Threats are not legitimate political expression


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New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shocked many last week, when she announced she is stepping down, saying: “I no longer have enough in the tank” to do the job justice.

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New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shocked many last week, when she announced she is stepping down, saying: “I no longer have enough in the tank” to do the job justice.

Ardern leaves while still immensely popular, leaving her political party in good shape for her successor and her nation’s global reputation at a high ebb. This is a rarity for politicians, who often wait until scandal, electoral losses or plummeting polls force their hand.

Perhaps Canada’s Justin Trudeau should take heed … but that’s a separate column for another day.

Some of Ardern’s colleagues, however, have pointed to another reason for her early departure: the constant abuse she faced while in office. That’s something we need to pay close attention to in Canada, as well.

According to data released by the Official Information Act, police recorded 18 threats against the New Zealand prime minister in 2019. In 2020 that number increased to 32, and in 2021 police dealt with 50 threats. Much of it has been linked to the vaccination measures enacted in response to COVID-19 and firearm restrictions put in place following the Christchurch mosque shootings in March 2019, which killed more than 50 worshippers.

Researchers who monitor misinformation and online extremism found the level of violent rhetoric against Ardern had also risen in recent years. Sanjana Hattotuwa told The Guardian the research team captured “the most significant increase in violent, vulgar, vicious, venomous commentary against the PM since the start of our study in mid-August 2021.”

“The vocabulary … has migrated from implicit and elusive references to her murder, assassination and rape, now to explicit calls for it.”

While Ardern insisted threats to her and her family had not been a decisive factor behind her resignation, she did add that the day after her announcement, she slept soundly “for the first time in a long time.”

Shortly before his death, Winnipeg South MP Jim Carr tabled a report from the Standing Committee on Public Safety on the rise of ideologically motivated violent extremism (IMVE) in Canada. It determined COVID-19 was the breeding ground for a rise in IMVE, and witnesses to the committee identified many different narratives “including but not limited to: anti-authority; Islamophobia, antisemitism and other forms of religious intolerance; racism; misogyny; and anti-LGBTQ2SI.”

Later this February, we can expect to see the findings and recommendations from the public inquiry probing the use of emergency powers to end the convoy protests that shut down Ottawa last year. The Public Order Emergency Commission heard more than 70 witnesses and took more than 7,000 documents into evidence over the course of the inquiry.

While both CSIS and the RCMP did not feel last year’s Ottawa demonstration constituted a national security threat, they did raise concerns that IMVE adherents had been linked to the convoy. This includes the presence of “Three Percenters” (a largely American-based militia group) and “Diagolon” members.

Diagolon is made up of former members of the Canadian Forces, who therefore have real combat training. Mubin Shaikh, a professor of public safety at Seneca College, says: “These are people with weapons. … These are the kinds of groups that I consider to be a real and significant threat … a Canadian anti-government militia organization aimed at the disruption of the current government.”

According to a CDA Institute panel at Ontario Tech University moderated by Barbara Perry, the director of the Centre on Hate, Bias, and Extremism, IMVE narratives within Canada have been specifically and almost exclusively anti-Trudeau — presumably because our current PM came into power at around the same time as former U.S. president Donald Trump and was viewed as his exact opposite.

Trump is seen by his supporters as a politician who stands up for his country, while Trudeau is seen by those of a similar mindset as one who acts against Canadians’ interests, particularly in terms of climate-change policies (which affect oil and gas production), immigration and gun control.

Ardern has been the target of the same type of vitriol for those same reasons. She, too, is viewed as being too soft on immigration and going too far on gun control and public-health measures.

What’s to be done? Well, many of the recommendations from the standing committee report suggest a crackdown on online activity to prevent disinformation and escalation of IMVE rhetoric. Given the current state of social media, that’s unlikely to happen.

A few recommendations do stand out, however. One suggests the Canadian Armed Forces and federal law enforcement must be able to hold their personnel accountable when they are found to be supporting these extremist movements. Others have to do with taking antisemitism and Islamophobia more seriously, through increased funding and research for better training for police and RCMP.

Threatening politicians with rape, murder or physical harm is not a legitimate form of political expression, full stop. We need to stop pretending it is, and take measures to shut this harmful form of rhetoric down.

Shannon Sampert is a communications consultant and former politics and perspectives editor at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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