Columnist Margaret Miller is a longtime Creston Valley resident. File photo

Columnist Margaret Miller is a longtime Creston Valley resident. File photo

Valley Views: The Freedom Debate

“In Canada, peaceful protest is a right, but arguments based on obvious generalization, a disregard for science or fear-mongering are not credible.”

Valley Views is a column by Margaret Miller

Saturdays in the Creston Valley means different things to different people. Pancake breakfast with the kids. A walk in the Wildlife Management Area. Groceries, the Farmers’ Market, Christmas shopping. For about 100 locals, the so-called anti-maskers, Saturday is protest day.

Creston has seen protests before. Teachers rallying in support of public education. Adults and kids calling for action to address climate change. Locals protesting Canadian immigration policies and others favouring inclusion.

We’ve seen messages scrawled on cardboard, protesters on sidewalks, a few in whimsical costumes. We’ve heard motorists honk their approval and a few unsavoury expressions of disapproval. Good old democracy in action.

Recently, I wandered downtown in my face mask to witness locals protest provincial health orders, to read their handheld signs and to try to make some sense of it all. About 80 adults and a few children were gathered on private property at the corner of Canyon Street and 16th Avenue.

Some held signs that included feel-good words like “rights and freedoms” and “peaceful assembly.” One protester with a “Love Over Fear” banner stood beside another with a more sinister “We are being fed lies” sign that included the image of a face mask. The speaker on the microphone, a grey-haired gentleman, warned listeners to never trust politicians and to never trust the media. Never?

In Canada, peaceful protest is a right, but arguments based on obvious generalization, a disregard for science or fear-mongering are not credible. Propaganda uses these tactics to distort the truth. I wondered why the “Love Over Fear” protester wasn’t standing on the opposite side of the street, and why the person with the “lies” sign failed to see the irony of the situation.

Yes, Crestonites are wrestling with big concepts like truth, freedom and rights. That’s important. These things matter. Some of the protest signs were strangely ambiguous, but one thing was painfully clear. One person’s understanding of truth or freedom is not necessarily the same as another’s. What most call “scientific evidence” becomes “lies” to a minority. For the misinformed, “public health mandate” translates to “tyranny.”

So how do we wade through this sea of words? Specifically, are public health regulations against our freedom? I went back to the source, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Yes, it guarantees “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression.” Regardless of race, colour, national origin, religion, age, gender identity or expression, we have the right to our own views. That’s fair. Our hearts and minds are our own.

But in Canada, the expression of freedom is not unlimited. It cannot convert to actions that might harm others. The Canadian Charter clearly states this. It recognizes the “supremacy of … the rule of law” and gives all persons “the right to life, liberty and security.”

Most of us get this. Laws place what the Charter calls “reasonable limits” on the actions of some to protect others. Speed limits reduce motor vehicle accidents. Non-smoking laws reduce exposure to second-hand smoke. And mask-wearing in public (coupled with social distancing and hand-washing) reduces the transmission of a novel virus.

Sadly, some individuals go so far as to suggest that the pandemic itself is a grand hoax. That’s a dangerously irresponsible claim. COVID-19 is all too real, and the advice of health professionals must be respected. It’s a dark day when science itself is questioned, when emotion replaces logic and when the actions of a few impact the well-being of others.

Protesters, you are certainly entitled to your opinions. Be thankful others allowed you to gather on private property and display your signs. But your protest ends there. If you choose to access community services and businesses, you must wear a mask and respect social distancing. Our rights matter too.

Happily, most people in our valley appear to be responding to the pandemic with cooperation and kindness. I thank the many service providers, business owners and employees who cheerfully don a mask to support health care workers and vulnerable members of our community.