Notes on the Occupation 2: Canada’s luck begins to run out

Writing these to help figure out my thinking on what is clearly becoming something that will go down in the history books, for good or ill.

Canadians are both very fortunate, and very unfortunate, that Justin Trudeau has been our prime minister since 2015.

On the fortunate side of the ledger: I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Trudeau owes his prime ministership and political career to his almost instinctive understanding of the current social and political climate. By which I mean the general tendency in Canadian society toward inclusiveness. We saw this talent on display in the rebuke to the Ottawa protesters that drew the ire of the myopic Globe and Mail editorialists.

We shouldn’t underestimate either the political importance of being able to articulate widely held sentiments or the importance of these sentiments themselves. Trudeau’s innate grasp of common decency and the importance of inclusiveness helped the country survive the Trump presidency because it took as a given that Trump’s approach to politics is wrong and poisonous. As a result, we were able to keep Trumpism at bay, until now. That’s no small accomplishment.

A continued Stephen Harper prime ministership, on the other hand, would likely have been disastrous for the country. Right-wing populism is the poison of the moment, and it’s transmitted to the body politic through right-leaning parties. We’re seeing that play out now, but having a conservative party in charge during the Trump presidency likely would have accelerated it, providing a vehicle for extremists in the Conservative Party, like Pierre Poilievre, to sow chaos from inside the House. That Stephen Harper, post-prime ministership, has been cozying up to Hungarian authoritarian leader Viktor Orban, among others, only highlights further the bullet we’ve dodged until now.

And just imagine the chaos that we would’ve seen if these protests had taken place against the background of a second Trump term.

So, words matter. But so do actions.

Unfortunately, the other thing that’s characterized the Trudeau years is a consistent inability to rise to the occasion, to match words with deeds.

A few years into Trudeau’s government, in a livestreamed talk, Carleton University history professor and my MA supervisor Norman Hillmer gave Trudeau’s foreign policy to that date a B-, for exactly these reasons. That grade sounds about right.

And not just in foreign policy. Whether it’s climate change, or data policy, or platform governance, the Trudeau government’s policy responses have all been pointed in the right direction, but have been inadequate or unimaginative. He, and the government, have been saying the right things, but with little or insufficient follow-through.

About the only file on which this has not been true was the Canada-US relationship during the Trump years. It was blindingly obvious that Trump posed an existential threat to Canada’s economic survival, and the government reacted accordingly. The federal government has also done quite well in responding to the pandemic – not perfect, but reasonably imperfect.

But on anything else, where the short-term stakes seem lower and the existential crisis less immediate, there’s often little but words.

Most importantly, the government has failed to reinvest in the capacity needed to run a modern government to address modern problems. Another way of putting this is, we have leadership in words, but not actions.

To be fair, this is a widespread problem. We’ve seen the same embrace of communication strategies over policy responses from the provincial and municipal governments as well.

That Ottawa police have hired a “crisis management firm” to help with their messaging is the perfect confluence of the two dominant currents in what passes for politics in Canada these days: a focus on messaging instead of the work (in this case, of enforcing the law of the land), and outsourcing basic government competencies.

As I suggested in a previous post, the most shocking and consequential aspect of the #FluTruxKlan protests hasn’t been the protesters’ actions. They represent a tiny minority of Canadians, and every family, community, city and country has their fair share of straight-up jackasses and racists.

Rather, it’s been the across-the-board complete failure of the Ottawa, Ontario and federal governments to deal with what was always clearly an extremist movement, both before they got to Ottawa and once they arrived.

(Also to be fair, other cities and provinces have handled the protesters much better, but when the federal government, Canada’s largest province and the city’s capital continue to be MIA after over a week of ongoing lawlessness, that’s a huge problem.)

Once, and however, the occupiers are removed from Ottawa, politicians, police, and Canada’s security community must be put under the microscope. It won’t be enough to simply vote the bums out of office.

What is government good for?

In a sense, this is a crisis 40 years in the making. Since the 1980s and the Mulroney government, the conventional wisdom has been that the less government, the better. As a result, we’ve ended up in a vicious circle. Based on the belief that big government is bad government, successive Liberal and Conservative governments have eviscerated governmental capacity, which makes it ever-harder for government to do its job. Which justifies further cuts and outsourcing.

