More Albertan politicians are speaking out about the baneful behaviour on display late last week in Grande Prairie’s city hall.
On Friday, a group of individuals looking to forcefully inform Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland of their opinions of her work and the federal government found themselves in the lobby of city hall at the same time as her.
“What the f— are you doing in Alberta, you f—ing traitor!” a bearded man in jeans and a sleeveless T-shirt shouted. “You f—ing b—!”
He and his colleagues rapidly advanced to the deputy prime minister, pursuing her toward an elevator.
“Get the f— out of this province!” he yelled at Freeland, who was born in nearby Peace River, Alta.
In a video that went viral on social media, the man stands a full head and shoulders taller than Freeland.
“You don’t belong here,” an accompanying woman said to Freeland.
City of Grande Prairie staff accompanied the man out of city hall after the elevator’s doors closed.
That kind of intimidation is familiar to Calgary councillor Kourtney Penner, who is in her first term as that city’s Ward 11 representative.
“It’s always there. It was definitely experienced on the campaign trail. I’ve definitely been experienced since being elected,” she told Global News.
Penner said she’s been previously subjected to physical intimidation by virtue of her stature.
“Because women are traditionally smaller individuals and men are traditionally taller — that is a tactic that gets used very often against female politicians.”
Sunday afternoon, Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek posted a thread on Twitter outlining some of her experiences, saying the incident more than 700 kilometres away was not isolated.
Gondek, like many other female Canadian politicians who took to social media over the weekend to comment on the incident, said “it brings up too much pain. And fear.”
“During the 2017 civic election, I had a man call to tell me he knew where I lived & I should watch out. He then confronted me in person at a public debate. He was about 6-foot-2, 200 lbs,” Gondek, who stands less than 6-feet tall, wrote.
“In an open area packed with people, he loomed over me to hiss that he had made that call and he would make sure I lost the election. He then sat in the front row leering at me for the whole event. I compartmentalised the fear, cleared my head & crushed the debate.”
Gondek has also been subject to groups of protestors in front of her private home, not in front of Calgary city hall, as past protests have been. She declined an interview on Monday, but her thread outlined other threats to her safety in a variety of settings around the city.
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In a social media video Sunday, Grande Prairie Mayor Jackie Clayton thanked city staff for professionally and calmly de-escalating the situation. She also recognized the deputy prime minister was visiting a region “where there is a great divergence of views” on the performance of the federal government.
“During her time here, I was able to witness many individuals express their concerns with federal policies in a very constructive, respectful manner,” Clayton said.
“This is the Grande Prairie I know and love, and we will not let the actions of a few define who we are as a community or who we are as a nation. What has always made this country strong is the ability to respect differing opinions, perspectives and beliefs that are held by every Canadian.”
“Obviously, there are people that have genuine and legitimate concerns and frustrations,” said Lori Williams, an associate professor with Mount Royal University. “And engaging in a discussion about those concerns and questions is entirely appropriate.
“But simply yelling at people, calling them names — in cases of racist attacks, telling them to ‘go home’ — that is not in any way accomplishing anything except venting anger and doing so in a very inappropriate way.”
University of Calgary political scientist Lisa Young said there has been an escalation of vitriol toward politicians and women politicians, despite longstanding partisanship in Alberta politics. She recalled stories of threats to Rachel Notley and Shannon Phillips when the NDP formed the Alberta government resulting in increased security around them.
“There’s something about the rise of women in politics, of a more diverse political group of political representatives that has brought some of this about. But also, I think social media has played a role,” Young told Ted Henley on 770 CHQR.
Williams said she would not be surprised to see more security details with female politicians as a result of Canada’s second-in-command being verbally assaulted in northern Alberta.
And while a chorus of politicians, leaders and everyday citizens have called out the ignoble behaviour, Williams said one particular group needs to be most vocal about events like Friday’s.
“I absolutely think that the leaders that have fed this kind of anger and this venom against politicians that they disagree with — some of the politicians that are engaging in this, media personalities that are engaging in this sort of thing — they have an opportunity here to change the tone, to behave differently, to decide to take the high road instead of engaging in attacks that that further polarize and generate more anger,” Williams said.
Young said, like other countries around the world, Canada is experiencing a resurgence in right-wing populism that has capitalized on resentment of “political elites” and grievance.
“We’ve got Pierre Poilievre, who’s willing to mobilize some of these populist sentiments in support of his leadership campaign,” Young said. “And Danielle Smith, whose leadership campaign is saying, ‘Look, if there are federal laws we don’t like, Alberta doesn’t have to live with them.’ And that’s a bit like saying, ‘Society has rules I don’t like. I don’t need to respect those rules.’”
Saturday evening, University of Alberta political scientist Jared Wesley tweeted: “Have we still heard nothing from (Pierre) Poilievre and (Danielle) Smith about the attack on Minister Freeland?”
By that time, Premier Jason Kenney, Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and many leadership candidates for the Conservative Party of Canada and Alberta’s United Conservative Party had taken to social media to decry the verbal assault.
CHEK News asked Poilievre about the incident during a visit to Vancouver Island on Sunday. The CPC leader-hopeful said it was “absolutely unacceptable” and “we have to put an end to it.” He noted he had to hire private security for his wife and family.
‘A civility crisis’
“This is just not how we treat people,” Penner said. “These are adult bullies who are stepping outside of societal norms and outside of acceptable behaviour and using tactics of intimidation.”
Penner is one of five women on the 15-seat Calgary city council.
Banff’s former mayor said the video out of Grande Prairie was “probably the worst scenario I have ever seen.”
“The term I’m hearing often is a civility crisis,” Alberta Senator Karen Sorensen told Global News.
“I certainly don’t have the answers, but I firmly believe that unless we demand better of ourselves and others and reassert basic social norms, democracy and social courtesies, this is going to continue to happen.”
A January 2022 survey commissioned by Equal Voice showed threats to physical safety were a barrier to young women entering politics, with nearly two-thirds of the 2,095 female respondents aged 18 to 30 worried about their physical safety. Three-quarters of those surveyed were concerned about online harassment as a female politician.
“It’s both online, it’s in-person, and it’s a real problem for the future of politics in Canada, because we need more women involved in politics and we need them to feel safe and respected while they do their job,” Eleanor Fast, Equal Voice executive director, told Global News.
Calgary’s mayor had a warning about allowing the behaviour to continue.
“All the stories that are being shared by journalists & politicians should show you it will happen again,” Gondek wrote, condemning the verbal assault against Freeland. “And the next time may result in injury or death.”
— with files from Breanna Karsten-Smith and Adam MacVicar, Global News