Members of Parliament told CBC News stories of harassment and threats directed at them just a day after the government announced that MPs would be getting personal panic buttons.
The buttons, also called “mobile duress alarms,” can be used to alert the Parliamentary Protective Service (PPS) or local police.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said this week that his office, the PPS and law enforcement are reviewing security for parliamentarians after a number of threatening incidents this year. Mendicino said he’s received multiple death threats through social media.
He’s not the only one.
Liberal MP Chris Bittle would not say whether he’s carrying a panic button. He said he’s received around 20 death threats, all of which he’s forwarded to the police. He said there have been a few convictions as a result.
Bittle said the threats came as a surprise to him when he entered politics.
“I knew people would be angry with us. I didn’t expect all of the death threats,” he said.
“There’s a lot of angry people out there. And there’s a lot of political language, including words like ‘traitor,’ which are freely used including by politicians.
“If you believe someone to be a traitor or worse … that could lead to violence.”
WATCH | Trudeau, Public Safety minister and MPs talk about panic buttons
Liberal MP Judy Sgro said that she feels the threats and harassment being directed at MPs are “much worse” now than in previous years.
She suggested the anti-vaccine mandate Freedom Convoy, which occupied Ottawa in February and March this year, was a turning point.
“Things have changed a lot in the last few years,” she told CBC News. “And especially after the convoy issue, most of us were feeling very unsafe.”
Though parliamentary security has offered personal panic buttons to MPs prior to Monday’s announcement, Sgro said she didn’t take one initially — not until someone followed her most of the way on her walk home one day.
Sgro said the stranger bemoaned their COVID-19 vaccination status and the restrictions that came with it. She said she was just about to call 911 when the stranger finally left.
‘Nasty, angry, frustrated people’
“I think women are more vulnerable and feel much more vulnerable as well,” Sgro said.
“So improving security for all parliamentarians, it’s unfortunate, but we seem to be in a difficult time in society right now. [There’s] a lot of nasty, angry, frustrated people.”
She said she feels safer now that she carries the panic button.
Earlier this month, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Richard Wagner said the Freedom Convoy occupation showed that the court needs additional security.
Liberal MP Yasir Naqvi said that, while he hasn’t felt the need for a panic button personally, he is concerned about the safety of his family.
“For me, my biggest consideration is my family — to make sure that they’re always safe, to ensure I have appropriate security measures at home, which are provided by the House of Commons,” he said.
Conservative MP Dan Albas said an increase in angry rhetoric is at odds with Canadians’ friendly reputation.
“Canadians are known for being a warm people. We want the best for everyone. So we need to start having more conversations about how we can bring our conversations, especially our political discourse, back along those lines,” Albas said.
Conservative MP Ben Lobb agrees that political rhetoric has grown more heated in recent years.
“The rhetoric is too much … it’s a lot different than what it was 10 or 15 years ago,” he said.
“I don’t know if it’s social media or just the state of people’s mental health in certain cases, but I think everybody needs to relax a little bit and try and not think every issue is the end of the world to threaten people.”
But Lobb also questioned how useful a panic button would be in the event of someone getting violent with a politician.
“In a lot of cases, I think by the time you’ve had an attack, it’s probably too late to push the button,” he said.
Head of Parliament’s security questions police inaction
Sergeant-at-Arms Patrick McDonnell, who is the head of Parliament’s security, is now offering de-escalation training to MPs in the hope that such attacks can be prevented.
On Tuesday, McDonnell told a committee of MPs that he was was “flabbergasted” by how the Ottawa city police allowed harassment of MPs and parliamentary staffers to go on during the Freedom Convoy protest.
He told a parliamentary committee Tuesday that MPs and their employees faced harassment nearly every day on Wellington Street in downtown Ottawa, which is under the jurisdiction of local police.
McDonnell said there was a police car “well within viewing distance” of the events he was describing and that the incidents were reported to Ottawa police “every day.”
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government is focused on addressing the rise in violent threats.
“We know, unfortunately, that there’s a significant amount of anger and frustration out there directed at government, directed at officials,” Trudeau told reporters.
“We need to make sure that anyone who steps up to serve their community, at any level of politics, is safe, and that’s what we’re taking very seriously.”
MP says politician engagement, diversity may be threatened
NDP MP Heather McPherson said in a media scrum Tuesday that, at one point in January, she feared so much for the safety of her family she phoned home to make sure they had the doors locked.
She said that people have threatened online to kill her dog.
McPherson alluded to the murders of two U.K. MPs — Jo Cox in 2016 and David Amess in 2021 — when talking about the need to protect politicians.
“We see what’s happened in the U.K., we see what’s happened to parliamentarians in other countries, and I don’t think it’s smart for us to wait for a situation like that to occur in Canada for us to act on the security that I think is necessary,” she told reporters.
She said the threats may compromise politicians’ engagement with the public.
“I want to have barbecues, I want to hand out ice cream, I want to be in the community,” she said. “I want to be available so that people can talk to me. And the threat to my person is such that we have to seriously consider the pros and cons of holding public events that we advertise widely.”
McPherson said she’s never had to use a panic button, although she has one in her office and one she carries with her.
She said she fears that people are becoming desensitized to stories of violent threats directed at people in politics and government. She said that threat environment may discourage women and people of colour from running for office.
“We have to be so careful that we’re not like that frog that is in the cold water with the heat turned up,” McPherson said.
“We can’t normalize this. We can’t normalize violence against people running for office, holding positions in offices. Because if we do, our democracy will be deeply damaged.”