When you’re trapped in this cycle, leadership becomes little more than saying the right things, and government becomes a pantomime.

Most people are mostly good most of the time. When things are going well, governments can coast without their lack of capacity causing too many problems. The true cost of this performative approach to government only becomes clear in a crisis. Like this one.

At the very least, we need to get back in the habit of seeing governments and the collective action they enable as valued and important, so that our leaders focus less on comms strategies and more on the hard work of governing. At most, we need a full overhaul of how we conduct the business of government.

Because as bad as this occupation is, Canada is only going to face more destabilizing crises in the future, from an increasingly unstable United States and an increasingly hostile international geopolitical arena, to climate change-induced natural disasters. Responding to these challenges will take more than words provided by a hotshot consultancy.

As the Kids in the Hall knew, you can coast pretty far on charm. But at some point, you have to actually govern.

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Notes on the Occupation 1: Trying to get some perspective

Writing these to help figure out my thinking on what is clearly becoming something that will go down in the history books, for good or ill.

As bad as the #FluTruxKlan is on its own terms – incessant noise being literally a form of terror inflicted on thousands of people, to take only one example – it becomes even worse when you try to place it in a historical context. It also becomes almost impossible to conclude anything other than it truly is an unprecedented, and unprecedentedly dangerous, event in the history of the country. Matt Gurney has an excellent Twitter thread along these lines.

I’ve been trying to think of events in my lifetime that compare to the occupation in terms of its duration, disruption of the lives of residents, and the literal calls for the overthrow of the current government. I’ve come up short.

The only things that come to mind don’t really fit:

When I was a reporter with the Catholic New Times, I worked with nuns and social activists who were involved in the peace movement, and it was understood that the RCMP/CSIS had files on them from their participation in the camp.

Which may be part of today’s problem. When Canadian security services think of threats to national security, historically they’re more likely to picture a 50-year-old nun or an undergraduate environmentalist than a swastika-sporting Nazi.

It’s also worth noting that, as the Gazette reported, the event was hailed by some at the time as “a new form of political party.” Stephen Gill, talking about an earlier clash in Seattle wondered if these type of events heralded “a post-modern transnational political party” that “seeks to combine diversity with new forms of collective identity and solidarity.”

At the time, police clearly viewed those protesters, most of whom were peaceful and none of whom were given the run of the city to violate the law with impunity, as a threat to the state. Which raises the (naive) question of why the 2001 protesters were seen as a threat, but a protest that began by parading Nazi symbols and stealing food from the homeless, is still not being treated as such. As the 2001 events demonstrate, police are more than happy to crack some heads when they want to, or feel the need.

  • In terms of tensions – and here I want to make crystal clear that I’m not making any kind of moral or substantive equivalence at all between the fight for the recognition of Indigenous land rights and the fascists currently terrorizing my hometown – the only similar event that springs to mind is the 1990 Oka crisis. That escalated into a military confrontation.
  • Finally, it was slightly before my time, but in terms of scale and the open challenge to the rule of law and the established political order, the only thing in recent history that springs to mind as being similar is the 1970 October Crisis.

After that, what? The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike? The On to Ottawa Trek (put down violently in Regina before it got to Ottawa)? The Fenian raids? The 1837-38 Upper and Lower Canada rebellions?

The further you have to go back to find something comparable, the bigger a deal this seems.

To be clear, I’m trying to puzzle this out. I’d be more than happy to be told that I’m way off base.

But, never before have we seen a group of lawless brigands seize control of a major Canadian city for an entire week (and counting), while literally attacking and torturing thousands of Canadians, with no substantive reply from the authorities at any level. Never before have we seen an extreme right-wing protest lead to the resignation of a leader of one of our two main political parties, in part for not being sufficiently welcoming to fascists.

History can sneak up on you, and we all have a tendency to place events into familiar categories: the resignation of a weak leader, a rowdy protest against a government policy. But when history repeatedly punches you in the face for a week, you have to recognize the moment for what it is, and respond accordingly.

