Chrystia Freeland latest target of public threats, intimidation against women in Canadian politics

Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, pictured here in Toronto in June 2022, had insults hurled at her during an encounter in Grande Prairie, Alta. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, pictured here in Toronto in June 2022, had insults hurled at her during an encounter in Grande Prairie, Alta. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Public instances of threats and intimidation of women in public life have intensified in recent weeks, with significant examples of abuse targeted toward politicians — most recently, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland — as well as activists and journalists.

For weeks, a group of journalists, particularly journalists of colour, have publicly shared a series of private, anonymous emails they've received. Those emails contained specific, targeted and disturbing threats of violence and sexual assault, as well as racist and misogynistic language.

"It was very insidious, and the language around it was a perversion of some progressive language that was used to basically abuse and torment us. Also, we were told we were put on a list of journalists to be silenced," Erica Ifill, a columnist for The Hill Times and a podcast host, told CBC Radio's The House for a segment that aired Saturday.

The online harassment crossed over once more into an in-person encounter on Friday, when Freeland faced a tirade of verbal abuse during an incident in Grande Prairie, Alta.

In a video circulating widely on social media, several people, one of whom is filming, are seen approaching Freeland as she and several others walk through Grande Prairie's city hall toward an elevator.

During the brief encounter, the man yells at Freeland, calling her a "traitor," a "f---ing b---h" and telling her to leave the province.

The couple are told to leave by others in the building and eventually exit out to the parking lot.

Freeland, who was born in Peace River, about 200 kilometres from Grande Prairie, was on a multi-day tour of Saskatchewan and Alberta, meeting with officials, businesspeople and workers.

She acknowledged the incident in a tweet on Saturday.

"What happened yesterday was wrong. Nobody, anywhere, should have to put up with threats and intimidation," Freeland wrote.

"But the Alberta I know is filled with kind and welcoming people, and I'm grateful for the warm welcome I've received from so many people in Edmonton, Grande Prairie and Peace River over the past few days. One unpleasant incident yesterday doesn't change that."

LISTEN | The House hears from journalists, activist, targeted by online harassment:

Harassment condemned by politicians

The actions in the video have been widely condemned by politicians and others across the country.

Speaking on Sunday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the incident "extremely disturbing," and went on to say that harassment and threats against women, people of colour and members of other minority groups, especially those in high-profile roles such as politicians and journalists, appeared to be increasing in frequency.

"Threats, violence, intimidation of any kind are always unacceptable, and this kind of cowardly behaviour threatens and undermines our democracy and our values of openness and respect," Trudeau said at the launch of Canada's first Federal 2SLGBTQI+ Action Plan in Ottawa. "As leaders, we need to call this out and take a united stance against it."

WATCH | Women in public life describe online threats: 

Conservative leadership candidate Jean Charest called it "gross intimidation" and "dangerous behaviour" in a tweet. Former Liberal cabinet minister Catherine McKenna called it "beyond the pale."

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney referred to the incident as "reprehensible" and Conservative MP Dan Albas said, "What our Deputy PM experienced yesterday has no place here in Canada."

In an interview with CBC News, Grande Prairie city councillor Dylan Bressey said the encounter was "completely ridiculous."

"Something we're seeing Canada-wide — and our community isn't immune — is that there are people who feel disenfranchised, and are angry and are scared, but they're expressing it completely inappropriate ways that don't help anybody."

Legislation just one piece of the puzzle: expert

Harassment has long been a problem for Canadians in public life, especially women. McKenna, for example, was at times forced to have additional security because of harassment she received, and many other MPs have revealed threats made against them.

One of the most extreme examples of online harassment played out in London, Ont. recently, when transgender activist and Twitch streamer Clara Sorrenti  was forced to leave the country after a campaign of harassment that included an instance of "swatting" — when a threat of violence sent under her name but without her knowledge led armed police to show up at her door and arrest her.

Michelle Both/CBC
Michelle Both/CBC

Prior to the 2021 election, the federal government introduced legislation aimed at protecting Canadians from what it calls online harms, but that bill died when the election was called, and, after widespread critique, new legislation is back in consultations.

Legislation governing how social media platforms grapple with harmful content is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to online harassment, said Emily Laidlaw, Canada research chair in cybersecurity law at the University of Calgary. Reforms to the legal system, education and other policies areas like cybersecurity and privacy were all important as well, she told The House.

"It's across all kinds of different law and social silences that we need to tackle online harms, and that's actually what makes it so difficult," Laidlaw said.

Yuan Stevens, a lawyer who specializes in human rights and technology, likened the issue to smoking, in which education and awareness led to both legal changes and a shift in public attitudes.

"I think a holistic effort will be needed in Canada that isn't just ban this, prohibit that, punish that," he said, but instead one that tackles attitudes toward people of colour, women, LGBTQ people and others and addresses the "root causes" of harassment, threats and violence.

Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images
Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

'It's psychological warfare'

Ifill, The Hill Times columnist, described how the campaign against her and other journalists appeared to be targeted, expanding from a few people to a group of more than a dozen, many of them people of colour.

"Each email they become more intricate. They are creating scenarios based on our past work to torment us with," Ifill told guest host Ashley Burke.

"It's more than just an e-mail. It's a concentrated effort. It's psychological warfare."

Raisa Patel, who previously worked with CBC News, including for The House, was one of the journalists who spoke up in support of colleagues and then received an email of her own.

She told Burke that while the emails contained racism and misogyny, "Several of us felt no reaction to that element to these emails because that's something that we're used to receiving as female and racialized journalists. But what was particularly alarming was the targeted nature of this campaign."

The journalists said they also struggled with police responses, including difficulty reporting the incidents in the first place and convincing police to take action.

"It was very difficult to try and get police to see the very co-ordinated nature of this campaign and some of the more serious threatening elements to it. Since we've gone public, I think that process has improved somewhat," said Patel.