There has been a shocking rise in physical threats towards politicians

Doug Firby: There has been a shocking rise in physical threats towards politiciansI have wondered for years why anyone is willing to run for public office, knowing full well that their lives will come under intense scrutiny, with every word parsed and every past misdeed, even the minor ones, dragged up and put on public display.

Many of us have secrets from our past that we’d rather forget. Justin Trudeau, no doubt, would rather have kept his “black face” prank as a teacher under wraps. Ontario Premier Rob Ford has his high school drug dealing history to live with. And I sometimes wonder whether Alberta Premier Danielle Smith would like to forget some of her previous endorsements of quackery, such as promoting ivermectin as a cure for COVID.

Yet these and other politicians endure an onslaught of judgment daily for simply being human, which is to say, for making mistakes. True, some of those mistakes are ones we’d hope never to make ourselves, but they are mistakes all the same. It must take one huge ego and skin as thick as an elephant’s hide to drive these people to seek public office. Or an insatiable thirst for power, however fleeting.

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Verbal abuse, insults and mockery of politicians are as old as the profession itself. It is part of the rough-and-tumble game. What is no longer acceptable, however, is the growth in physical threats to our councillors, mayors, MLAs, MPPs and MPs.

Remember Climate Barbie? That was the demeaning label slapped on Catherine McKenna when she was the environment and sustainability minister in the first Trudeau government nine years ago. She was essentially hounded out of her role by an ever-escalating crescendo of ridicule, which culminated in an obscene “C-word” graffiti attack on her Ottawa office.

Since then, according to Patrick McDonnell, the Sergeant-at-Arms, MPs have been subjected to ever-more-threatening abuse via social media. McDonnell told the procedure and House affairs committee recently that his staff had opened eight files on threats or threatening behaviour directed at MPs in all of 2019. By 2023, that number had grown to 530. Online and in-person harassment increased seven-fold in the same period, he said.

As a result, more MPs are receiving protective services from the RCMP. The police force provided numbers that show it cost $2.5 million to protect parliamentarians between Apr. 1 and Dec. 31, 2023. That’s 40 percent more than the $1.8 million budget in the 12 months before that and 86 percent more than the $1.4 million spent in 2021-22. The prime minister’s security detail is over and above that amount.

Still, protection varies by jurisdiction. Citizens must wonder how aggressively authorities are willing to act in defence of public servants whose well-being is threatened. One case in Alberta underscores the point: Shannon Phillips, the Lethbridge-based former minister of the environment in the provincial NDP government of 2015-2019, was illegally spied on by two police officers who viewed her government’s land protection policies as a threat to their ability to ride off-highway vehicles (OHVs) freely.

Phillips filed a complaint with Calgary Police, which found that Lethbridge officer Keon Woronuk had conducted an unauthorized database search. Woronuk was subsequently convicted of five counts of violating the Police Act: the database search, singling her out for traffic enforcement, misleading supervisors and using his position for political reasons. The other officer, Jason Carrier, was convicted of two Police Act violations: being an accessory to Woronuk’s actions and failing to report them.

And yet, what was the penalty for the two? A two-year demotion for Woronuk and a one-year demotion for Carrier. Can you say slap on the wrist?

The incident was then investigated by the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT). A letter to Phillips this past week stated that the team “determined that there were reasonable grounds to believe that two officers had committed criminal offences by accessing Ms Phillips’ data.”

And yet, despite the ASIRT’s findings, Alberta’s Crown Prosecution Service stated it would not prosecute. “(The service’s) test for prosecution was not met and therefore these individuals will not be charged,” the letter to Phillips stated. Details of what meets “the test” were not disclosed.

It is to be hoped that federal politicians will find a higher standard of protection than Phillips has experienced.

I can’t help but feel that insults and threats are one of the consequences of the breakdown in citizen regard for our public institutions. Thanks in no small part to Trump, that obscene thug to the south of us, actions, thoughts and behaviour once considered beyond the pale have become so commonplace they are – if not acceptable – at least insignificant to a citizenry that should be outraged by such things. Like a train tumbling off the rails in slow motion, we are witnessing a great fall in social order that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men may never be able to put back together again.

And there is one other consequence for our embattled democracy. Smart, ethical, reasonable people who might have considered entering public service in the past are more likely to think twice about taking on a role that comes with immeasurable stress and very little thanks.

I don’t love most politicians. In fact, I am often astounded at how tone-deaf some of them can be. But the public doesn’t see the pressures and, at times, conflicting advice they get behind the scenes. More and more, it feels like they are the product of party sausage factories creating a product to be sold to voters rather than a leader.

But I know this. If all Canadians don’t relearn the rules of civil behaviour – and quickly – then the world of politics will evolve into a place that is attractive only to the sort of people we really don’t want to be there.

For the sake of all of us, we cannot live with that.

Doug Firby is an award-winning editorial writer with over four decades of experience working for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Ontario and western Canada. Previously, he served as Editorial Page Editor at the Calgary Herald.

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