Montreal mayor target of physical threats after coming out against secularism bill

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante has been the target of an escalating series of violent threats, apparently sparked by her staunch opposition to the provincial government's secularism bill.

Plante spoke publicly last month about receiving hateful comments after she first criticized Bill 21, which, if passed, will prohibit public school teachers, police officers and judges, among other civil servants, from wearing religious symbols.

In an interview with Radio-Canada, she said those attacks have become even worse in recent days, prompting her to employ additional security measures.

"I'm taking this very seriously," Plante said. "People think they can sit behind their computer, not care about anything, say whatever they want: that's false. It's zero tolerance for me."

Plante's staff declined to give a precise figure on the number of threats she's received. However, they say the mayor has received "several" messages via social media and email that are either sexist or threaten to do her physical harm.

Among other things, the messages warn her to watch her back or be careful while walking, according to Radio-Canada.

The more extreme threats have been sent to the Montreal police service (SPVM).

Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press

Plante has not filed an official police complaint but said she hasn't ruled out doing so. Montreal police wouldn't comment on whether they have opened an investigation into the threats.

"All threats, wherever they are made, even on social media, are criminal acts," said a police spokesperson, Cmdr. Jonathan Martel.

Expanded security detail

"We are working closely with the SPVM, who are very proactive. That helps us a lot," said Plante, who now has an expanded security detail, including a bodyguard who doubles as a driver, as well as police presence at her public events.

This is not the first time that Plante has been the target of threats.

Though it's only been 18 months since she took office, police have already arrested "two or three people" for directing threatening comments her way, she said.

Plante believes the latest round of threats was prompted by false information, spread on social media, that claimed she attended a protest alongside Adil Charkaoui, a controversial Montreal imam. 

In fact, Plante was in South America at the time of that demonstration.

"That took it to another level," Plante said. "That someone created fake news, by itself, is a problem. But they don't realize that it generates hate — or where that could lead to."

Hate directed at Perez, too

The Quebec government's secularism bill, tabled last month, has sparked several protests in Montreal, along with heated debate in the National Assembly and on political talk shows.

Religious groups and legal experts say the bill's provisions violate religious freedom. To protect Bill 21 from constitutional challenges, the CAQ government has inserted a clause that allows it to override sections of the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights.

Premier François Legault has repeatedly appealed for calm amid the increasingly polarized debate. He hopes to have the legislation passed by the summer.

Graham Hughes/Canadian Press

Earlier this week, Plante joined her adversaries at city hall to issue a joint declaration expressing the city's objections to the bill.

The leader of the opposition Ensemble Montréal, Lionel Perez, said he, too, has received hateful messages for his stand against Bill 21, though no violent threats.

"I will always speak with conviction. I will always say what I think on important topics," said Perez, who wears a Jewish kippa. "As an elected official, I think I have a duty to do so."

Plante believes her gender may also be a contributing factor to the threats she's received: "For women, it's different. It's much more violent. It's misogynistic."

It is one thing to be criticized, Plante added, "but to be called a damn cow — that's not a criticism. That's an insult and a personal attack."