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It’s about ethics in vaccine mandates: Welcome to Gamergate North, but with trucks!

Even as the trucker occupation of Ottawa ends its fifth day, the high-stakes game of interpreting what it all means has already begun. Today’s entry, from the Globe and Mail editorial page, goes with “mid-sized inconvenience.”

The editorialists are comforted that it didn’t become “a CanCon take on the Jan. 6 storming of the US Capitol,” and argues that we shouldn’t vilify the protestors, who were mostly there to protest vaccine mandates.

As it happens, both this line of reasoning and the whole trucker protest have a clear parallel in recent US history, but it’s not January 6, and there’s absolutely nothing reassuring about it.

Canada may be a few years behind the United States, but, judging from the Globe’s woefully off-base editorial, we might finally – finally! – have gotten our very own Gamergate. Only with trucks and vaccines instead of video games.

For the blissfully ignorant, who might just include the editorial staff at the Globe and Mail, I’ll let Vox’s Aja Romano bring us up to speed on what Gamergate was, and is:

In the fall of 2014, under the premise that they were angry at “unethical” games journalists — a lie that persists today — thousands of people in the games community began to systematically harass, heckle, threaten, and dox several outspoken feminist women in their midst, few of whom were journalists. The harassment occurred under the social media hashtag “Gamergate,” which is still a hotbed of debate and anti-feminist resentment today.

Gamergate began as a campaign of harassment against one, and then many women, under the guise that the harassers were actually just interested in “ethics in journalism.” As Romano notes,“The hate campaign, we would later learn, was the moment when our ability to repress toxic communities and write them off as just ‘trolls’ began to crumble. Gamergate ultimately gave way to something deeper, more violent, and more uncontrollable.”

The “something deeper, more violent, and more uncontrollable” being Trump, the rise of Trumpism and, eventually, the January 6, 2001, attack on the US Capitol.

The disingenuous argument that this hate campaign was merely a legitimate questioning of journalistic ethics made it difficult for people to fully realize that the hate was the point.

Unwittingly or not, this morning’s Globe and Mail’s editorial, titled “The ‘Freedom Convoy’ was hauling a load of bad ideas – but the people on board are not the enemy,” is very much in the “it’s about ethics in journalism” vein.

Welcome to Gamergate North: The Arctic Edition.

It’s about ethics in vaccine mandates

The editorial tries to make a distinction between (some of) the arguments made by the “Freedom Convoy” (or FluTruxKlan, if you will) and (some of) the people involved in the protest. Tellingly, it can only do so by assuming that its headline argument – “the misnamed Freedom Convoy and those who gathered around it want an end to vaccine mandates” – is both the only and legitimate (if wrong-headed) argument protesters are trying to make.

As I noted in a previous post, there are numerous tells that these protesters are not really interested in a rational debate over vaccine mandates. Health care is a provincial responsibility. The United States has its own vaccine mandate keeping unvaccinated truckers out of their country. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal government are powerless to change this reality.

Don’t believe me that these “truckers” aren’t really interested in vaccines and how mandates affect truckers? Would you believe the Canadian Trucking Alliance? From CTV News:

In a statement, the Canadian Trucking Alliance said a number of protesters appear to have “no connection” to the trucking industry and are pushing a “separate agenda beyond a disagreement over cross border vaccine requirements.”

Oh, and then there’s the matter of a leader from the protest openly discussing how they want to overthrow the government. Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason:

A Kitchener, Ont., radio show this week interviewed Jason LaFace, said to be the convoy’s main Ontario organizer. The protest “is no longer about the [vaccine] mandate,” he said – it’s about people’s “rights” and how the government has been “manipulating the population and oppressing us all the time.”

Mr. LaFace said the protest organizers are employing “constitutional lawyers” to draft a document that “compel[s] the government to dissolve government.” For good measure, he added: “[Justin] Trudeau is a criminal in this country, he needs to go.”

