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Mark Sutcliffe is the mayor of Ottawa.

Eighteen months ago, in the middle of my first election campaign, I stopped looking at social media. After observing a rising number of personal attacks against several people involved in the campaign – including members of my family – I decided it was healthier for me not to know what was happening on Twitter and other channels. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

But avoiding social media doesn’t insulate anyone from the toxicity of politics, nor the stress that results from it. Just last week, my office was broken into by an intruder. No significant harm was caused, but it was very alarming to my staff, especially because of the increasingly hostile culture in which politicians and their employees are forced to operate.

Other Canadian mayors have told me that they and their families have experienced many of the same things I’ve witnessed: hostility, aggression, death threats, invasions of privacy. And women, people of colour and LGBTQ public figures – including the other main candidate in Ottawa’s 2022 mayoral race, Catherine McKenney – contend with much more of it than I do. Last month, France Bélisle resigned as the mayor of Gatineau to “preserve her health” in what she described as a “hostile” culture.

We’ve worked hard to ensure that bullying, threats and abusive behaviour are not tolerated in workplaces or classrooms. Why, then, are public figures – politicians, athletes, celebrities – still fair game?

In any other situation involving abuse, the onus is on the offender to change, not for the recipient to accept it and adapt to it. We would never tell an employee in a toxic environment, for instance, that the person who needs to change is you, or Get some thicker skin, or If you can’t put up with verbal attacks, don’t apply for the job – that’s the price you pay. But when it involves public figures, such hostility is somehow acceptable. Too many people believe that politicians, their families and their staff should simply tolerate intimidation and fear tactics, open mockery based on appearances, character assassination, misinformation campaigns, or being turned into cruel memes.

Even in professional sports leagues, where the mentality was once that ticket-buying fans could say anything they wanted, the climate is changing. Last year, I was at a Major League Baseball game where a fan sitting near me was warned about heckling a player on the other team. When he persisted, he was removed from the ballpark.

Let me be clear: I have no problem with people who simply disagree with me. As a former newspaper columnist and talk show host, I relish open dialogue and healthy debate about issues. But insults and personal attacks are another matter altogether.

The abuse doesn’t just affect me, but my staff and, indeed, the whole community. It prevents us from attracting and retaining the best people to politics. I’ve talked to many qualified leaders who have chosen not to run explicitly because of the toxicity.

We all want to have good candidates to choose from, and a healthy and productive political system. So why narrow the field of qualified people taking leadership roles in our communities? Why allow a terrible work environment to persist? How long before one of the many threats Canadian politicians receive turns into a violent physical attack? Are we supposed to wait for that to happen before we take this issue seriously?

So far, I’ve been able to handle this. But why should I or anyone else have to? Why should potential leaders have to think about whether they – and their kids – are ready for the abuse? No one, not even a politician, should be compelled to experience a toxic work environment as a condition of employment.

I wish I had an easy solution. I’ve advised many of my colleagues on Ottawa city council to join me in avoiding social media, but just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. And every time it does happen, it reinforces the idea that it’s acceptable and that politicians are fair game.

And here’s the puzzling thing: Nobody seems to like the decline in civility, but people contribute to it anyway. I’m often amazed by how many decry the nastiness and vicious polarization of today’s politics as if it’s something entirely outside their control, like rain or snow. But the insults don’t drop out of the sky; they are expressed by human beings (and liked and reposted by others).

The solution isn’t for those who are abused to exit social media or try harder to withstand the attacks. It’s for people to stop participating in – and normalizing – the toxicity.

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