When words are no longer enough

If our government wants to defend democracy, they’re going to need to prove it

The capitol building of the United States of America located in Washington, D.C. (wikimedia.commons)

“This needs to stop before it gets out of hand.”

In 2017, I wrote that sentence in an article delving into the links between white supremacy and political radicalization in Canada. Over the years, I’ve watched as it’s become worse and worse while our government stood by doing little to address it.

Regardless of your interpretation of what “out of hand” means, I think after watching the events of Jan. 6 unfold, most of us can probably agree that that’s exactly what’s happened.

The assault on the Capitol building was a shocking moment for the world and an unmistakable demonstration of the power that extremism has reached in the West. Our leaders need to understand that this might be the best chance they have to do something meaningful about it.

“We have a responsibility as Canadians to continue to lead with respect, to engage substantially with different points of view and to never resort to violence as a way of impacting public discourse,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a national address afterward.

“That is something that Canadians have recommitted to across the country over these past days and we will continue to be extremely vigilant to remember that the choices we make as leaders, as politicians, have consequences,” he said.

Sadly, the “choices” the current leadership has made over the last few years essentially amounted to doing nothing while the forces that caused this continued to grow in scope and power.

They chose to stand by and let extremists and bullies bludgeon democratic processes in the States and in Hong Kong. They chose to allow social media giants to monetize distortions of the truth while undercutting responsible and ethical journalism in Canada. They chose to let xenophobia, denialism, and anti-intellectualism foment unchallenged in the election with the People’s Party.

They chose not to respond when the RCMP commissioner they appointed admitted to “struggling” with the definition of systemic racism. They chose not to enforce travel restrictions on government officials who hypocritically left the country for vacations during a global pandemic, further solidifying public mistrust and undermining their credibility as responsible democratic leaders.

Every time that our leaders chose not to act when they clearly could and should have, they enabled and directly helped these anti-democratic movements gain traction and power.

These were their choices, and the assault on the Capitol was just one of the associated consequences. The situation we are in now is the culmination of a multitude of leadership failures, and that needs to change quickly if we don’t want the same thing happening here.

They can start by clearly and unambiguously denouncing Trump’s supporters. The NDP has already taken a first step in calling for the Proud Boys to be designated a terrorist organization. The day after his loyalists broke into the seat of democracy in the States, small groups of people rallied in his support across this country. To blame Trump for inciting the riot without saying a word about the demonstrators who support him in this country is exactly the kind of non-response that made this nightmare possible.

There are more things they can do, like enacting meaningful consequences and penalties for encouraging and spreading misinformation. There is already precedent for this in the Broadcast Act, which prohibits licensed news organizations from publishing false or misleading news.

Denouncing Trump’s lies about the election being rigged is one thing, how about denouncing similar claims made by a Conservative Party online ad before it was hastily taken down on Jan. 8?

They should pass laws that promote political advertising transparency. If corporations receive bad press for donating to political groups that utilize conspiracy theories or racism, they usually pull their funding.

They could pass policies which safeguard responsible news reporting, invest in education that prioritizes critical thinking and rationality, or mandate that all political parties and MPs subject their communications and rhetoric to rigorous fact-checking by third-parties. They could do a number of things instead of just talking about it and shaking their heads.

What happened at the Capitol building shows us that we may have reached a turning point. Whether it’s a turn for the worse or a turn for the better depends entirely on what our leaders’ response will be to this unmistakable challenge to democracy.

Once again, they need to make a choice. And this time, I hope they choose to act. Because their actions, not their words, will set the precedent and determine the consequences for the years ahead.