In my day, threats were few and far between. Today, they are becoming commonplace, and almost expected or socially acceptable. But the viral load on the shoulders of every Member of Parliament should cause us all to sit up and take note.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on October 25, 2021.
OTTAWA—A parliamentary murder in the United Kingdom has left many Canadian Members of Parliament questioning their own safety.
And well they should.
Much has been said about the toxic debates generated by the influence of social media.
And that toxicity can lead to harm.
The image of Jan. 6 on Capitol Hill is burnt into our collective memory. When a gang of anti-politicians can roam the halls of power in one of the world’s most vaunted democracies, can anyone really be protected?
Our own Parliament was stormed by a madman, forcing the prime minister Stephen Harper and everyone else into hiding.
Just last week a second British murder in five years was perpetrated on 38-year political veteran MP David Amess while in a church meeting with constituents.
He was stabbed multiple times by an assailant who was a self-described Islamic State supporter.
A previous British shooting and stabbing of member Jo Cox also occurred while she was preparing to meet constituents on the eve of Brexit in what the British call a parliamentary surgery.
Frankly, the surgery is most vulnerable as it involves riding meetings with constituents.
The unsung work of a Member of Parliament can often involve dealing with people who are under tremendous personal stress or even suffering acute episodes of mental illness.
And the reality is that once members exit the relative safety of the Parliamentary Precinct, they are most vulnerable in their home communities.
When I served in Parliament, I was regularly threatened, with a brick once sailing through my office window so hard it hit the back wall. Luckily, no one was injured.
Provincial Hamilton East colleague Bob Mackenzie wasn’t so lucky. His constituency assistant was burned when the riding office was firebombed by an irate citizen who escaped without ever being arrested.
At one point, a constituent was harassing my staff and leaving hundreds of bizarre messages on my telephone. The riding office is supposed to be part of the parliamentary process so instead of the local police, the RCMP provides security.
The harassing individual entered city hall, where my mother was an elected city councillor, and burst into her office, slapping down a Soldier of Fortune magazine featuring an armed man sporting an Uzi on the front cover.
The man announced to my startled mother that this was the weapon he was going to use to kill me. At that point, the RCMP was called but because it was Friday evening, there was no one on duty in Hamilton. The backup investigator was in London, some 120 kilometres away.
When an officer finally responded, he discouraged me from pursuing charges, but I insisted. It turned out the individual in question had already been convicting of stabbing a journalist.
Cabinet ministers receive more security support than ordinary members, with police patrols established where they have a residence in Ottawa.
But the real danger is in ridings, far away from regular police protection.
Canadian Members of Parliament will be seized of the issue when Parliament reopens because of their own fears, observing what has been happening across the pond and down south.
They also face the bold new world of cyber-stalking.
NDP MP Charlie Angus was the target of a two-month cyber-stalking campaign last year.
The Twitter feed of former minister Catherine McKenna recounts internet threats and real-time graffiti attacks at her local campaign office.
McKenna joined other female environment ministers involved in the climate action fight, all of whom experienced misogynistic attacks.
She was quoted last week in the media saying her biggest challenge as minister was feeling constantly on edge. “It was the threats, people verbally accosting my staff & defacing my constituency office & sending me smashed up Barbie dolls.”
In my day, those threats were few and far between. Today they are becoming commonplace, and almost expected or socially acceptable.
Therein lies the problem. The toxic vocabulary used during election campaigns by many political parties increases the danger.
And the negative view of all things political which permeates the social media world has made things more dangerous.
The aggressive behaviour of anti-vaxxers picketing hospitals gives us some idea of just how unhinged some people can be.
Indeed, when it comes to protests, politicians are suggesting they should happen in front of Parliament not medical facilities.
But the viral load on the shoulders of every Member of Parliament should cause us all to sit up and take note.
The deaths in the United Kingdom and Washington are harbingers of what could easily happen in Canada.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.