Ignoring the haters and the hate

Pretending that Gamergate was about “ethics in journalism” distracted from the reality that the people driving Gamergate were engaged in a “hate campaign.” This campaign was designed to harass and bully vulnerable groups – women, racialized individuals, the usual (non-White, non-male) people. But when you focus on the ethics in journalism canard, these problems disappear.

Or they’re reduced to “a mid-sized inconvenience,” as the Globe describes the chaos inflicted by these freedom-loving citizens, who were enjoying “a street-party atmosphere, as participants basked in the affirmation of the like-minded.” Tell that to the people of Ottawa, who are still being harassed and whose downtown core remains largely closed five days after the protest began.

Sure, some bad things happened, but #notallprotesters, amirite?:

And yes, some idiots climbed on the National War Memorial; some decided to demand a free lunch at a homeless shelter, some marched through a shopping mall without masks, and among the thousands of Canadian flags, a few had swastikas drawn on them. But the truth is that the protesters were, on the whole, mostly peaceful.

(For the record, the Shepherds of Good Hope homeless shelter was a bit more pointed in the way they described the harassment inflicted upon their staff, volunteers and the people they’re helping. And what’s a few swastikas among freedom-loving volk?)

This is a carbon copy of the Gamergate-adjacent #notallmen argument pushing back on allegations of sexism and misogyny that grew into the #MeToo movement. Here, it’s couched in the language of, sure, there may have been a few Nazis in the crowd, but that’s no reason to discredit the rest of the crowd. Both cases attempt to redirect our sympathy, from the people actually experiencing the harassment (Ottawa residents, in this case) toward protesters (honest people who are just interested in ethics in vaccine mandates).

Protesters who really are just concerned about the vaccine mandates. Back to the editorial:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took a particularly personal and divisive line of attack against the protesters who took to the streets of downtown Ottawa this past weekend.

Given that the misnamed Freedom Convoy and those who gathered around it want an end to vaccine mandates, or even an end to vaccines, the PM was of course right to reject these calls. Obviously.

However, in responding to the people honking horns in front of his office, the PM went far beyond just dismissing their demands. Instead, from Mr. Trudeau on down, ministers and MPs spoke words that seemed designed to polarize and radicalize the situation, by demonizing the protesters rather that calmly refuting their ideas.

Somehow, in a week that featured people stealing food from a homeless shelter and actual Nazi flags, Justin Trudeau ends up as the bad guy. And gets Covid. Dude can’t catch a break.

The line in the sand

And here we get to the lesson that we should have learned from Gamergate, almost a decade ago. Trudeau is not “polariz[ing] and radicaliz[ing] the situation.” The situation is already polarized and radicalized. When a protest openly parades Nazi symbols, when a protest leader openly advocates the overthrow of the duly elected government, “the situation” is already polarized. It was polarized by the protesters.

It used to be, as recently as two weeks ago in Canada, maybe 2015 in the United States, that we generally agreed that Nazis were definitively beyond the pale. Now, the Globe and Mail is downplaying the open parading of fascist symbols and asking us to separate the messenger from the message. (They’re also asking us to ignore a lot of the messenger’s message, but anyway.)

Justin Trudeau, in calling out the protesters, is attempting to draw a line in the sand: if you truck with Nazis, you lose the right to be considered a legitimate player in Canadian politics.

This should not be controversial. Trudeau’s comments recognize that, as with Gamergate, vaccine talk disguises the protest’s “deeper, more violent and uncontrollable” underside and dark potential. We’ve seen where that leads in the United States. We really don’t want Canada to go down that path.

This doesn’t mean that it’s not OK to criticize vaccines, vaccine mandates or pretty much anything else, as the Globe seems to worry, because the protest is not about ethics in vaccine mandates. Condemning the protestors for their reprehensible actions is a sign that there are some lines that can’t be crossed in a liberal-democratic society.

If you, a well-meaning protester, are standing next to someone touting Nazi symbols, that should be a sign to get the hell away from them as soon as possible. And maybe to rethink your life choices.

Writing in the National Post, Tasha Kheiriddin makes a similar point:

Everyone in that crowd, including Poilievre, Lewis, and O’Toole had the chance — nay, the obligation — to call out the intolerance. Not after the images hit Twitter, but immediately. On the spot.

