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Government communication on COVID-19 contributed to ‘Freedom Convoy’ origin: report

Commissioner said social media also played a large part in then spreading misinformation
Snow falls as protesters stand by a semi-trailer truck on Wellington Street, on the 21st day of a protest against COVID-19 measures that had grown into a broader anti-government protest, in Ottawa, on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. Justice Paul Rouleau says the Canada Border Services Agency made a bad situation worse when it mishandled the announcement of a vaccine mandate for truckers early last year, amid rampant anger and false information around the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Justice Paul Rouleau says the Canada Border Services Agency made a bad situation worse when it mishandled the announcement of a vaccine mandate for truckers early last year, amid rampant anger and false information around the pandemic.

Rouleau pointed out the agency’s mistake in his more than 2,000-page report released last Friday, which concluded that the federal Liberal government was justified in invoking the Emergencies Act last winter to respond to “Freedom Convoy” protests in downtown Ottawa.

“Public health measures were not the only cause of the Freedom Convoy protests, but they were certainly an important one,” he wrote.

Rouleau’s task included exploring what contributed to the fervour that saw thousands of demonstrators take over the streets around Parliament Hill and block several border crossings with the United States.

He based his findings on hundreds of hours of testimony and thousands of documents submitted as evidence during the Public Order Emergency Commission’s hearings last fall.

Rouleau’s final report said that although the inquiry was not focused on the government response to COVID-19, Canadians felt confused by some of the messaging from officials.

It singled out an error by the border services agency last January, when it released a statement saying unvaccinated Canadian truckers would not need to quarantine after crossing the border, only to issue a correction reversing that position the next day.

“This back and forth in the government’s messaging about how unvaccinated commercial truckers would be treated at the border only exacerbated the negative sentiments surrounding the new border rules,” Rouleau wrote.

The image of the commercial truck driver proved to be a powerful symbol, the report suggested, conveying a message that everyday Canadians were having their lives turned upside down by COVID-19 health restrictions.

“This narrative was a contributing factor that helped to animate the Freedom Convoy.”

Rouleau concluded that the spread of false information on vaccination and the role of governments in stemming the spread of COVID-19 — both intentional and unintentional — played a major role in the protests’ formation and organization.

Social media served “as an accelerant for misinformation and disinformation,” he concluded.

Inaccurate information also came on display repeatedly during the inquiry hearings themselves, Rouleau wrote, as some key convoy leaders expressed what he called “conspiratorial views” during their testimony — namely Pat King and James Bauder, who are both facing criminal charges related to the protest.

“False beliefs that COVID-19 vaccines manipulate a person’s genes, social media feeds rife with homophobic or racist content and inaccurate reporting of important events all featured in the evidence before me,” he wrote.

The speed at which incorrect information can catch on was also evidenced by reaction to the Rouleau report itself, as false statements circulated online that the Ontario Court of Appeal justice is related to the family of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

When it came to COVID-19 restrictions themselves — virtually all of which were lifted last year — Rouleau said he accepts that they brought “genuine hardship” to Canadians, regardless of what benefit they carried.

Although some reacted with anger to the existence of these rules, Rouleau found that certain restrictions caused confusion that was “understandable.”

“In retrospect, rules prohibiting children from playing in outdoor playgrounds seem counter-productive given what is now known about how COVID-19 spreads,” he said.

“Rules that permitted corporate big box stores to remain open, while requiring small businesses that sold many of the same goods to close, were hard to understand or explain.”

Rouleau said it was unsurprising that at a time when the pandemic forced people to stay home, many took to social media to express their displeasure.

One of the 56 recommendations to come out of the commission calls for all levels of government to look at the societal impact of social media, including the spread of false information.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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