Justin Trudeau has warned of an increasingly toxic atmosphere in Canadian public life, amplified by the anonymity of social media and disproportionately targeting women and visible minorities in politics and journalism.
Encounters with disgruntled constituents have long been accepted as a reality of Canadian politics, but the tradition of friendly debate has increasingly been replaced by racial slurs, threatening phone calls at night and fears for the safety of politicians’ families.
On a visit to the province of Alberta on Friday, Canada’s deputy prime minister, Chrystia Freeland, was accosted by a large man who hurled obscenities and called her a “traitor”. The incident, now under investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was quickly condemned by the leaders of all parties.
“Threats, violence, intimidation of any kind, are always unacceptable, and this kind of cowardly behavior threatens and undermines our democracy, and our values and openness and respect, upon which Canada was built,” Trudeau said on Monday.
Freeland’s condemnation of the incident in Alberta has prompted other women to share their experiences of misogyny and racism while serving in public office.
Jyoti Gondek, Calgary’s mayor, chronicled the “pain and fear” that comes with sustained harassment.
“During the 2017 civic election, I had a man call to tell me he knew where I lived and that I should watch out. He then confronted me in person at a public debate. He was about 6ft 2in, 200lbs,” she wrote on Twitter. “In an open area packed with people, he loomed over me to whisper that he had made that call, and he would make sure I lost the election. He then sat in the front row leering at me for the whole event.”
Gondek, who immigrated from the United Kingdom to Canadarecounted incidents where she was called racial slurs and told to “go back where [she] came from”.
“The cold reality is that we all know the deputy prime minister will be targeted again. We know I will be targeted again,” she wrote. “All the stories that are being shared by journalists and politicians should show you it will happen again. And the next time may result in injury or death.”
Former environment minister Catherine McKenna said the “chilling” video of the Alberta incident highlights the mounting threats politicians face “when we’re just trying to do our job”.
“I still get nervous. I look over my shoulder all the time. Anything that is weird, around my house, or when I’m out, I’m on it. I’m hyper-vigilant,” she told the Guardian.
During her time as environment minister, the threats and harassment “started jumping offline” and manifesting in public ways.
Her campaign office was defaced. A man visited her office looking for McKenna and screaming at her staff. She was accosted when out with her family.
“It’s actually traumatizing when we compartmentalize it all. That’s why I’m so mad right now. And I’m just calling it out, because it’s really for my current colleagues, but also for all women in politics… We need to be serious, because someone could get killed, and that is terrifying.”
Spending on security for lawmakers has increased in the UK since the assassination of Jo Cox in 2016, when she was killed before meeting with constituents. And in the United States, the safety of public officials has become a greater focus following the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in 2011 and the foiled terror plot to kidnap the Michigan governor, Gretchen Whitmer.
In early summer, Canada’s public safety minister, Marco Mendicino, said lawmakers would get panic buttons amid a rise in intimidation and harassment. Mendicino himself had received death threats after a bill to curb firearms.
“We have not taken this seriously enough in Canada. A panic button is not a serious thing,” said McKenna. “We need to look at models from other countries, where you have a dedicated service whose explicit mandate is to protect folks that hold high-profile offices.”
Following the incident with Freeland, Mendicino said his government was looking at all possible options, including security for cabinet ministers and parliamentarians.
Mounting partisanship and the echo chamber of social media have often been blamed for the erosion of civility, but Canada’s minister for women and gender equality and youth – who has spoken frankly of racism she faced as a Black woman in the media – says members of visible minorities have long faced harassment and intimidation.
“This has been an ongoing situation, and while it’s just coming to light maybe for some people now, the temperature has been quite high, for many of us, for a long time,” Marci Ien told the Guardian. “The idea of things becoming demonstrably worse – they’ve always been pretty bad. It’s just the people that the vitriol was hurled at weren’t the deputy prime minister.”
In recent weeks, the Canadian Association of Journalists has condemned a wave of attacks against female journalists, with much of the harassment targeting the race and ethnicity of reporters.
Ien said her own experience in broadcasting prepared her for the vitriol she has faced as a cabinet minister. The decision to enter public office was “incredibly difficult” for her family, but the broader reckoning that spilled into Canada following the death of George Floyd in the United States prompted her to run, she said.
“Frankly, I wanted to be at the table. If you’re going to try and fix something or be part of a collaborative process, you need to be part of the system.”
But Ien warned that the “despicable” attack on Freeland would have a broader effect on women and marginalized groups wanting to enter politics, and could make it harder for lawmakers to meet openly – and safely – with constituents.
“I love the conversations that I can have on the streets with people. That’s something we have in this country that we should be proud of,” she said. “But when you have violence like this, it is an absolute deterrent for people – women in particular. They’ll look at that and go: ‘Why would I even want to do that? Why would I even want to get involved?’ And that’s the problem, because we need everybody at the table.”