If you stand shoulder to shoulder with people who display racist symbols, and don’t tell them right then and there to leave your protest or take them down, you are not standing up for freedom. You are standing with hate. If you stand with people who verbally abuse hotel clerks and inflict 24-7 mayhem on an entire city, you are not standing up for freedom. You will be tarred with their hatred and become complicit in their agenda.

To quote retired Australian Lieutenant General David Morrison, the standard you walk past, is the standard you accept. That goes for politicians and protesters. Understanding this very basic point is the key to cutting through the Gamergate knot that seems to have confounded the Globe editorialists.

Gamergate eventually metastasized into the disastrous Trump presidency. This happened in part because media outlets treated dishonest arguments and far-right, anti-democratic extremists as legitimate. With its myopic editorial The Globe and Mail is repeating the same mistake. Hopefully more media outlets will follow Kheiriddin’s lead than the Globe’s.

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Truckers, Nazis and the battle for the Conservative Party’s soul

The past weekend’s FluTruxKlan gathering in my hometown of Ottawa had the feeling of a breaking point for the country. To read and see pictures and videos of Nazi flags paraded openly, of Canadian flags desecrated by swastikas, of soup kitchen workers assaulted by hooligans and food stolen from the homeless, of the defacing of the Terry Fox statute and jumping on the War Memorial, of a journalist being assaulted, and shutting down the downtown core for over two days (and counting) has been nothing short of shocking. The protesters’ open embrace of the worst symbols of hate, and disregard (to say the least) for their fellow Canadians – for the love of all that is good in the world, what kind of monster steals food from a homeless shelter? – is far beyond anything I’ve seen in and around Ottawa in my almost 50 years on the planet.

It’s obscene.

As bad as these Nazi-sympathizing, white-supremacist hooligans are on their own, what they tell us about the state of the Conservative party and right-wing conservative politics in Canada is absolutely terrifying.

Like most Canadians, Donald Trump’s election in 2016 got me wondering about whether Trumpism as a political movement, in all its racist, ignorant glory, would be possible in Canada. It wasn’t so much a question of whether Canadians are more or less racist than Americans: like any country we have our share of ignorant fools, and while noisy, the jackasses represent only a tiny minority of Canadians.

My main concern was was about the strength of our institutions to resist and hopefully reshape this toxic right-wing populism.

At the time, I figured the relative integrity of the Conservative party was our best hope to ensure that Trumpism wouldn’t be able to get a foothold here. The unhinged fools in any society need a way to make themselves heard. That the extremism that defines our time is largely a right-wing phenomenon gives right-wing parties – like the Conservatives – a singular responsibility to keep politics within acceptable boundaries – like, say, don’t pal around with Nazis. Or anybody who would think it’s completely cool to parade a Nazi flag in public. Or desecrate a Canadian flag with swastikas.

This should not be a high bar to clear.

The outsized role of the Conservative party in keeping know-nothing Trumpism out of Canada makes their party leadership elections enormously important for all Canadians, as I argued way back in 2016 on the eve of another Conservative leadership race.

Because of the way power is exercised in our system, party leadership races represent the most direct way we have as citizens to determine who will run the country. And even if you’re not conservative, all Canadians share an interest in ensuring that (to paraphrase conservative American humorist PJ O’Rourke discussing Hillary Clinton) when they’re wrong, they’ll be wrong within acceptable parameters.

In that vein, the 2017 election of Andrew Scheer was a welcome sign. He ran a relatively moderate campaign as a Harperite sans Stephen Harper’s accumulated baggage.

Whatever hope I had that the Conservatives could serve as a reliable breaker against a Trumpist tide, however, faded over the course of the pandemic. That the party selected Erin O’Toole, who lost as a moderate in 2017 and won in 2020 with the support of the party’s social conservative wing, was not an encouraging sign. It suggested a party at war with itself, with Red Toryism fading ever-deeper into the background. O’Toole’s craven embrace of social conservatives, meanwhile, ensured that he would have no solid ground upon which to stand if and when the Trumpist wing of the party seized its moment, as it seems to be doing. As Brian Mulroney says, you dance with the lady what brung ya.

