Here we are, with new councils in North Grenville and Merrickvile-Wolford, a new Member of Parliament, and an M.P.P. sitting in the Ontario Cabinet in charge of municipalities. It would seem, on the face of it, that this should be a time of optimism and new possibilities. And, indeed, it is: a time to look forward to new beginnings in the hope that fresh blood, new ideas, and renewed energy and involvement will make our common future even better than our shared past. That potential remains, and only time will tell where this new road will lead us all.
But, and this is really a serious thought, the character of our public conversations is becoming more and more alarming, in spite of the positive side of life. It may not have started with Donald Trump. It may well be that it has lain relatively dormant for a long time, and is only now coming to the surface. But the recent visit to the area by Elizabeth May, Andrew Scheer and, especially, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has brought some really unsavoury aspects of our community to the surface.
It really doesn’t matter what political party you support: that is our right and privilege, and we are blessed in this country to have a good choice of parties to support. We have the right of free speech too, something that is deeply important and valued in our society, especially given the dire situation which exists in other countries. And that means we can mock, make fun of, or even decide to provide some serious commentary on our opponents, our democracy depends on these freedoms and choices.
But what was seen in this community over the past week is really disturbing. Some of the comments made on social media platforms, particularly about Justin Trudeau, clearly crossed a line that no citizen wants to see crossed. For goodness sake, he’s the Prime Minister of Canada, not just another Grit politician. That deserves some respect, surely? Yes, some people resent his wealth, his looks, his name, even his previous occupation. Criticise him and his Party, by all means, and cast aspersions on his government’s policies, if you like.
But the petty, immature and churlish comments made about him when he visited Kemptville last week were simply disgraceful. The work of really juvenile jerks, in fact. But these went even further than that: when references are made to assassins, then it’s time for the RCMP to get involved, and no doubt they will.
One Facebook page of a local media outlet had to be edited to delete more than one or two comments made there by people who live in this community. The ones that were left were mean-spirited, to say the least, but at least they stayed within the law. This raises some worrying questions.
There is no doubt that this kind of comment is becoming more common, especially since the rise to power of the U.S. President. Hate crimes are on the increase, and people are feeling free to be hateful and vicious in public arenas, such as Facebook. But the big question is not why this is happening, it is really: “Are these the ideas and attitudes that have always been there, but just hidden, because society would not appreciate them in the past?” Were we just being hypocritical in the past, pretending to be nice and well-mannered, or did these individuals only come out of the shadows because they now feel free to do so and speak their minds at last?
I am not a Liberal, or a Conservative either, but I have to admire the way in which Justin Trudeau, almost alone among world leaders, has stood up to bullies like Trump. His direct rebuke to Trump while signing the new trade agreement last weekend made one proud to be Canadian, as did his comments as he stood in the rain to honour WW2 dead in France. I can strenuously object, as I do, to his linking government funding for summer employment with a demand that recipient organisations make an implied statement in support of abortion. But that is my right, and his, and so we agree to disagree. It does not give me, or anyone else, the right to suggest that he be murdered when he visits this municipality. It should embarrass people to say some of the things about him that were said on Facebook, and, in other days, it would. But, for some reason, not any longer.
Do theses attitudes and comments do us any good? Do they represent who we are, or who we want to be? Is this how we want to be seen, as individuals or as a community? There was a time, in Ireland, when terrorists would commit some atrocity. Neighbours would go out on the streets together carrying signs that said: Not in my name.
As we begin a new phase in our political history, with new representatives at the municipal and federal level, can we not decide to have some dignity, some honour, in our dealings? Do we have to continue this slide into boorishness, hatred, malignant attitudes to our opponents. Because, while they are, perhaps, just opponents, they are people who feel differently about policies and programs. They are not enemies. And we must be better than that. We’re on the road to find out who we really are, and where we are going together. It is up to us to decide. Now some will accuse me of being holier than thou. Their opinion doesn’t matter.