Whose Freedom?

As published in the Winnipeg Free Press, February 16, 2023

By Jim Silver,

The Convoy that took over Ottawa for a month last year is meeting just outside Winnipeg this weekend. While the right to protest is an essential part of our democracy, it is important to look critically at this movement that has harboured white supremacist, libertarian and in some cases even fascist beliefs.  These ideas have originated most recently in the USA, but have a long and odious history elsewhere in the world.

Central to these dangerous ideas is a distorted sense of what freedom means. To these far-right people, freedom means not being constrained or limited in any way. It means nobody, and especially no government, can tell them what to do. An example in the USA is the demand to be free to own, and in a growing number of cases to carry openly, handguns and high-powered military-style weapons. Any restriction on their ownership of such weapons inspires shouts that their freedom is being taken away.

As a result, these far-right people are angry at and distrustful of government, and their large supply of anger is also directed at many others who are seeking, ironically, to use government policy to free themselves of discrimination and ill treatment of various kinds. All of this is fuelled by social media and wild conspiracy theories.

However, beneath the fears and anger are legitimate grievances. Many working class people and small business owners feel abandoned by governments. They feel that way because, to a considerable extent, they have been abandoned. The wealth their work produces is going disproportionately to a small minority.

Evidence can be found in a recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. It found that by 9:43 AM on January 3, 2021, the 100 highest paid CEOs in Canada had earned, on average, as much as the average Canadian worker earned that entire year. These corporate executives were paid 243 times as much as the average worker. The average worker made $58,800 in 2021; the 100 highest paid CEOs were paid an average of $14,100,000 each.

As their earnings soar ever upward, the marginal tax rates they pay and the tax rates applied to large corporations have plummeted over the past 40 years, while vast stores of wealth remain largely untaxed.

For the rest of us, housing prices have skyrocketed, and part-time poorly paid jobs are all that many can find.  Young people can no longer expect to do better than their parents. Their standard of living is in decline, and many fear it will be a permanent decline.

Making things worse, governments have relentlessly cut public spending over the past 40 years. The pandemic has revealed the real costs of such policies—a health care system on the verge of collapse, a lack of affordable housing that leaves human beings living in bus shelters, and growing numbers of working people barely able to meet their monthly payments.

We are all frustrated and even angered by these developments, and rightly so. But a small number—so far—are expressing their anger by aligning themselves with far-right organizations that pose a genuine danger to all of us.

Part of the solution to this threat may be to respond to the legitimate grievances motivating so many in the convoy. This would mean encouraging the replacement of their very individualistic notion of freedom with a positive understanding of freedom, by which democratically elected governments enact the policies needed to ensure that everyone has what they need to build a good life for themselves.

This requires that governments act now to reverse the 40-year trend to ever greater inequality. A small minority are becoming astonishingly wealthy, while most are left further and further behind. That needs to change before the far-right gains even more traction. We need higher rates of taxation on wealthy individuals and large corporations—some prominent economists are calling for a return to marginal tax rates in the 70 percent range, where they were in the 1950s and 1960s—and investment in meeting the real needs of the rest of us.

Many organizations and movements are working toward this better future. They deserve to be supported, especially because the dangerous ideas promoted by some in the convoy—ideas that are spreading rapidly in the US and are creeping across our border—represent a future that few of us want.


Jim Silver is Professor Emeritus at the University of Winnipeg and a Research Associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Mb.