The Ottawa debacle, meanwhile, has served as a litmus test of what the party stands for. In a more innocent time, most politicians, no matter their deepest beliefs, would steer clear not just of swastikas and Confederate flags, but events that held even the promise of swastikas – if only for fears about the hit to their electability. Again, not a high bar.

One might even hope that mainstream politicians could recognize the difference between legitimate protests and dangerous extremist nonsense. Some hints that this wasn’t about vaccine mandates: health care is a provincial, not federal, responsibility; the United States’ vaccine mandate is what’s keeping unvaccinated truckers out of the US; the vast, vast majority of truckers are vaccinated and the Canadian Trucking Alliance opposes these protests. Also: Nazi flags and stealing food from the homeless.

Instead, what we got was a weak leader meeting with the FTKers, Conservative MP Michael Cooper being interviewed at the protest while  “protesters behind him carried a defaced Canadian flag featuring a swastika,” and Ottawa-area MP Pierre Poilievre claiming, “The truckers I’ve met today have been peaceful, kind and patriotic.”

These are not, in my opinion, healthy developments for the country.

It is no comfort that O’Toole, Cooper and Poilievre are playing to a tiny minority of Canadians, or that O’Toole tried to walk back his support for the FTKers.

Here, the United States should serve as a warning. No matter how well the incumbent party is performing (your opinion may vary), when you have only one viable alternative governing party (sorry, NDP), at some point, that opposition party will win an election. Which is why it would be nice if that alternative would stop sucking up to the absolute worst (homeless-robbing, grave-dancing, Nazi-supporting, Terry Fox-disrespecting) elements of Canadian society.

As concerned as I am about a weak Conservative party led by a weak leader, one of the great things about living in a democracy is we can choose our leaders and vote the bums out. With the knives out for O’Toole, a Conservative leadership race is likely in the cards. This election will be at least partly a referendum on whether Canadians think that Nazi hooliganism has any place in our country.

At the moment, it’s not an encouraging sign that it’s the Pierre Poilievres of the party who seem to be agitating for change.

Still, if you’re a conservative who hates Nazis, or a non-partisan Canadian who would like to be governed by people with a basic grasp of fundamental human decency, watch for the announcement, join the party, and make your voice heard.

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Martin Regg Cohn and the mystery of the empty classrooms (Armchair quarterback edition)

In this morning’s Toronto Star, columnist Martin Regg Cohn presents us with a puzzler about the pandemic issue of the moment, university students and online teaching:

How to explain the incongruity of packing thousands of students into university dorms — with shared cafeteria meals (no masks) and shared showers (no clothes) — only to refuse them entry into classrooms on the pretext that professors might feel too close for comfort?

Regg Cohn blames this incongruity mostly on university administrations, for being slaves to “institutional inertia” and not bringing online courses back into the classroom once “provincial authorities gave the green light” in August for universities to allow students and faculty on campus, even as they allow students to live in residence. He also has a few choice words for us “aloof” university professors and our faculty associations for failing to get everyone back to in-person learning right this moment, at a time when the rest of society is mostly open and daily infection rates are relatively low.

Online teaching sucks

As a university professor at an Ontario university (Brock), please believe me when I say that I would like nothing more than to be back teaching in the classroom. Online teaching straight-up sucks. It can leave students adrift: last year a shocking number of my second-year students just didn’t bother to hand in their major end-of-term assignment. Our department’s teaching assistants reported similar difficulties in engaging students in their seminars. Zoom fatigue is real: teaching online is exhausting on a level I’d never imagined possible.

Most disturbingly, our graduate student teaching assistants reported problems with undergraduate students acting aggressively toward them in email communications. They attributed this behaviour in part to a lack of face-to-face interaction, since their students weren’t required to turn on their cameras. Unsurprisingly, our women TAs, themselves students in our Master’s program, bore the brunt of this abusive behaviour.

(Incidentally, improving the learning experience and making the online classroom more humane for everyone is one reason why, as Regg Cohn dismissively puts it, “professors can be heard hectoring and lecturing discouraged students to turn on their Zoom cameras, rather than logging on with a disembodied avatar.”)

