-half. She told me that they repeatedly canceled her time off about an hour before the end of her shift, that she had been risking her life every day, that she already had Covid, and that she wanted to be with her son. In short, she was very angry. Her husband said nothing and her son, a handsome boy of about ten, pressed himself against the leg of his father as he watched his mom intently.
I have thought a lot about her since the Canadian protests have made headlines. My Journal de Québec on Valentine’s Day announced on the front page that 1,437 people died on stretchers last year due to the lack of hospital beds. I imagined her working overtime in a place where bodies lay in hallways and empty conference rooms, saying to herself “let me squeeze past this person who died alone as I attend to someone else.” Paul Brunet, president of the Council for the Protection of the Sick, described conditions as “épouventable” which means horrifying.
The protesters that I encountered did not mention the vaccine. Instead, they complained about their loss of agency. They felt dehumanized and demoralized. The young nurse sought a means to dig in her heals and shout “enough.”
Canada is not the United States. The narratives about anti-vax problems never made sense. Doctors have pleaded with people to not mistake those in the hospitals with political activists. More than 90% of eligible people are already vaccinated. The unvaccinated who are filling up the hospitals are largely the homeless, mentally ill, drug addicts, and autochthones. In Québec, many indigenous people check all of the boxes and have historical reasons to distrust the government.
The supply-chain issues caused by the truckers will soon pass, but I do not know what will happen in Canada. Justin Trudeau’s father invoked the War Measures Act during peacetime in 1970 for the first time in history. It is infamously known in Québec as la Crise d’Octobre, and annually decried in newspapers for the widespread human rights abuses that occurred. What I do know is that the crisis had significant long-term consequences for Canada. We are probably watching the beginning of another transformation of our second-largest trading partner.