Commentary: A once safe city felt unfamiliar

Hundreds gather in front of the New Brunswick legislature in Fredericton, N.B. to protest COVID-19 public health measures on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022. (Aaron Sousa/AQ)

I live in downtown Fredericton. A normally prime location within walking distance of most places and kind people to pass on the street.

But this weekend was different.

From Feb. 11-13, I felt unsafe in my downtown apartment. I heard horns blasting through the apartment walls and smelled diesel in the air when I stepped outside. The once safe haven of my own bedroom felt unfamiliar.

I worked on a project for all of Saturday, taking the occasional break to cover my ears and just breathe.

I’m a disabled woman journalist, not exactly the target demographic for the “freedom convoy.” But my intersectionality is just one of the reasons I feared leaving my house. On Friday, I returned from a long night in the hospital’s emergency room. I was weak, tired and needed medication from the pharmacy.

I ran across the street moving as fast as I could towards the pharmacy, averting my eyes and ignoring the cries of “freedom!”

On my way in, I caught a glimpse of a red truck painted with “Mandate Freedom” across the side. Now, disregarding the re-sale value of that truck, I questioned the phrase.

Mandate freedom? But only your freedom, right? I watched a group of women get shouted at on the sidewalk as they shuffled along wearing their masks. What about their freedom? Shouldn’t the freedom to wear a mask go both ways?

I scooted back to my apartment and gawked out the window at the historically racist flags, like the Diagolon flag, that now plagued a city that used to feel safe. My Apple Watch clocked my heart rate at 132.

I watched as the protest garnered more people, a community of like-minded individuals. I can’t say I don’t understand because who doesn’t want to find a community? But, unfortunately, without COVID-19 mandates, community isn’t possible for me.

As someone who is immunocompromised, I lived most of the pandemic in fear. Fear for myself, fear for my family – fear is not a new emotion for me. But I’ve never felt fear quite like what I experienced watching the news in Ottawa or Toronto and then the fear when it inevitably rode into my city.

I’m in my fourth year studying journalism, a career that I’ve always viewed as noble and thrilling. But as I scrolled through my Twitter feed this week, I saw journalists being attacked and verbally abused. It made me question the career path that I’ve dreamed of for my whole life.

I saw a reporter in Ottawa, who took the same St. Thomas University program as me, being attacked on Twitter. Not for his profession, but for his appearance. I think all journalists expect backlash, especially during a time when terms like “fake news” and “mainstream media” seem to be everywhere. But attacks on appearances go too far. I looked through the Tweets, thinking about my own mobility challenges and wondered if I’ll have to hide my disability as a journalist in the future.

This whole “freedom convoy” started as a way to protest mandates, but it turned into so much more than that. It warped into an occupation of violence, hatred and separation.

Why the hate symbols? Why the abusive language? Why the attacking people for their “choice” to wear masks? Why the stolen phrases of “my body my choice” and “coercion is not consent”?

Why the irony?

This protest could’ve been respectful, but the racism and harassment turned it into something I can’t respect.

Find a community, exercise your right to protest – but when hate symbols and violence find their way into that community, that’s when it becomes unsafe for other communities.

I will continue to exercise my right to wear a mask, to get my vaccinations, to protect myself and my family. With an immune system so low, the mask makes me feel safe, it makes my family feel safe. I think we must remember that this pandemic affected everyone. It affected everyone in different ways. Some turned to protesting, but others turned to protective measures, like me.

I wear a mask because it makes me feel safe. So that is what I’ll do until I watch our hospitalizations go down and the strain on our essential workers decrease. I don’t feel forced; I feel protected.

Now to quote an iconic moment in Rupaul’s Drag Race history, “I’d like to keep it on please.”