Teaching online sucks. This whole pandemic sucks. Nobody – students, teachers, administrators – is having a good three years. Nothing about our current situation – nothing – is ideal.

Monday morning quarterbacking

So while I get Regg Cohn’s inchoate anger about this whole situation, his whole column smacks of lazy Monday morning armchair quarterbacking.

Regg Cohn’s entire argument can be boiled down to, “It’s late November, the government gave permission for universities to open up as cases were trending downward, and a big Fall wave didn’t materialize, so universities should’ve opened up.”

Let’s unpack this, shall we?

Predicting the future

Why are so many classes online now and why does it vary from university to university, when the pandemic, for the moment, seems to be receding? Three reasons:

First, back in May 2021, when we were planning the upcoming school year, none of us had any way to know what the Fall COVID season would look like.

Back in May, the Delta variant had yet to be named. Access to vaccines wasn’t yet open to everyone, and the federal government was still signalling that everyone who wanted a vaccine would be fully vaxxed by September. Given the two weeks needed for the vaccine to kick in, this would have meant immunity by mid-October. Right there, that’s half of your Fall term with less-than-full protection.

Also in May, the complete insanity of the anti-vaxx movement in Canada wasn’t yet on full display. And in the previous month, parents across the province rose as one to protest Doug Ford’s ridiculous, panicky attempt to close the province’s playgrounds, and also to give police so much power that even the police objected.

That was the context in which we were making decisions about how to teach in 2021-22. Those of us who moved our classes online are not “aloof”: we’re doing our very best to keep our students and ourselves safe, based on the information we have in front of us. Some people, programs, and universities chose in-person, others chose online, based on a combination of pandemic-related health concerns, an overwhelming desire to get back to the classroom, and – for administrators – budgetary concerns (on which more below).

Also, and Regg Cohn might be unaware of this, but faculty associations like Brock’s had to put enormous pressure on our university administrators to get them to implement the vaccine mandates that have made our campuses safe for his child, well ahead of the eventual Provincial directive. Even after Seneca first announced their vaccine mandate, university administrations mostly had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do the right thing. And even these mandates were not always as tight as they could’ve been, with some universities opting initially for attestation over proof of vaccination. This wasn’t the province acting to keep your child safe. It was university faculty associations and, eventually, university administrations. The Province was the last to the party.

Despite the underlying sense in Regg Cohn’s column that the pandemic is pretty much over and we can now get back to normal, the pandemic is very much still on, and this uncertainty still exists. Winter’s coming, and we’re going to be spending a lot of time in closed classrooms, facing a highly contagious airborne disease, with a still-substantial unvaccinated population. How many students and faculty do you know with underlying health issues that even now make them vulnerable to COVID? Should we throw them under the bus in the rush to get back to in-person learning in the midst of a pandemic? Whether or not to teach online isn’t the clear-cut issue Regg Cohn makes it out to be.

Full disclosure: knowing what we know now about how the pandemic has progressed, I would’ve taught in-person this semester. But if I were able to decide today how to deliver my Winter 2022 course, I’d take it online for the simple reason that we are still in the middle of a pandemic and I can’t predict the future. I don’t want one of my students, or myself, to be the last person to catch COVID during this pandemic.

Meanwhile, I understand that in at least one university, instructors won’t be able to ask students to mask up or to confirm any medical exemptions. I look forward to Regg Cohn’s late-January follow-up column.

Changes are easier to make when you’re not the one making them

Second, regardless of what Regg Cohn thinks of universities’ ability to move classes on a dime, it’s a real challenge to schedule thousands of classes for tens of thousands of students, both in terms of when they’re going to take place and where. At Brock, we had to make our final timetable and mode-of-delivery (online, in-person, hybrid) decisions in May.

For my part, because I assumed the pandemic would be winding down about now (ah, the innocent pre-Delta days), I asked to teach online in the Fall and in-person in the Winter.

At any rate, redoing these schedules in August, a week before the school term begins is, to be frank, an insane demand. Let alone once the school year’s begun.

