The growing frequency of harassment against Canadian public figures poses a “threat to democracy” that needs to be taken seriously, the country’s public safety minister is warning.
In a press conference on Monday morning, federal cabinet ministers condemned the verbal attack on Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland that took place in Alberta on Friday, and said the incident is the latest in a worrying trend of abuse and hatred against Canadians in public roles.
“We are seeing more and more incidents, particularly involving women, involving racialized people, involving Indigenous peoples. And I don’t think this is a coincidence,” said Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino.
“The threats that we see don’t only impact the individuals, their families and their teams. It represents a threat to our democracy.”
A video clip of the incident was posted on social media on Friday, and showed a man approaching Freeland while she walked into an elevator at city hall in Grande Prairie, Alta. He hurled profanities at her and called her a “traitor,” while a woman joined in and told Freeland “you don’t belong here.”
Freeland was born and raised in Alberta, and still has family there.
“What happened yesterday was wrong,” Freeland said in a statement posted on her Twitter account.
“Nobody, anywhere, should have to put up with threats and intimidation.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the attack “cowardly” on the weekend and has said it demonstrates the increased targeting of people — primarily women and racialized Canadians — who speak out or work in public roles such as politics, journalism or other positions of responsibility in public life.
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In June, Mendicino revealed that Canadian members of Parliament will be getting panic buttons amid a rise in death threats, intimidation and verbal harassment.
Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Karina Gould on Monday pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic as a period of trauma that has profoundly impacted Canadian society.
“We have collectively gone through a very traumatic experience in the COVID-19 pandemic. Two years of a lot of fear, a lot of uncertainty, a lot of hardship. A lot of loss,” Gould said.
“There have been ideas that are spreading that are taking hold that are very detrimental and very concerning. And we need to find a way to engage with people who find it acceptable to use that kind of language and that kind of behaviour, and walk them back a bit. I don’t know exactly how we do that but it’s something I think as political leaders we have to be very mindful of.”
Gould added: “I think we have a lot of work to do coming out of these very difficult two years.”
The warnings come on the heels of repeated indications in data that Canadians have become less empathetic to others over the course of the pandemic, with many reporting striking levels of mental health struggles.
Data published earlier this year by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and University of British Columbia (UBC) showed a marked decline in the number of Canadians who described themselves as feeling empathetic — down to 13 per cent from 23 per cent at the start of the pandemic.
That survey also showed 37 per cent of Canadians felt there has been a decline in their mental health, with as many saying they worried about their lost social connections.
Polling done last year by Ipsos exclusively for Global News showed more than half of Canadians felt lonely or isolated, while a report from the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians warned the pandemic has made it easier for Canadians to radicalize online.
One Canadian firm, Pollara Strategic Insights, is also launching a new project to attempt to track the “rage” citizens in this country feel about their governments, the economy, and current events.
At the same time, the federal government is facing continued questions over its vow to bring forward legislation targeting online hate, which is months overdue from its promised timeline.
The bill, which was a 2021 Liberal campaign promise, has been described by the government as an attempt to lay out clearer rules for social media and online platforms on how they handle five kinds of content: hate speech, terrorist content, incitement to violence, child sexual exploitation and the non-consensual sharing of intimate images.
But Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez went back to the drawing board on the bill earlier this year, and there remains no clear timeline for when it could be introduced or what would be in it.
Mendicino said the goal is to bring that bill to Parliament “as quickly as possible” and that the changes are attempting to “delineate some clear boundaries on what is not acceptable and in my view, I think that includes hate speech, that includes criminal threats.”
These are part of a trend, and it is having an impact,” he said, while pointing to the need for social media companies to “keep up their end of the bargain” and crack down. “We have to do better.”