Trudeau calls on federal leaders to push back against aggressive harassment of politicians

·4 min read
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes questions from reporters outside Rideau Hall alongside ministers Filomena Tassi, right, and Helena Jaczek. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes questions from reporters outside Rideau Hall alongside ministers Filomena Tassi, right, and Helena Jaczek. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday urged Canada's political leaders to forcefully condemn acts of aggression and intimidation directed against politicians — before the country is forced to "rethink" the ways in which elected officials and the public can safely interact.

"We need to be able to have that connection that we've always prided ourselves [on], of Canadians being able to have proximity to those who represent them," Trudeau told reporters outside Rideau Hall.

"But the aggressive bullying, hate-filled tactics of a small number of people is causing us to have to rethink the freedoms that we've had as parliamentarians."

Trudeau's comments come just days after Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was verbally accosted during a stop at the city hall in Grande Prairie, Alta., over the weekend.

Video of the incident shows a man following Freeland as she entered an elevator while calling her a "traitor" and a "f---ing bitch" and telling her to leave the province.

Freeland has called the actions of the man who confronted her "wrong" but has also pointed out repeatedly that her tour of Alberta has otherwise gone smoothly.

"One unpleasant incident does not in any way overshadow the warmth of the welcome that I have received," Freeland said Wednesday morning in Calgary.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney called the incident "reprehensible." The RCMP says it will investigate.

WATCH: Trudeau responds to the incident involving Chrystia Freeland

Trudeau said episodes of aggression against politicians will become more common if political leaders remain silent or — worse — stoke the animosity driving these encounters.

"The tone of our democracy, the tone of our political debates, is set by those politicians who get sent to Ottawa to represent their communities," he said.

"That's something all parliamentarians and all leaders need to stand against … to say, 'No, we are not going to become that toxic, polarized country that some think we should become.'"

Women and people of colour in particular will be discouraged from entering public service if intimidating confrontations become the new normal, the prime minister warned.

"I think we need to be especially clear that people who are members of a visible minority and women are perhaps particularly vulnerable," Freeland said at her news conference in Calgary. She noted that most politicians and journalists in Canada do not have access to the level of protection and security offered to cabinet ministers.

Helena Jaczek, who was introduced as the new minister of procurement on Wednesday, spoke after Trudeau and said she experienced heightened "verbal abuse and somewhat intimidating behaviour" during last year's election.

"If this behaviour is accepted as the norm, then we are going to be in a position that's far graver than we're in now," added Filomena Tassi, who swapped roles with Jaczek as part of a minor cabinet shuffle.

WATCH: Alberta man accosts Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland

Encounters like the one Freeland experienced in Alberta are happening more frequently, according to Canada's chief intelligence service.

A 2020 report by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, obtained by CBC News through an access to information request, reported that "political figures in Canada are facing threats of violence and online abuse with increasing regularity."

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh endured an episode of verbal harassment in May during a campaign stop in Peterborough, Ont. during the Ontario provincial election.

Protesters outside an NDP campaign office followed Singh to a vehicle, yelling at him and calling him "a f--king piece of s--t." Singh later said the encounter was among the most troubling experiences of his political career.

Trudeau himself repeatedly encountered aggressive behaviour during the 2021 federal election campaign. A man in London, Ont. threw gravel at the prime minister and a separate campaign rally in Bolton, Ont. was cancelled due to security concerns.

Conservative politicians, including MP Michelle Rempel Garner, also have voiced concerns about increasingly aggressive interactions in public.

"This last campaign, for me, I have never felt so unsafe," Rempel Garner told CBC News last year.

Trudeau considers security changes

Despite growing concerns about threats against politicians, Trudeau did not confirm any plans to enhance security measures for parliamentarians or offer full-time personal security for cabinet ministers.

"We're considering various solutions," Trudeau said in French in reply to a question about possible changes.

Earlier this summer, the federal government started providing mobile "panic buttons" to MPs, which can be used to immediately alert the Parliamentary Protective Service or local police for a rapid response.

Tassi said she would rather see the federal government find ways to address acts of intimidation and aggression directly before it considers adding more security and increasing the distance between politicians and the public.

"That's not the answer," Tassi said. "The answer is this behaviour has to be ended."