Convoy protesters talked a lot about freedom. But here’s the real threat to Canadians being free

Posted on April 12, 2022 in Inclusion Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Contributors
April 10, 2022.   By Kofi Hope, Contributing Columnist

For many, economic and social circumstances restrict them from living truly free lives. 

Let’s talk about freedom

Freedom has been in the public conversation a lot these days. Especially issues of freedom of speech and in the convoy movement. It’s no accident those occupations and blockades grounded their protest in appeals to freedom. Early into the pandemic, anti-vaccination activists found that theories about nano-chips and side effects hidden by evil governments, were not mainstream ideas.

But arguing the choice to resist vaccination was a human rights issue, an issue of human freedom — that had a lot more traction. Because human rights and freedom — thank God — are mainstream ideas in Canada.

Freedom is also a trending topic due to the very real struggle for freedom going on in Ukraine. As many have noted, the war in Ukraine helps crystallize the difference between a government that clumsily has tried to protect us from a generational crisis with some limits on civil liberties, and the reality of facing down an actual dictator.

Canada, despite what the detractors say, remains a place with an extremely high level of political and civil freedom. But a disturbingly large amount of Canada thinks otherwise. A recent Nanos polls showed 8.3 per cent of respondents believed threats to our freedoms are the nation’s biggest issue, the second-largest issue in the poll.

Now I want to be clear: I may not share the concerns some have about us losing our freedom of speech or individual liberties due to COVID-19 controls. But I think it’s a totally legitimate opinion for someone to have. And despite evidence to the contrary, I believe it’s still essential in 2022 for people with different ideas to engage in open discussion and mutual learning. Especially about an idea like freedom.

But the problem is our public discourse is dominated by a singular, limited view of freedom. Focused on our individual civil rights such as: the right to vote or freedom of religion. Rights regarding an individual’s ability to receive fair and equal treatment under the law, and not have government or others restrict their ability to make their own decisions.

But a free society is about everyone having a real ability to make their own life choices. Freedoms that only exist on paper, that you can’t use, are dead in the water. It’s like a having a car but no gas. And for many, economic and social circumstances restrict them from living truly free lives.

Which means freedom includes making a living wage, so you can spend time with your kids every day, not be forced to hustle between survival jobs. Freedom is being able to afford housing, without having to sacrifice groceries to make rent. Or being able to access the therapy you need to escape the cage of depression and anxiety.

Don’t consider this part of freedom? Well, let’s look at history. Immediately after Americans achieved a degree of equality under the law with the Civil Rights Act in 1964, civil rights leaders shifted their focus to amplifying work around fighting poverty. They knew Black Americans would never be truly free without economic freedom.

A few years later in 1966 the United Nations drafted a covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, outlining the other rights needed to have a free society, like the right to health care, labour rights and a basic standard of living.

And in Canada in 1964 Emmett Hall drafted a report that laid the foundations for Medicare in Canada, arguing that universal public health care including dental, pharma, mental-health and home care were critical components to a free society.

Freedom is more than just an ability to say whatever you want on social media or give government the finger if they ask you to do something you’re uncomfortable with.

But the political left has let populists and libertarians define our debates on freedom recently. And in truth within the Western tradition there has always been more consensus around a limited definition of freedom, focused on individual civil liberties.

Yet if we step back from our current context, it’s possible to imagine other ways to organize and achieve a free society.

David Graeber and David Wengrow in their landmark publication “The Dawn of Everything,” write in depth about the role Indigenous peoples of Eastern Canada had in shaping European ideas on freedom during the Enlightenment. Their intriguing (and controversial) theories argue that accounts of Jesuits debating Indigenous intellectuals during the 1700s set off formative debates in the salons and cultural institutions across continental Europe.

They argue that these Indigenous thinkers looked on in horror at Europe, where life seemed incredibly oppressive. People in their societies worked less, were healthier, had higher degrees of women’s rights, leaders who ruled by consent — and there was almost no ability for someone to use economic/political power to force a person to do something they didn’t want to do.

But as Graeber and Wengrow write, these freedoms could only exist because Indigenous people built a society based on mutual aid and economic sharing. People had freedom to chose how they would live their lives because food, land and shelter were shared by default. No one could be forced to work from fear of starving and leaders had to rely on competence to get people to follow them.

Obviously, our current society is different from pre-colonial peoples like the Huron-Wendat. But if we drop the cultural superiority, we can recognize we are not the first “free” people to walk these lands. Indigenous societies are just one example of the different ways human beings have linked civil and economic rights to build a free society.

So let’s talk about freedom. On the left we need to hear people’s concerns on freedom of speech and individual autonomy. And on the right, there must be openness to talk about how true freedom is contingent on everyone having the basics needed to make a real go at life.

We can wave our flags and fight for our causes but let’s also step up to the moment and have real dialogue about what freedom truly means.

Kofi Hope is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. He is based in Toronto.

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