Hate sells, but it doesn’t sell democracy

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There has to be a reasonable way for elected representatives to receive police protection when necessary.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on September 5, 2022.

OTTAWA—Former energy minister Marc Lalonde used to be accompanied by armed guards when he visited Alberta back in 1980.

As the minister responsible for the introduction of the National Energy Program, he and then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau were hated by many Albertans.

“Let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark” was a popular Alberta bumper sticker in the seventies.

Stephen Harper, in his pre-prime ministerial days, advocated for a firewall around Alberta, including a withdrawal from Medicare and the Canada Pension Plan, and replacement of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police by a provincial force.

Today, a major candidate for the United Conservative Party leadership is calling for Alberta sovereignty.

All this animus is not the result of social media or a twisted citizen. It is a political strategy practiced by some politicians to gain favour with constituents.

Hate sells. Just ask Donald Trump. Divisive campaign slogans drive votes. And if you can convince citizens that a politician from another party is an interloper, that is a guaranteed vote in your corner.

It may be a little rich for politicians who specialize in division to disavow the traitorous and misogynistic claims of an Albertan couple attacking Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.

Dog whistle politics sends a message out to ordinary citizens. The message is simple: it is okay to attack a politician from another province or party because they are not one of us. They are enemies out to plunder our fields and steal our oil.

Ironically, Freeland was born in Alberta.

As for the misogynistic slur directed at the minister, that should come as no surprise.

The good news about social media is that people can now be filmed saying horrible things, and risk being exposed for the miscreants that they are.

But the content is nothing new.

I was called a slut in the House of Commons. And that didn’t come from a random passerby, the insult was from the mouth of another Member of Parliament in the middle of a heated debate.

I was stalked by a constituent who had already been arrested for attacking a journalist. He entered Hamilton City Hall with a magazine bearing the image of a soldier carrying an Uzi, and slammed it on my mother’s desk. She was an alderman at the time, and he swore at her, and said that was the gun he was going to use to kill me.

I called the RCMP, which was responsible for ministerial protective details. Its local detachment was closed for the weekend, so early the next week, an officer got in touch to discourage me from pressing charges, claiming this action was clearly only the work of one crazy person.

I insisted, and when charges were laid, it was discovered that the individual had already stabbed a journalist.

Regular death threats, and a brick through my office window were common. My provincial counterpart, New Democrat Bob Mackenzie, suffered the firebombing of his office. The perpetrator, an angry constituent, was never arrested.

Those incidents occurred in one riding in one city in Canada.

Threats to politicians are nothing new. It will only be a matter of time before someone’s verbal attacks go deadly.

The government has ordered a review of Freeland’s security. But it should actually undertake a review of security measures for all Members of Parliament, especially when they are outside of Ottawa. Round-the-clock security may not be the answer, but there has to be a reasonable way for elected representatives to receive police protection when necessary.

An angry constituent can quickly turn into a dangerous constituent.

And the level of respect that used to be afforded politicians of all political stripes has gone by the wayside.

People think nothing of parading a Fuck Trudeau poster in their truck window or on their property. That is not against the law, but violent language can lead to violence.

The number of Canadians embracing the rhetoric of the Ottawa anti-vaxx occupiers is truly disturbing. Those politicians who align themselves with anti-democracy movements are also contributing to the problem.

Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre characterized the Freeland attack as “unacceptable” and said he has hired a private security firm to protect his wife from social media attacks.

But Poilievre’s whole campaign has been based on the same dynamic of people versus elites.

With the advent of social media, everyone is a critic. Civil discourse is past history.

But politicians who use venom as their tool of choice must bear some of the responsibility.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.