And not just for administrators, but for teachers and students. I’ve tried to keep my lesson plans simple in the pandemic age, but for other professors, moving an online class offline would require completely revamping their entire teaching plan at the last second.

As annoying as this might be for teachers, it’s equally problematic for students. Students like, and deserve, to know what they’re getting into when they sign up for a course, and a big part of that is how the course will be delivered. This is why I only make in-course changes if it’s absolutely necessary, and only ever in a way that advantages all students. Students plan a large part of their lives around their course schedules, and any changes, no matter how popular with some students, will inconvenience others.

The Ford government doesn’t inspire confidence

Third, to be blunt, the Ford government has a terrible, terrible, terrible track record when it comes to sound COVID policy. So, why would anyone think that “well, the Ford government is opening up the economy, so things are probably okay” clinches any pandemic argument?

Remember the whole playgrounds and police powers thing?

Even when the Ford government gets it right, they get it wrong, doing the right thing weeks or months after they should’ve done it. They move only after the damage has begun to mount. We might be about the see the latest example of this destructive tendency with their lackadaisical approach to third shots.

This is not, in short, a government that deserves anyone’s trust around pandemic policy. They’ve consistently opened the province too early and instituted sane mitigation measures too late. They’ve pandered to anti-vaxxers rather than respecting the rights of the vast majority of Ontarians to be able to move freely without fear of contracting COVID. They waited until the last second to announce how a university system with hundreds of thousands of students and tens of thousands of workers should run in the Fall.

So you might understand why I don’t take Ford allowing universities to open up without social distancing as a sign that Ontario universities got online teaching wrong.

(Also, universities are mostly self-governing institutions, so it’s really not a surprise that different universities would take different approaches to dealing with the pandemic.)

All this is to say that online classes have persisted due to a mix of uncertainty, the bureaucratic and personal difficulties associated with upending an entire semester at the very last second, and the utter incompetence of the Ford government.

Is this ideal? Not in any way. Is it understandable? I think so. Given these limitations, if you were a teacher or university administrator, would you have acted any differently?

Packed residences: It’s all about budgets and survival

Things get really interesting with the mystery of the packed residences next to unoccupied classes. Regg Cohn blames bureaucratic inertia for this incongruous state of affairs. But it really comes down to money and a survival instinct.

I don’t know what it’s like at other universities, but when my school, Brock University, did the right thing last year and closed the campus, they also blew out their budget. Residences, food services, and parking fees account for a substantial amount of the university’s revenues. With those ancillary fees gone, Brock ended up running a deficit of millions of dollars.

Now, imagine you’re a Brock administrator in May 2021. You don’t know what the pandemic holds for Ontario in November 2021, but you do know that it would be tempting fate to run another monstrous deficit. You’re facing a provincial government that just let an Ontario university go bankrupt and that, two years previously, cut tuition fees by 10%, effectively reducing your overall budget. In these circumstances, it’s not unreasonable to wonder how the government would treat your university should you continue to hemorrhage money.

You have no way of knowing if the pandemic will get worse or better. But in addition to the pandemic, you’re also facing an existential threat that could be held at bay if you can get students enrolled and have faculty, staff, and students back on campus. Such situations can lend themselves to wishful thinking, or, put more positively, hoping for the best.

And so we end up in November 2021, with full residences and half-empty classrooms.

I’m much more understanding than Regg Cohn is of the choices university administrators have made with respect to residences. They’re not just responding to the pandemic or acting like a bunch of isolated bureaucrats: they’re trying to manage a dual financial and health crisis in the context of a government that is incompetent when it comes to health policy and actively hostile with respect to post-secondary education.

Again, is this an ideal situation? Not in any way, shape, or form.

Are “aloof” university professors to blame? Only to the extent that we lack Regg Cohn’s prescience.

Are befuddled, inert university bureaucrats to blame? I doubt you’d act much differently in their shoes.

If Regg Cohn is really interested in the effect of the pandemic on universities, he might want to think a bit more deeply about this wider context. And to remember that this pandemic isn’t over, and that none of us can predict the future.

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