It all falls down.
An open, democratic, market based society like Canada is far more fragile than we think. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Stephen Jay Gould, the famous American scientist wrote an article in one of our major national newspapers thanking Canadians (he was on one of the planes diverted to Newfoundland) for their hospitality. In the article he stressed that it took millions of acts of accommodation, respect for others and agreements to carry out contracts to construct the society, the airplanes, the towers and then to understand the obligation look after him and other stranded passengers. He claimed this positive reality far outweighed the deliberate acts of destruction perpetrated by the very few, no matter how devastating.
Yet the recent pipeline protests taking place across this country prove that there is another side to this coin. A very small number of angry idle people, who deliberately ignore this compact, can bring an entire country to its knees. And do not doubt that they can, without crashing any airliners or killing anyone at all. Railway lines first, then major highways, then an airport runway or three. It is countries like Canada that are most vulnerable to these kinds of acts. We are spread out. We rely on long distance transport for much of our industry and essential goods. We do not have the ability to police all of these routes. How many would it take? 500? 1000? If they are the ‘right’ kind of group protesting the ‘right’ thing it would be easy to find those numbers. In effect, 0.0002% of the population could stop this country cold.
These particular protests are not civil disobedience in the classical sense. These people are not willing to accept the law as written and go to jail on principle. Not at all. They reject the right of the country to judge the issues or them. They answer to a higher law, or follow vague hereditary rights, or want to continue to argue the case that was decided against them in the courts, our supposed final arbiter of what our compacts mean. But perhaps all of this is beside the point. It is the rejection of the entire idea of accommodation, legal and democratic processes and negotiated contractual agreements in favour of deeply held belief. Sound familiar?
It is almost a cliche to say that the semi anonymity of social media has coarsened our public debate and created more ideological extremes. (Never mind the constant degrading of the ideas and principles behind the formation of this culture, which according to Mr. Gould and by any objective standard, has accomplished so much.) But how can a society built on such a delicate structure survive if these extremes move off the screens and onto the railways and highways? And is it also a cliche to point out that the vast majority of Canadians, of all races, who want and need to continue to live in this society of process and agreement will soon tire of being controlled by those who do not? Then what?
Think for a moment what a protest by 20 or 30 people blocking a railway would look like in China. It would come to a quick and brutal end. Or what is happening in Hong Kong, which is in continual upheaval because the compact between the governed and the governors has broken down almost completely due to the increasing inclination of the government to minimize the rights of its citizens to the democratic and impartial legal processes we have.
Repression then, or chaos. Neither extreme is palatable to Canadians. But if we allow some the terrible freedom to ignore the basic principles of how this country works because of the nature of the issue, or the group involved, or our own conflicted history, the intricate machine that is our society will seize up and our remarkable but fragile accord could disintegrate entirely.