After February

June, 2022
Ryan Hamilton, Blog Correspondent
Ryan Hamilton is a master's student in history, who can be alternatively found in archives or buying books he doesn't have space for.

February is the shortest month, but this past February had too many days that felt like lifetimes, as crisis after crisis pounded across our screens. The occupation of Ottawa dragged on for weeks before finally being brought to an end by the first use of the Emergencies Act in Canadian history. Then, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an unprovoked and unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine, so far killing thousands, displacing millions, and unleashing devastation and horror against Ukrainian cities. The world seems to be coming apart at the seams, and in March, we can feel each stitch breaking one by one.

These issues were not ones that we can just turn off the news and look away from. The helicopter constantly buzzing over campus and roads closed by police cars, all to prevent another occupation at Queen’s Park, made sure that those of us who were on campus could not forget what was happening in the capital. However, most of us were far from campus because the fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic kept us home, and away from each other, for most of February. Libraries and classrooms sat quiet and empty.

Crises do not come one after the other these days. They hit all at once, and feel so overwhelming that merely bearing witness to the world around us can feel like a full-time job. But then again, that is not something that is alien to us.

Our generation was born in the shadow of burning towers, raised amid crises both economic and political, and we finally came of age as the world locked down. The defining political emotion of the 21st century has been fear. Fear of terrorism, fear of climate change, fear of a virus, and fear of each other have defined our entire lives. But we are scared to mourn the historical era that feels like it is coming to an end, because we are scared of what will come next. Nationalism and fear have helped turn the fractures in the foundations of global democracy into cracks, and the building above is starting to tremble. If Putin’s War on Ukraine is a marker of a new age, then we may have much more to fear. Fear of even more wars, fears of an energy crisis that tears through our economy and the fear of a nuclear conflict which we hoped had been buried with the Cold War.

It is important to note that we in Toronto have been spared much of the worst of the 21st century. Despite all the very real changes present today, we have not lived through war in Canada. Our experience with COVID-19 was less disastrous than many of our peer countries, like the United States or the United Kingdom, to say nothing of those in the global south. That is a privilege we must remember. But acknowledgement of those privileges need not minimize what we see, too. There are others far less fortunate than us, but we can acknowledge that reality while recognizing that these are global problems which, to an extent, we all share. We can complain about the unfairness that it is all happening at this time, and acknowledge that we are spared the worst of it.

When faced with everything that happens, there is a strong temptation to turn away. Turn off the news, avert our gaze, and find refuge in our phones. But we cannot. We can shape the world we are inheriting, and we can prevent it from falling apart before it reaches us.

This is why Ukraine matters. For the past decade or more, a defining question has been rising around the world, and that question is a choice between democracy and dictatorship. Is democracy the future, or can it survive to meet the challenges of coming decades? That question has been asked before, but this time is different. That question is no longer reserved for Cold War battles between superpowers, but is a question that citizens of democracies now have to answer, too. A crisis of faith in democracy has spread a rot which threatens to bring it crashing down upon itself. Democracy and dictatorship have confronted each other at many front lines in recent years, from the streets of Myanmar and Polish courtrooms to the halls of the US Capitol. Today, that struggle is in Ukraine. Autocracy has been growing for years, but it is being struck a devastating blow by the courage and resilience of ordinary Ukrainians.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Ottawa occupation are not the same thing. One comes from the legacy of the Cold War and the imperialist dreams of the Russian President; the other comes from two years of COVID-19 and the resulting political radicalization. But they share a sense that things are falling apart, that our world is being replaced by something more unknown, that we are travelling into the future without a map.

How do we find hope in this world? Certainly, there are a variety of specific solutions to each crisis, such as sanctions on Russia and humanitarian assistance for Ukraine, but there are broader questions too. How do we engage in current events in a fearful world? Hope comes from the strength of a community. Hope comes from empathy with those both near and far. Find the causes you care about, go to meetings, knock on doors, and hope can come from knowing that there are others who care about the future and they far outnumber those who want to tear things down. Get involved yes, but community isn’t always about action. It’s also about relishing normality sometimes, and not letting the loudest voices define who we are.

If there it is one memory I will remember from February, it is this: on the fourteenth, I crossed Charles Street, closed down by two police cars. The thudding of a helicopter hovered overhead. In the cafe, all the tables and chairs were gone as an omicron precaution. In Ottawa, the Prime Minister was preparing to announce the invocation of the Emergencies Act. It felt like we were under siege; from the virus, from the protestors, from everywhere. Yet, the TV in the cafe that normally hums CP24 at all hours of the day was not playing the Prime Minister’s speech, or anything news-related at all. The TV was showing hockey. As I stood there watching hockey, I knew we would be ok. Life continues and the centre holds. We need to care, yes, but we cannot let it consume us. When we stand together, we need not let our challenges define us.

Crises do not come one after the other these days. They hit all at once, and feel so overwhelming that merely bearing witness to the world around us can feel like a full-time job. But then again, that is not something that is alien to us.

Join our mailing list to receive the latest posts and updates from our Acta.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This