I started writing this piece yesterday evening in my home in Ottawa, on the traditional, unceded territories of the Algonquin Nation. It was not a typical Sunday evening by any stretch of the imagination. Since last Friday we have been surrounded by the sounds of trucks and have seen large numbers of protesters showing their support for the Rally for Freedom.
As numerous press and eye-witness accounts have made clear, what started as a protest against the federal government’s vaccine mandate for cross-border truck drivers has grown into an outlet for all kinds of pandemic-related frustrations, and anger generally. What reports have underlined is that the protest has also become a vehicle for hate, as though we haven’t all been struggling and made miserable by the effects of the pandemic.
On Friday evening, a Chinese-Canadian friend texted me to say:
“Heads up, there are Confederate flags, folks with blatant racist clothes downtown.”
His fear was palpable, and his text sent my adrenaline rushing. I too was immediately fearful in a way that was more immediate and very different from just hearing the sounds of truck motors and horns. We both live downtown, and we didn’t know whether it was okay for us to be out on the streets.
I texted back: “Thanks for letting us know. Stay safe.”
With this exchange, my mind immediately turned to historian Tyler Stovall’s work White Freedom: The History of a Racial Idea (Princeton University Press, 2021). In the book, Stovall makes the simple argument that freedom has long been a powerful animating force among liberal democracies – and also a deeply damaging one. As Stovall argues, freedom is a thoroughly racialized concept. He writes to “believe in freedom, specifically in one’s entitlement to freedom was (and I would add, is) a key component of white supremacy”.
To make this point, Stovall traces ideas of freedom to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and notes how they played out in different ways depending on race. White pirates were romanticized, the pirates of the Barbary coast of North Africa were not. Stovall also turns his attention to powerful symbols such as the Statue of Liberty and notes that the statue’s original design, which was overtly emancipatory and featured prominent broken chains, was changed out of fear it would encourage further ideas of freedom amongst formerly enslaved populations. Moreover, as Stovall details, freedom has been structurally protected through property ownership and enfranchisement laws, systems which have consistently favoured white people (hence the big fights over voting laws in the US currently). Looking at the history of the civil rights movement in the United States and decolonization movements across Africa, Stovall observes, “people of colour have had to fight for inclusion into the idea of freedom.” He notes, “Those struggles have had their victories but also their defeats, and have never succeeded in completely destroying the relationship between freedom and race in the modern world.”
Stovall largely ignores Indigenous ideas about collective responsibilities, and glosses over some key issues about the working of freedom at the international level during the cold war, but overall, his argument is very compelling. Stovall points to a fundamental paradox at play in the notion of freedom; it is at once a potentially liberating concept and an entirely oppressive one when people don’t share a sense of freedom, or value it in the same way. Although the Rally for Freedom protesters believe that they are champions of freedom; it doesn’t feel like that to people in Ottawa whose children cannot attend school, who have had to close their businesses, whose workplaces have been disrupted, and who wonder how it will all end. It doesn’t feel like freedom to people who aren’t white, or who have been the target of hateful messages.The image that has lingered with me from the weekend is of seeing a lone woman standing in her doorway on King Edward Avenue where a number of trucks had parked. Horns were honking, people were yelling. She looked tired, desperate, and trapped. The people on the street were jubilant.
Although Stovall does not focus on the Canadian context in his analysis, it is important to note that the idea of freedom has also held considerable sway in this country. The first part of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms contains the key sentence that the rights and freedoms set out in the charter are “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” The Charter assumes and insists that Canada is a free society. The second part is a list of fundamental freedoms, not rights (those come later). According to the charter, everyone has the following four fundamental freedoms:
- freedom of conscience and religion;
- freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
- freedom of peaceful assembly; and
- freedom of association.
It’s interesting reading this part of the constitution in terms of the Rally for Freedom. There is nothing in it about the freedom to feel safe, though of course this could easily be considered a fundamental freedom (especially for victims of violence – and let’s be clear – racist symbols and language are violent). There is also nothing in the charter about how to reconcile freedoms; nothing about the fact that freedom for some comes at the expense of others. The protesters clearly believe they are exercising their freedom of peaceful assembly and their freedom of conscience, but there is nothing peaceful about racism and hate, and Canada has long struggled to reconcile freedom of expression with anti-hate speech legislation.
Importantly, as Stovall writes, “except for some believers in libertarianism and anarchism, freedom has generally not been an end in and of itself.” Is freedom the end goal here? Maybe for some, but the idea of freedom is also being used in very dangerous ways. That there were Confederate flags, swastikas, and other racist symbols and imagery on the streets of Ottawa during a protest that is in theory about public health policies is a serious problem. It should be of concern to people on all sides of the mandate debates. It’s not just that rhetoric of freedom is being hijacked for violent purposes. It shows how the very concept of freedom is a problem when it is used as entitlement, and as Tyler Stovall argues, it has long been used in this way. It’s one reason why the idea of freedom has been so compelling.
Nothing in the present circumstances suggests that things have changed, which means that regardless of how the current mandate debate plays out, our society has a long way to go in terms of how we think about our relationships with, and to, one another. Thinking about the costs of freedom, and collective responsibility instead of individual freedoms, might be one way to move forward.
Laura Madokoro is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Carleton University and a member of the Active History Editorial Collective.
 Tyler Stovall, White Freedom: The History of a Racial Idea (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021), 11. In putting this piece together, I was saddened to learn that Dr. Stovall passed away in December 2021.
 Stovall, 7.
 The idea of enshrining freedom from fear, or as I call it the freedom to be safe, is not without precedent. In 1941, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave what has become known as his Four Freedoms speech in which “freedom from fear” was one. The other three were: Freedom of speech, freedom of worship and freedom from want. Seven years later, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed that “freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.”
 This struggle has become more pronounced in the era of social media: Linda McKay-Panos, “Can Canada Effectively Address Hate and Racial Discrimination on Social Media?” LawNow 45 (2020), 16-19.
 Stovall, 320.