‘Real-world dangers’: Security memos reveal ‘intensified’ threats facing Canadian MPs

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Canadian government officials facing surge of violent threats

In March 2022, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly was one of several Canadian officials named in an online threat posted to the far-right social network Gab.

The threat called for the named politicians to be executed for treason, claiming that the Canadian government had been “hijacked” by the World Economic Forum.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino and his family have also been targeted by several online threats, linked to the federal government’s push to strengthen gun control. In one incident, an Instagram user replied to a post by the minister and threatened to shoot him.

And in early 2022, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre — then still vying to lead his party — was among several MPs “targeted by online hate speech and threats” during the convoy protests that choked Ottawa’s downtown core for weeks and spawned blockades across the country.

The incidents are all documented in dozens of internal threat assessments prepared for senior federal government leaders and obtained by Global News through an access-to-information request.

Although they are heavily redacted, the documents provide a glimpse into a chilling trend, with elected officials facing a torrent of “violent rhetoric and intimidation tactics,” fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, extremist ideologies, and a tangled web of conspiracy theories.


And as the threat of ideologically motivated violent extremism (IMVE) continues to grow in Canada, intelligence officials and experts are sounding the alarm on the potential spillover effects of online incivility.

“Pervasive online toxicity can lead to real-world dangers in low-security situations,” warn two of the assessments, citing the 2021 federal election and extremist-related activities during last year’s Freedom Convoy protests.

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Hate speech surging on Twitter under Elon Musk

Global News obtained a total of 71 threat assessments prepared between Jan. 4 and Aug. 31, 2022.

“That’s a significant number, and it does mean that people are worried,” said Dick Fadden, a former head of Canada’s spy agency, who also served as national security adviser to both former prime minister Stephen Harper and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The assessments were produced by the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre (ITAC), housed within the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and bringing together experts from across Canada’s intelligence and security community.

Altogether, the reports analyzed threats against a total of 39 MPs, including Trudeau, Joly, Poilievre, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Defence Minister Anita Anand and 28 other cabinet ministers.

Among those making the threats are “xenophobic extremists,” along with “radical libertarians, neo-Nazis, incels and other individuals who justify political violence in support of their ideologies,” according to ITAC’s analysis.

“There’s a spectrum here, going from people who are just fundamentally unhappy to people who actually detonate bombs,” Fadden said.

“There’s no guarantee that people will move across the spectrum, but I think there’s the real possibility that they will if something isn’t done about it.”

As Global News has previously reported, CSIS now devotes nearly as much attention to ideologically motivated violent extremism — a broad term used by the agency, which includes far-right, anti-government and gender-based violence — as it does to religiously motivated violent extremism (RMVE).

Similarly, ITAC has concluded that the threat of ideologically motivated violent extremism has “overtaken” that of religiously motivated violent extremism in Canada.

All of the documents reviewed by Global News were prepared at the request of an unknown recipient — their identity among the many redactions.

The earliest assessment, prepared on Jan. 4, 2022, reported that the COVID-19 pandemic was driving what ITAC called an “anti-government threat environment,” with threats typically directed at Prime Minister Trudeau and other officials seen as responsible for public health measures.

ITAC describes the prime minister as the primary focus of anti-government sentiment, reporting online posts that described him as a “criminal,” a “traitor,” a “communist,” or “part of a ‘New World Order’” that aims to “eliminate ethnic Europeans through immigration.”

By mid-March 2022, the assessments were warning of “intensified threats” and a “spike in online threats and threatening behaviours” targeting MPs, citing the recent convoy protests, related border blockades, and the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act.

Speaking on background, one government official said there’s no question that last year’s convoy protests “supercharged” the threats their office faced, both in number and in the degree to which they threatened violence.

That spike has intelligence experts concerned.

“There seems to be an increased permission to hate,” said Stephanie Carvin, a former CSIS analyst who now teaches at Carleton University.

“If you politically disagree with someone now, you don’t want to challenge them to a policy debate or propose a policy solution. You want to throw them in jail or throw rocks at them or lock them up, as the chant has it,” Carvin said.

Describing it as a relatively new phenomenon in modern Canadian politics, Carvin spoke of a kind of “anti-politics,” one that rejects democratic institutions, processes and attitudes.

“People aren’t trying to find policy solutions,” she said. “They’re trying to find a revolution — and doing so in ways that are just kind of fundamentally at odds with our democratic system.”

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Jason Kenney quits Alberta politics with critical letter on state of democracy

The public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have been a flashpoint, galvanizing Canadians of all backgrounds and political stripes who felt that public measures were an unacceptable attack on their liberties.

Fadden suggests that Canadian elected officials failed to take those concerns into account adequately.

“Because of the seriousness with which public health and political authorities viewed COVID, there wasn’t a lot of dialogue,” he said.

“To some degree, I can understand why they weren’t listening — because they were trying to protect the public health,” he added. “But I think in a democracy, it’s really important, no matter what the issue, that you find some way to dialogue.”

Toxicity across Canada now ‘unlikely to subside’

Although COVID-19 restrictions and mandates have largely been lifted, ITAC suggests that’s unlikely to appease those prepared to use violence to achieve their political ends.

