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Team members remove a window decal that was defaced at the campaign office of then-Liberal MP Catherine McKenna, in Ottawa, on Oct. 24, 2019.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

When Catherine McKenna announced she was leaving politics, she experienced an instant sense of relief.

It wasn’t the insane workload and hours – she was never afraid of hard work. Or the travel and the back-to-back meetings and the corrosive effect of snide partisanship. No, what she felt immediate respite from was fear – the fear that accompanies today’s politicians, especially ones with high-profile roles overseeing controversial files.

“I think the biggest thing was as a cabinet minister I constantly felt on edge,” the former environment minister told me in an interview. “It was the constant threats, people verbally accosting my staff and defacing my constituency office and sending me smashed up Barbie dolls.

“You realize people know where you live. You do think a lot about the safety of your children. It’s like this horrible cloud that follows you everywhere, and you have to try and pretend it’s not there but you can’t. You have to take threats seriously.”

Ms. McKenna is precisely the type of person we hope to attract to politics: smart, articulate, passionate about important issues, a fierce advocate for women and girls. Her absence leaves a hole. But who can blame her for wanting to leave given the constant harassment she faced? Why would anyone want to go into politics these days?

One never knows when deranged, malicious utterances on some social media platform might lead to something more serious. The recent killing of British MP David Amess, stabbed to death while meeting constituents in a church hall, is a tragic reminder of the increasing threat politicians all around the world face.

While the risk of violence has been something legislators have always had to live with, there is a sense it’s much worse now, amplified by social media and the ecosystem of the aggrieved.

“If you hate Catherine McKenna, Facebook will go find you other people who hate me too.”

It seems we have a few choices.

One option is finally getting serious with the social media platforms that are creating a dangerous work environment for politicians. Facebook and Twitter, among others, have said they will deal with the issue but have demonstrated little will to do so. This is no longer a freedom of speech issue. This is a public safety issue, and we shouldn’t fear trampling on certain rights in the name of a safer world.

The second option is massively increasing the security budgets for our elected officials. In Canada this would cost billions. Think about the home security systems that would be needed, the bodyguards. The fortress you would have to turn the House of Commons into. I doubt this would be very appealing to the public.

The third option is doing nothing and accepting that increasingly fewer of our best people are going to want to have anything to do with civic life because of the risk it poses to their personal safety and that of their families. I would argue this is already happening.

Every day it seems there is another report of a politician being screamed at or threatened in a public place. It happened to Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner when she and her husband were out for dinner during the election campaign. A man came up and started yelling at her. The same thing happened recently to Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart. He and his wife were at a downtown liquor store when a man in his 50s approached the mayor and started screaming at him, daring him to step outside and fight. He then started in on the mayor’s wife. Police were called, and the matter remains under investigation.

I thought about this when I interviewed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in downtown Vancouver in July. After the interview, he plunged into a waiting crowd to take selfies. How easy it would have been, I thought, for some lunatic to do serious harm to the PM. Scenes like that are likely soon coming to an end.

It needs to be said that not all politicians are blameless here. Some are responsible for the kind of incendiary language that stokes division and hatred. The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol is a prime example of that. Some of the statements by People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier during the recent election were highly inflammatory.

We need to take this issue far more seriously than we do now. The future of our country literally depends on it.

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