Justice minister says RCMP has tools needed to deal with threats against politicians

OTTAWA — Federal Justice Minister Arif Virani says he isn't going anywhere without a mobile duress alarm in his pocket.

He doesn't move around without first informing someone, including when he attends public events.

And he doesn't just work with a security team at the Department of Justice, but a separate one in the House of Commons, too.

"That's just unfortunately where we're at in Canadian society right now," Virani said in an interview Wednesday, as members of Parliament got ready for a summer break.

"What's even more shocking is that it's not just cabinet ministers that have to do that. I've got a lot of female colleagues that have been doing that for well over a year."

While Virani said he wishes things were different, he's not keen to endorse the RCMP boss's recent suggestion that Ottawa make it easier for police to pursue charges against people who threaten elected officials.

"I believe that there are strong tools that are in place, for example, in the Criminal Code," Virani said, adding the federal government provides police with resources to do their jobs.

"I think a combination of those two are … enough to address what's going on."

RCMP Commissioner Mike Duheme raised concerns in an interview with The Canadian Press last month about the increase in threats the Mounties are seeing made against elected officials.

He said that an individual's behaviour often doesn't meet the threshold to lay a charge under Canadian law.

Duheme expressed hope that Public Safety Canada and the Department of Justice would work with the RCMP on the possibility of creating a new provision to address the growing problem.

An intelligence report from last June outlined how extremist narratives tied to personal grievances — and fuelled by outright lies and misinformation easily spread online — has "increasingly normalized" threats against politicians.

The report noted that violent rhetoric is often directed at high-profile women.

Liberal MP Pam Damoff has said she's not seeking re-election because of the threats and harassment she's had to face, while an increasing number of MPs, including Conservative Deputy Leader Melissa Lantsman, have been seen with a protective detail on Parliament Hill.

In April, a handful of protesters demonstrated outside of Virani's Toronto home about the government's response to the Israel-Hamas war.

He condemned their actions, saying his wife and two sons "do not deserve to be harassed."

Police in Toronto said no arrests were made, and they were aware that protesters were in the area for a short time.

Protests about the same issue had also sprouted in front of Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly's home in Montreal, drawing criticism from MPs across the spectrum who said such behaviour crossed a line.

Virani said his message to Commissioner Duheme is the government is always open to ways it can help better address the challenges police face.

One approach is "empowering" hate crimes units, Virani said, which fight threats against elected officials and everyday Canadians.

"There aren't as many as there needs to be."

The minister also pointed to provisions contained in the Online Harms Act, a long-promised bill that would compel social-media giants to be more accountable for reducing the harms users are exposed to on their platforms.

It also proposes stiffer punishments for hate-related crimes — measures that civil society advocates and other legal experts have warned could risk chilling free speech, but that Virani defended as necessary to prevent online hate from turning into real-life violence.

"I would stand by that document as a comprehensive response to deal with the root causes of what's causing the concerns (Duheme) was raising."

The House of Commons began its summer recess on Wednesday having made little progress on the bill, which has not yet been sent to a parliamentary committee for study despite being introduced nearly four months ago.

Government House leader Steven MacKinnon suggested Conservative procedural tactics were to blame for that, saying "the clock simply ran out" on debate.

A spokesman for Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said the minority Liberals' political pact with the NDP gives the government the ability to prioritize or block any legislation they wish, "contrary to their whining."

NDP House leader Peter Julian said in a statement that "any delay is on the hands of Justin Trudeau," noting the Liberals initially promised to table the bill within 100 days of winning the 2021 election.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2024.

— With files from Jim Bronskill.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press