In June 2022, intelligence officials noted that ideologically-motivated extremist threats and propaganda were increasingly focusing on the war in Ukraine, referencing so-called “globalist plots” linked to the conflict.

“It’s almost like a cauldron of ideas through which different groups of people come together,” Carvin said, describing the amorphous threat of IMVE.

“There isn’t really one defining idea behind the movement, in that different people can kind of pick and choose what they take out of it.”

One grievance bubbles up as another bursts, she said, but all can potentially lead to violence.

ITAC’s assessments identified a slew of other polarizing issues likely to feed “violent anti-government and anti-authority narratives,” including political discontent in the United States, immigration policies, firearms legislation, abortion, and the socio-economic impacts of the federal government’s COVID-19 response.

“The toxicity of the online threat environment is unlikely to subside in the near to medium term,” ITAC concluded.

“It’s really worrisome,” Fadden said of the increasingly violent threats facing Canadian politicians.

“I’ve worked closely enough with them to know that whether they’re liked or disliked, it is not an easy life,” he said.

“To have to worry over and above everything that they do about whether or not somebody is going to take a shot at them — either physically with a fist or a gun — is not good for democracy.”

Women, people of colour disproportionately targeted

While the patchwork of issues fuelling extremist grievances may continue to evolve, what appears to be consistent is the degree to which women and people of colour are disproportionately targeted.

“A body of reporting indicates that women and people of colour in positions of political power, including at the federal, provincial and municipal levels, continue to be harassed, intimidated and threatened — both online and in person — more frequently than their male counterparts,” according to one assessment on the threats facing Defence Minister Anita Anand.

Another report noted that Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly has been directly targeted by “threats or incidents of concern,” including “intimidating messages sent by mail, email and telephone; threatening online content; and in-person disturbances.”


Joly, like Anand, has played a prominent role in the federal government’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Due to her involvement in related files and her high visibility as Minister of Foreign Affairs, and given the normalization of using social media to vent frustrations, Minister Joly will likely face an increase in online threats, inappropriate comments and aggressive behaviour from violent extremists,” the document warns.

ITAC noted that it has not observed any reporting of violent in-person threats to Minister Joly’s offices or residences, but cautioned that a 2018 incident — the details of which are redacted — “demonstrate the ability of hostile individuals to locate, identify and get close to the Minister.”

Other public officials have faced threats in person, including Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who was verbally assaulted while visiting Grande Prairie, Alta., in August 2022.

A video of the incident posted to social media shows a man approaching Freeland as she entered an elevator at Grande Prairie city hall, hurling profanities at her, and calling her a “traitor.”

The RCMP later confirmed that it is investigating the incident.

Click to play video: 'Freeland, Trudeau condemn harassment she faced in Alberta'
Freeland, Trudeau condemn harassment she faced in Alberta

The growing risks of extremism faced by parliamentarians has been a concern at the highest levels of the federal government for years.

A 2019 Privy Council Office memo prepared for the prime minister noted the “increased assertiveness” of various ideologically motivated violent extremists.

“Though these individuals usually engage in the online space, there has been an emergence and, in some cases, a re-emergence of a cadre of ethno-nationalist as well as racially and religiously motivated individuals in Canada,” according to the memo.

Part of the challenge facing intelligence and law enforcement officials today is the sheer number of online threats targeting elected officials and other public figures.

“It’s always been a challenge to separate what’s often called the walkers and the talkers,” Carvin said. “With the increase in volume, that becomes much more difficult to actually manage.”

Although intelligence agencies do have access to sophisticated algorithms to filter the deluge of online threats, Fadden added, many of those behind the threats are aware of what government agencies can do and have grown adept at covering their tracks.

“It’s like a high-pressure hose,” Fadden said. “There is so much out there that it’s almost unimaginable.”

No indications of ‘real-world attack planning’

Although online threats will likely continue to multiply, a June 2022 assessment noted that ITAC is “not aware of an imminent threat or advanced attack plot by threat actors targeting Canadian elected officials at this time.”

“ITAC has not observed indications that IMVE groups or individuals in Canada are currently engaged in real-world attack planning or have the organizational capacity to conduct a complex act of violence against Canadian politicians,” according to another report prepared two months later.

Still, eight of the assessments obtained by Global News reference the October 2021 slaying of British MP David Amess, who was stabbed to death by a supporter of the Islamic State.

ITAC noted that “Amess was killed in a location that was publicized in advance and had minimal security in place.”

Canadian intelligence officials have cited last year’s convoy protests as one such example of a “low-security situation.”


Some Canadian far-right groups did see the protests as an opportunity, with some extremists expressing hope in the early days of the demonstrations to see them devolve into Canada’s version of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

However, the assessments obtained by Global News show that ITAC doubts the ability of extremists in Canada to mount a similar assault.

“A complex terrorist attack or a planned storming of Parliament or other legislative buildings is unlikely given the lack of capability and coordination among IMVE threat actors,” ITAC concluded in March, one month after the protests came to an end.

But Carvin says there’s reason to be concerned about whether Canada is doing enough to counter the threat of increasingly toxic online content and its links to ideologically motivated violent extremism.

“It’s going to take the government. It’s going to take social media companies. It’s going to take individuals making smarter choices with the kind of content they engage with online,” she said.

“Right now, we’re still kind of waiting for that to happen.”