It appeared to be novel – and viewed by some as a savvy media stunt – when three Greenpeace climate activists clad in hardhats and coveralls showed up one morning in April, 2002, at Ralph Klein’s Calgary bungalow.
After raising a ladder, they put solar panels on the roof and hung banners with climate slogans from the eavestroughs. The activists tried to deliver a letter to the door to let occupants know their purpose.
The Alberta premier was in Edmonton at the time, but Mr. Klein’s house was chosen, as then-Greenpeace spokesman (now federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault) explained, because he was Canada’s leading opponent to meaningful action on climate change.
But the premier later told reporters that his wife, Colleen Klein, who mostly shunned any spotlight and had only their Lhasa Apso at home as company, was frightened by the incident. “There’s a political process in this country for expressing opinions. And that process doesn’t include climbing on my roof.”
Twenty years on, it’s a much different time. It doesn’t feel clever now for protesters to show up at a politician’s house. It feels dangerous. The people who are now appearing outside politicians’ homes are using threatening props, and talking up discredited COVID-19 conspiracy theories as they rally against vaccine mandates and health restrictions. And now the protests aren’t limited to the highest-profile federal or provincial politicians with dedicated security details.
After both the mayor and at least one councillor were targeted at their residences, Calgary City Council members this week voted to give themselves an allowance of up to $8,000 for the installation of security systems at their homes.
There will be quibbles with the details of this plan. One veteran city councillor, André Chabot, who voted against the idea, complained that the security allowance could be viewed by the public as a salary bump. To me, it is a strangely large amount for what the city describes as “one-time security system install and hardware.”
But the move came from a recommendation by the city’s administration. It was “based on intelligence” that security issues at councillors’ homes could continue, and worsen, said city manager David Duckworth. And at this point, it feels depressingly inevitable that other municipalities will follow suit with bolstering security measures for politicians.
Why does it matter? If you have any doubt that security is a material issue to protecting democratic systems and the decisions politicians make, just listen to the words of Liz Cheney. The former Republican star has been openly critical of Donald Trump and his lie that he won the 2020 presidential election.
The arch conservative, who now finds herself on the outs with most of her own party, told David Axelrod’s CNN podcast: “I have had a number of [Republican] members say to me, we would have voted to impeach, but we were concerned about our security.”
Threats have become a norm for Republicans who haven’t toed the Trump line. Ms. Cheney spent nearly US$60,000 on security in the two months after voting to impeach the then-president. Before that time, the Wyoming congresswoman had spent barely anything.
Canadians might look at the politicians south of the border and think that’s not something that happens here. But there is a creeping lack of respect for boundaries that should make us concerned. The list of decision-makers who have had protesters show up at their garden gate during the pandemic, just in this neck of the woods, is significant. It also defies partisan lines, and has more to do with who is in charge.
For instance, Mayor Jyoti Gondek, who has no party affiliation but is viewed as progressive – and is also the city’s first woman mayor, a person of colour – had protesters show up at her house earlier this month. So did Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping. Last year, protesters rallied outside United Conservative Party MLA Tracy Allard’s house, one bringing a fake noose as a prop.
The Calgary Herald reported this week that left-of-centre councillor Gian-Carlo Carra had protesters show up at his house earlier this month, and conservative Sean Chu was notified by city officials that he had threats made against him on social media, with some users offering to share his home address.
(Meanwhile, a year ago in Saskatchewan, Chief Medical Health Officer Saqib Shahab also had a small group of protesters gathered outside his home.)
Not only is this a trial for the individuals who have people show up at their door, it’s bad for attracting new people to politics. If you have children or elderly relatives at home, are these types of protests going to make you think twice about running for public office? Absolutely.
Public criticism is part of the job of being a politician. Being harassed, particularly at the place where you live, shouldn’t be. Mr. Klein’s two-decade-old admonishment that there are some lines that shouldn’t be crossed seems more relevant than ever.
There were always people who were going to take criticism of public officials to an extreme. In the old days, there were crank calls and nasty letters. But now social media makes it so easy for an algorithm to quickly discern your likes and dislikes. It can quickly bring people a stream of content, some of it misinformation, and a community that will reinforce your world views – including that public institutions can’t be trusted, and your least-favourite public figure is a buffoon, a liar, or much worse.
It’s becoming less about criticizing policies you don’t like and more about attacking individuals. The ultimate in making it personal is bringing it to someone’s home. Unfortunately, this means the politicians who represent us, even at the municipal level, need new tools to help keep themselves and their families safe.
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