How two B.C. political opponents worked together to quell a flood of death threats

Click to play video: 'NDP and Liberal MLA’s team up against online harasser'
NDP and Liberal MLA’s team up against online harasser
Two MLA's from opposite sides of the B.C. legislature have teamed up to help police track down the man who was sending both of them graphic and threatening emails. Kylie Stanton reports – Sep 22, 2023

In the tough world of B.C. politics, they’re on opposite sides, clashing regularly in the legislature, on the airwaves and online.

But two MLAs recently found a common cause, working together to take down a man who was flooding them with harassing and threatening emails.

“Subject line that said all in caps, ‘I will kill you Selina Robinson,'” the NDP’s post-secondary education minister said of one message.

“I received the threats to harm me, to kill me. The person also tried to make an appointment at my office, and when that was rejected, they threatened the employee with death and sexual violence,” explained BC United South Surrey MLA Elenore Sturko.

Click to play video: 'Canadians warned of growing ‘hostile’ cyber threats'
Canadians warned of growing ‘hostile’ cyber threats

As first reported by The Orca, the threats against Robinson began early in 2023, while Sturko said she began getting the emails in the spring.

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Both women alerted the RCMP and took the incident to the B.C. legislature’s protective services.

When Sturko, a former RCMP officer, contacted legislature security, they told her the content and format of the threatening messages matched those of the emails her political opponent was receiving.

“I reached out and we had a conversation, a chat about it,” Sturko said. “Being a former police officer, I knew what an investigation might look like and I wanted to make sure it was clear I was taking this really seriously.”

“We needed to pursue this because the vitriol was awful, also it was relentless, it was 12 to 15 times a day. This person was changing their email addresses,” Robinson said.

Click to play video: 'Andrew Knack slams harassment against female politicians, journalists, public figures'
Andrew Knack slams harassment against female politicians, journalists, public figures

Beyond filtering out the emails, there was little the legislature’s security team was able to do.

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Both women said the fact the abuser remained anonymous weighed heavily on them as politicians who are active in the community. It forced them to take extra precautions and always be on alert.

“I don’t know if they are sending me this email from Timbuktu or the Tim Hortons down the street,” Sturko said.

“It plays in the back of your mind about your safety …  I started to be more selective about the events I took my family with me to, I really reduced — if not stopped all together — bringing my kids to events with me,” she added.

“I was directing my staff to not let anyone in the office who we didn’t know or didn’t have an appointment. I had public events so was watching very carefully,” Robinson said.

Sturko said the women worked together to ensure the RCMP files in their respective home communities of Surrey and Coquitlam were linked, and to press police to advance the investigation.

Click to play video: 'B.C. MLAs facing threats of violence'
B.C. MLAs facing threats of violence

Eventually, police were able to identify a suspect in Abbotsford, and sent an officer to conduct an assessment.

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Following that visit, police told the MLAs the man appeared to have mental health and cognitive issues, and didn’t appear to be a threat.

That answer wasn’t enough for either of them.

“Emotional abuse is a risk. It’s not just physical risk. There is emotional and spiritual impact to being told someone is going to kill you over and over and over again,” Robinson said.

“That’s really unacceptable, it’s a crime,” Sturko added of the death threats.

Though police had identified a suspect, neither MLA was able to get a photo of the man initially, due to privacy requirements.

Sturko acknowledged that was frustrating, but as a former Mountie said she understood the process police must go through to justify the release of information about an individual who hasn’t been convicted of a crime.

Click to play video: 'Veteran broadcaster sues online harasser'
Veteran broadcaster sues online harasser

Eventually, the women did get a picture of the suspect and last month, the man was arrested.

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Robinson said she’s learned he no longer lives in the Lower Mainland, helping put her at ease.

“We know that our laws will often lag technology. But we’ve had the internet now for a long, long time, and we need to make sure that people are using it responsibly, and that when people misuse it, there are deterrents in place — and our laws haven’t figured out how to deal with that, and that’s part of what’s frustrating,” Robinson said.

Sturko added the need to ensure there were consequences was particular important given the growing reticence of people — and particularly women — to participate in public life.

Democracy, she said, requires people to feel safe standing up to represent their communities.

“Especially with women who often face harassment of a different scope than maybe our male counterparts, and we need to make sure regardless of what party the person is from or their background that they feel they can represent their community,” Sturko said.

Click to play video: 'B.C. women in high profile positions targets of abuse and threats'
B.C. women in high profile positions targets of abuse and threats

The incident has also proved to be a powerful example of how some things easily transcend political partisanship.

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“She and I have done barbs on Twitter. That is part of trying to make distinctions between them and us. This is what we stand for this is what they stand for. But at the end of the day we’re people who are trying to do the best things for our community,” Robinson said.

“We’re maybe political opponents, but we’re colleagues in the B.C. legislature, and we’re never enemies,” Sturko added.

“When it comes to something like this to do with the safety and wellbeing of one of my colleagues in the B.C. legislature, I don’t care what party they’re from. I am going to be there for them, and I know Selina was going to be there for me.”

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