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Alberta labour group calls for police to take action on ‘toxic rhetoric’ aimed at female politicians

WATCH ABOVE: The Alberta Federation of Labour wants people to think twice before making disparaging comments about politicians, especially women. While many agree with the group's suggestion police get involved, others say the public is becoming too sensitive. Julia Wong reports.

The Alberta Federation of Labour says the RCMP should actively pursue investigations into the “ugly and dangerous rhetoric” that is being directed at women in politics.

In an official statement, the AFL says extremists in the province are directing hate speech at female politicians.

The federation, which represents 29 public and private sector unions, also says political leaders in the province should stand up to the violent fringe elements in their own parties.

Last week, participants in a golf tournament held by the Big Country Oilmen’s Association were criticized by some for having a cutout of Premier Rachel Notley set up as a target so golfers could pelt her face with balls.

Watch below: A private golf tournament in southern Alberta has stirred up quite a bit of controversy. An oilmen’s group was trying to make a point about the NDP’s carbon tax but as Tom Vernon explains, they’re now being accused of generating threats of violence.

Alberta golf tourney incident tees up discussion on women in politics
Alberta golf tourney incident tees up discussion on women in politics

READ MORE: NDP say photo showing Rachel Notley’s head on golf target inappropriate

The incident came just days after British Labour Party MP Jo Cox was slain in a knife and gun attack that her husband says was motivated by her strong political beliefs, including her support for Syrian refugees and her work to keep Britain in the European Union.

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READ MORE: Husband says British MP Jo Cox ‘died for her views’

Notley has been the subject of death threats and earlier this year a man was charged after allegedly calling the officer of Environment Minister Shannon Phillips and threatening to shoot people over the carbon tax.

“When toxic rhetoric and behaviour … becomes normalized, it allows extremists to dehumanize women who don’t agree with them on political matters, helps them justify their deranged actions,” the federation said in its statement. “In short, violent speech begets violent acts.”

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The federation said many are willing to tolerate or offer excuses on behalf of those who exhibit misogynistic behaviour.

“But these are not jokes, they fuel hate, and hatred often leads to violence,” said the statement.

“Unless leaders on the political right take this seriously, work to elevate the discourse, and to combat the extremists in their own ranks, they will be morally responsible for the actions of their supporters.”

On Wednesday, Progressive Conservative and former deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk spoke to Global News about the AFL’s call for action and suggested the organization was mostly playing politics.

“Has this been spun out of proportion? Sure it has and that’s what AFL is trying to do,” he said. “They want to score some political points on this.”

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Lukaszuk went on to say that he was glad the AFL brought up the need to “start focusing on policies and not on individuals.”

He also implied he didn’t believe the concern should be for just female politicians but male politicians as well.

“I don’t believe it’s a gender issue, I think it’s an issue of being disrespectful to another person,” Lukasuk said.

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The former cabinet minister said the Oilmen members at the golf tournament likely had a “valid message” but that people are unlikely to listen to it now because of the way they tried to get their point across.

READ MORE: Farm safety bill spurs death threats against Alberta premier

Dana DiTomaso, president and partner of digital marketing agency Kick Point, said abuse towards politicians is rampant online and much of it is targeted towards female politicians.

“The abuse level that female politicians [face] is much more personal – talks about attacking them, there’s rape threats, there’s shooting threats. It’s not criticism per se. It’s ‘you should die’ threats,” she said.

“On the Internet, it’s an anonymous person. You can just rage, type out what you think, not realizing there is somebody that’s going to read that on the other end.”

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She supports the suggestion from the AFL, saying there needs to be harsher punishments towards those who are abusive on the Internet.

“Something has to be done. People aren’t necessarily going to wake up tomorrow and say, ‘Oh I should be more polite on Twitter.’ If there are no repercussions, people won’t see the need for change.”

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Steven Penney, a law professor at the University of Alberta, said the most likely charge to stem from an online comment would be uttering threats.

“The threat doesn’t require the person uttering the threat to actually intend to carry out the threat. Rather it requires a person to intend for the person to be intimidated or threatened by the communication. It’s whether or not there was an intent that the threat be taken seriously. If that’s done through an online communication, it’s just as much a threat if it’s done person-to-person,” he said.

Penney said there are challenges though.

“One might be the identity of the alleged threatener. Can you trace that person’s actual identity or is it something that’s anonymous? Another question might be if it’s done in an online context, is it going to be more difficult to prove that the threat was meant to be taken seriously, or is it done in a context of maybe overheated political rhetoric or discourse?”

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Alberta politicians aren’t the only ones dealing with the issue.

On Tuesday, Manitoba NDP politician Nahanni Fontaine spoke out, saying she is fed up with all the threats she and other women in politics are receiving.

She said she recently received a call telling her to “watch out” what she says in the legislature, adding that’s not something people in public office should have to deal with.

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She acknowledged that men can receive threats, too, but said the intimidation of women in politics is more common and dangerous, adding such threats could end up scaring women off from pursuing political careers.

Marina Banister, 21, is the chair of the Edmonton Youth Council and is pursuing a degree in political science at the University of Alberta.

She has received misogynistic comments in the past, particularly when she was the face behind the motion for councillors to be served vegan or vegetarian food at meetings.

She said it can be dissuading for young women to get involved in politics when the focus isn’t on the issue.

“No one wants to be talking to someone about an issue that they feel passionate about…and have the focus not be on the topics [but] on that person, they way they look, their gender, their sexuality,” she said.

Banister said all threats, whether directed at male or female politicians, should be taken seriously. She adds they won’t deter her from entering politics.

“Whenever I see a female politician be attacked, it honestly makes me want to get involved more to challenge that stereotype.”

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No one from the Alberta RCMP or Edmonton Police Service was available to comment on the suggestion from AFL.

-With files from CJOB, Julia Wong, Phil Heidenreich