When the Antigonish town mayor's phone rings lately, she's not sure whether it will be a constituent with a question or someone threatening her family.
Representatives for both the Town of Antigonish and the Municipality of the County of Antigonish have been fielding threats and online "intimidation" since a recent move to consolidate the two areas, according to the municipalities.
But they say Antigonish Mayor Laurie Boucher has been dealing with the most personal attacks.
"Talking about [my] family, people coming after us," Boucher said Sunday. "This is personal … saying things that are not true about my family and myself, and so this is a different level for sure."
Boucher said "a few" of these messages — which came via social media, email and voicemail — have been forwarded onto the RCMP to "have them on file just in case something else happens."
But Boucher said she believes a small number of people are behind the most serious threats. She said she still feels safe in her home.
Warden Owen McCarron, head of the county council, said he's received a few heated calls, but the tone of messages and hate being targeted at Boucher is very different.
He said Boucher's gender likely has a lot to do with that, especially since Boucher said she's regularly being called "the b-word."
"We're hoping to see more women in politics. And when stuff like this happens, my daughter said to me, 'I wouldn't get involved in politics after seeing this … not a chance.' So that concerns me," McCarron said.
"This is a passionate debate and discussion, what we're doing here, no question. However … people are getting very comfortable making comments behind the keyboard."
The CAOs from both town and county put out a joint public letter on Friday condemning the "taunting, intimidation and threats" toward Boucher and other councillors.
"The decision to move forward with … consolidation was not made lightly, and it was a decision made by both councils, not one individual person," the letter said.
The RCMP could not comment on how many reports about the issue they'd received by Sunday evening. This story will be updated with any information from the police.
The issue comes at a time when violent threats and physical attacks against politicians and their families are rising.
On Friday, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband was attacked in the couple's home in San Francisco, while Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland has dealt with aggressive verbal harassment in public. Threats of sexual violence against Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre's wife, Anaida Poilievre, were also reported to police last month.
Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University, said the Antigonish situation is symptomatic of what's happening across Canada over the past two years as people feel "enabled and emboldened to express all kinds of vile sentiments."
There has been a loss of civility in politics especially, Perry said, as people lose touch with how to appropriately voice concerns about issues — with women, and especially women of colour, often receiving the most violent feedback or messages.
"If it's allowed to happen once, it can happen again and it can progress," Perry said.
Earlier this month, town and county voted to dissolve the town and merge into a new expanded unit under the county's name, despite loud opposition from many residents calling for a plebiscite.
The town voted 4-3 in favour of merging, while the county voted 5-3 in favour. Two of the county councillors recused themselves over concerns over possible conflicts of interest.
Boucher said Sunday a request for a plebiscite did come before their town council, but it was voted down. The decision was made to go ahead with public consultation sessions instead, she said, to gauge the community's thoughts and share information.
Part of the argument for consolidation has been to pool resources, and better tackle tough issues like climate change, affordable housing, and infrastructure "as one unit," Boucher said.
However, residents and some councillors from both areas have questioned why the move needs to be rushed through now before details are settled on how the new municipality will function, and have said they didn't see enough clear reasons for the merger.
Sean Cameron, Antigonish town resident, is against the move.
He's also an elected councillor for the town, but would only speak to CBC News as a citizen given a "policy" that only Boucher, the CAO, or a communications person can comment on town issues.
The whole consolidation process has been "cloaked in secrecy" and has riled up emotions higher than if a plebiscite had just been allowed to take place, Cameron said.
"A hundred and thirty-two year history of the Town of Antigonish has been wiped out by this one vote," he said.
However, Cameron said while passionate differences of opinion are to be expected, "I don't believe any violence directed to any elected official is acceptable."
Both Boucher and McCarron said that "misinformation" around the move to consolidate has driven the heightened emotions and backlash.
They released a video on social media Friday correcting various points they've heard, saying that the town's electric utility won't be sold, fire services won't change and taxes won't go up due solely to the merger.
When asked about whether some backlash could be stemming from people feeling unheard, and the town losing its history and identity, Boucher said she "absolutely" understands those feelings.
'We just can't live in the past'
"But that doesn't mean that we can't move forward. We can't stay in one place forever. With these added pressures we're seeing that municipalities are working differently now. We no longer have the ability to work in silos," Boucher said.
"The history will always be there: we just can't live in the past."
Amid the opposition, Boucher said she and the warden have heard plenty of "quiet support" from people across the town and county.
The matter is now in the hands of the province since legislation is required for the merger.
Cameron, town and county residents, and some former councillors say they plan to lobby their local MLAs and the provincial government to stop the consolidation.
It's expected the issue will come before the legislature this spring. The plan would be to have the expanded municipality in place by April 1, 2025.
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