Humboldt Broncos, Nora Loreto, and the difficult questions that come with grief

in Opinion by

The tragedy in Saskatchewan has touched people across the country.

But it’s also revealed a darker dimension to the country’s passions. On April 8, Montreal-based journalist Nora Loreto raised some difficult truths on Twitter. She responded to the outpouring of cash—a Canadian record for Gofundme—by noting that “the maleness, the youthfulness and the whiteness of the victims are… playing a significant role. I don’t want less for the families and survivors of this tragedy. I want justice and more for so many other grieving parents and communities.”

The response was swift: far-right organizers who regularly troll her social media presence launched an all-out campaign to attack her. She has received thousands of vitriolic messages, death threats, rape threats, and more. Mainstream corporate media picked up the onslaught, with editorials published in papers like the Toronto Sun also attacking her.

There are few of us who haven’t seen some friend or relative post some version of the handy far-right social media graphics attacking her, spinning attacks on her into a bizarre form of solidarity with Humboldt.

This is the part that we need to be concerned about. The threats and harassment of Loreto are terrible in themselves. On a broader level what’s also deeply troubling is what it says about Canadians’ ability to remain immune from the sort of base and primal partisan hatreds which grip places like the US right now. As Canadians, we’ve spent the better part of the past year watching US political drama unfold with a smirking sense of smug and mocking superiority. We shake our heads incredulously at the Americans we see who get caught up in the partisan hatred which seems to have gripped that country, at the violence-spewing half-truths they fire at each other on social media, on television talk-shows, on radio programs and in person. And we wonder how people can ever be so gullible, so gratuitously and block-headedly aggressive, so quick to accept partisan half-truths spread by others. We marvel how they can choose to let their worst inner angers erupt, instead of reflecting seriously on the questions and problems they collectively face.

Yet the speed with which the campaign to smear and attack Loreto has spread offers us a sad glimpse that Canadians are not immune to the politics of hate and half-truths that grip the US.

It’s tragically ironic that barely a month before the Humboldt accident, this site ran an article by renowned journalist Ed Finn warning of the fatal and disproportionate dangers of the Canadian trucking industry. The Canadian Owner-Operators’ Cooperative—a trucking advocacy organization—has been struggling to draw attention to the staggering rise in preventable fatal trucking accidents on our nation’s highways. Over the past decade, they note, the number of large trucks on the country’s highways has risen from 740,000 to more than 1,200,000. And they have double the fatal accident rate of other vehicles, killing thousands of Canadians annually and injuring about 10,000. At the same time as numbers of large trucks have grown, hours of service have also grown (with little regulation and pressures on truckers to work longer and more gruelling hours for less pay) and training is inadequate.

Now, it’s important to note that the Humboldt accident is still under investigation and we do not know the cause of the crash or who, if anyone, was responsible. But it is also true that trucks in Canada pose far greater danger than they need to, and cause tremendous carnage, and that these tragic realities could be tackled much more effectively, if the political will were there.

So far, it has not been. And those who have been fighting very loudly for a safer trucking industry, and safer roads, have been largely ignored—by politicians, parties, and public alike.

Dealing with grief

Loreto’s point, as I take it, was a very legitimate one. As others have pointed out, we as Canadians have tremendous difficulty knowing how to deal with grief, particularly the sort of collective grief that’s gripped the country as it mourns the deaths of a group of young children.

The notion that we ought to deal with our grief by throwing money at it is, fundamentally, rather perverse. What precisely is all that money supposed to accomplish? Certainly, there ought to be generosity and care for the grieving families, who ought not to have to worry at this time about many of the quotidian troubles they would otherwise face. But $10 million? What exactly will that accomplish?

And it is true, as Loreto has observed, that there are other serious woes which require national attention. There is an epidemic of tuberculosis among Indigenous and northern children which is largely being ignored. There are thousands of Indigenous families with missing and murdered relatives who are unable to achieve closure or find their missing relatives both because of lack of police and government attention but also because of a lack of the material support they require. For that matter, there is the deep-seated problem of child poverty and homelessness in this country. Why does it assuage our collective grief to part with our money on a cause where it cannot save the lives of children, instead of directing it toward Canadians who are currently suffering and who could actually be saved?

And it is true, as Loreto has observed, that the country is demonstrably more prone to rallying with its dollars in support of white victims than Indigenous or other non-white victims. It’s an awkward truth, but a truth, as evidenced by the $9 million Gofundme campaign contrasted with unreached targets for fundraising campaigns in support of black Canadian or Indigenous victims (for instance, the Gofundme campaign launched in support of the family of Pierre Coriolan, a black man with mental illness who was killed by Montreal police last year. His family are seeking a mere $20,000 to help with legal costs to achieve justice for their murdered father. They launched the campaign in February, and to date have raised less than half the amount they’re seeking).

Can we imagine the impact it might have, if local printing companies offered free banners and badges for those wishing to draw attention to the crisis surrounding Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG)? If schools encouraged students to wear items honouring and remembering them? Or the impact it might have on spurring political action if there were people lined up at 8:00 in the morning to obtain MMIWG banners?

Or if we are spurred to action by this tragedy, why don’t we direct our energy toward fighting to change the lax regulations which currently permit so many other needless deaths caused by trucks on our nation’s highways? How many of those who voted for the parties responsible for inaction on trucking regulations, have also wound up donating dollars to the families of the victims of this tragedy, which might have been entirely preventable?

This is not to criticize those who have made generous donations in response to the grief that we all very rightly feel at this time. But it is to remind us, as Loreto so courageously did, that grief and sympathy is often selective in this country. It’s only human that some tragedies wrench our feelings in different ways than others. But it’s important for us to soberly recognize and acknowledge the fact, and support and respect those like Loreto who remind us of it, even and especially when our passions are at their most raw. As George Orwell wrote, “[E]veryone is utterly heartless toward people who are outside the immediate range of his interests and sympathies. What is most striking of all is the way sympathy can be turned on or off like a tap according to political expediency…I am not thinking of lying for political ends, but of actual changes in subjective feeling.” And then later: “The emotional urges which are inescapable, and are perhaps even necessary to political action, should be able to sit side by side with an acceptance of reality.”

The point is this: there are many ways to channel our grief and to seek positive change in the wake of this tragedy. Sparking a public dialogue about what is a sensible way to make this country better, particularly for suffering children and families whose lives can still be saved, is a very important intervention to make. However many millions of dollars the fund raises will not, sad to say, bring the children back, nor will it improve the laws to prevent further tragedies on our roads. But if we have money we want to contribute toward good causes, there are a great number where the lives of living children and their families could be immensely improved. And wouldn’t that be the greatest testament and legacy to make in the name of the children lost through this tragedy?

There is one other testament we could make on their behalf: a commitment to uphold the sense of basic decency which distinguishes us from Trump-like hatred and vitriol, and to listen with respect when people like Nora Loreto have the courage to speak or raise difficult questions. Democracy and free speech are, surely, a great and generous legacy to bequeath to a mourning generation.