No more easy scapegoats

Niki Ashton and our collective loss of compassion and critical thought

Ashton speaking at an anti Bill C-262 protest in June 2019, photo taken from her Facebook page

Observing the swift and merciless backlash against Niki Ashton upon engaging in non-discretionary travel after being granted compassionate entry into Greece has been a painful reminder of how COVID-19 has pitted us against one another as we seek easy scapegoats to blame for the collective anxiety that has dominated much of our lives since March.

For the sin of traveling to be with her ailing grandmother, the Member of Parliament for Churchill — Keewatinook Aski and former New Democratic Party (NDP) leadership contender has been stripped of her critic roles within the party and dragged through the mud online.

The cruelty of NDP leadership
The reprisals from NDP leadership are far from surprising. Many high-ranking officials and advisors have resented Ashton for years and have tirelessly attempted to stifle her. In recent memory, the resentment ran so deep that she was the only ballot candidate to not receive a donation from former National Director Brad Lavigne during the last leadership race. And though Lavigne’s pettiness was laughworthy at the time, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s choice to exploit his former rival’s decision is as sickening as it was predictable.

After all, Ashton is also widely seen as the strongest ecosocialist MP within the NDP, and is known to not always toe the party line on certain issues, most notably on questions surrounding Palestinian sovereignty. It was only a matter of time before Singh would find reason to push her aside, though the justification he finally landed on to do so is deeply unsettling, particularly in light of his own questionable decisions to abandon his home riding of Burnaby to move in with his brother and parents in Ottawa, and mingle with Gen Z pop stars.

But beyond Singh’s reprimand, what shocks me most in this affair is the outcry from many party members and self-identified leftists. Some of the criticism leveled against Ashton is over the perceived recklessness of her actions, despite the fact that public health agencies in both countries deem non-discretionary travel for compassionate reasons to be a necessary and low-risk activity to engage in.

But otherwise, most of her critics seem fixated on what they consider to be an apparent double standard. Why should Ashton be allowed to see her dying loved one, when others have not been able to experience similar closure since March?

Suffering for suffering’s sake
Yes, many in Canada have not been able to be with loved ones in their dying moments, particularly if they are in long-term care homes or badly hit hospitals, but if Greece saw it fit to grant Ashton compassionate entry to be by her grandmother’s side, there is no reason to deny them both those final moments.

Had I been unable to visit a dying loved one because local health regulations or institutional policies forbade it, I would still entirely support people who get to do so if the jurisdictions they are traveling to and from allow it. Moreover, I would be genuinely happy that they got to experience a certain closure, even if it had been denied to me.

This inwards outlook also reminds me of those who are against eliminating tuition fees or student debt because they themselves had to pay astronomical fees or worked hard to settle their debts. Beyond being a bad take, it is also an inherently conservative one and reinforces the status quo and stagnation.

When did it become okay to wish hardships upon another because of our own history of struggles? Why must we engage in a race to the bottom? Shouldn’t we want others not to experience undue suffering? Visiting a dying loved one is far from a joyful occasion, but why would deny somebody that experience if it can be done safely in respect of regional health guidelines? Other people’s emotional and spiritual journeys have nothing to do with us, and should not be defined or tethered to our own experiences.

Non-discretionary travel exists for a reason
People accuse Ashton of receiving special treatment to travel, which is factually untrue.

If I had a dying relative in Greece, I too would be granted entry on compassionate grounds. Epidemiologists and policy experts from public health agencies in both countries have established rules for people in such situations, and there are strict measures to follow before and after travel to minimize the risk of transmission.

Bereavement and visiting ailing relatives are considered valid justifications for non-discretionary travel, and the reason public health discourages discretionary travel is so that people who must travel for non-discretionary purposes be surrounded by fewer travelers.

As progressives, we cannot on one hand pride ourselves on “respecting the science” while simultaneously rejecting the recommendations that scientists have put in place.

Screen capture for the Public Health Agency of Canada’s website that allows for individuals limited release from forced quarantine for bereavement or compassionate care. A further sign of how seriously they take the essentialness of both.

Beyond the fact that I would also be allowed entry, we should focus on how I, like Ashton, would also be able to do so. I work in a unionized environment and my salary and working conditions are protected by a collective agreement that make such travel and the subsequent obligatory quarantine far easier to manage than for most Canadians. We should be labouring for all workers to have such advantageous conditions, not blaming others for spending time with dying loved one when regional public health allows for it.

No more easy scapegoats
Instead of harping on how Ashton should have said goodbye via Zoom, we should examine why the situation in Canada is so dire that so many of our dead departed without a friend or family member in sight.

Let us concentrate our anger on holding our representatives (including Ashton) accountable for the disastrous state of our long-term care homes and the chronic underfunding of our health sector which ultimately led to the mess we are presently in.

We have spent far too much time blaming the actions and movements of individuals throughout this whole ordeal, which is precisely how the purveyors of neoliberalism wants us to view the world.

Yes, certain individual actions may unnecessarily exacerbate the crisis, but by pointing fingers at the party-goers and the snow-birders and and the chin-maskers and all the other easy scapegoats of the world, we are missing the opportunity to build a movement to overhaul the economic and political systems that have led to the near-complete deterioration of our social fabric over the course of the last half century.

Solidarity with Niki Ashton in these trying times that have been made all the more difficult by the NDP leadership and a lack of compassion from many of her supporters that do not seem to understand the difference between discretionary and non-discretionary travel.

Shame on each and every person at the NDP headquarters who made the call to exploit her personal grief for their own political gain. And may we labour so that 2021 finally be the year brilliant and strong-willed women not have to pay the price for the fears and insecurities of power-wielding men.



Dans l’ombre.

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