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Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks as Conservative Party of Canada leader Pierre Poilievre listens during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Sept. 18, 2023.Blair Gable/Reuters

Should an MP shopping alone in a grocery store be accosted by an angry voter who gets in her face, accuses her of being a traitor and shouts an epithet about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that is so embedded in right-wing political discourse that it has its own flag?

Absolutely not. That behaviour is wrong and deserves to be widely condemned. But should the antagonist be arrested and charged with an offence? Also absolutely not.

RCMP Commissioner Mike Duheme wondered out loud this week whether the Criminal Code could be amended to address the increasingly hostile rhetoric directed by voters at Canadian politicians.

Almost all such verbal attacks – like the real-life example above, or the infamous 2022 incident when a man in Grande Prairie, Alta., hurled similar curse-laden invective at Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland – don’t rise to the level of uttering a criminal threat.

“Are there other tools that we can use?” Commissioner Duheme mused. “Is there anything else that we could add to the Criminal Code that … can address the situation?”

Again, no. Parliament should not go there.

This does not dismiss the seriousness of the issue. The grocery store incident was recounted to The Globe and Mail by Pam Damoff, the Liberal MP who said on May 1 that she would not seek re-election, because the “threats and misogyny I have experienced as a member of Parliament are such that I often fear going out in public, and that is not a sustainable or healthy way to live.”

The Ontario MP, who handily won her seat in Oakville North-Burlington in the last three elections, says she has been approached by voters at public functions who have warned her to watch her back, and told her she was going to get what was coming to her. In such cases, police have said that those kind of threats don’t meet the standard for pressing charges.

As frustrating as that can be, it makes sense. Canadian case law allows people with no history of violence to say intemperate things, including threats of bodily harm or harm to property, in the heat of the moment, as long as they have no specific intent of carrying them out.

This legal fine print isn’t just a fact of life for politicians. Store clerks, cashiers, restaurant servers, bus drivers, health care workers, journalists and many others can also be subject to verbal harassment that includes threats that don’t rise to a criminal offence.

To make an exception for elected officials would be unfair at best, and an assault on free speech at worst.

Canadians have a right to be unhappy with, and even angry at, their politicians, and to express that unhappiness and anger. The constitutional right to freedom of expression doesn’t distinguish between polite speech and rude speech. There is no requirement to be decorous and respectful.

As well, the law provides adequate room for police to intervene when they deem a person to be a real threat, when protesters vandalize a politician’s office or private property, or someone commits an actual assault – such as the man who threw gravel at Mr. Trudeau in 2021 and was sentenced to house arrest.

The RCMP, the Parliamentary Protective Service and local police should take every complaint seriously. But there should not be any special law against confronting politicians with over-the-top invective.

The problem is not the law, it’s the times in which we live. Politicians of all stripes are enduring personal attacks online and in person – and it’s coming from other politicians, not just from angry voters.

The lack of decorum and civility during Question Period, the name-calling on social media, the deliberate spreading of misinformation and half-truths, the divisive language that sorts Canadians into camps that can no longer converse with each other … If Canadians are becoming more rancorous in their exchanges with politicians, it could be because politicians aren’t providing much of an example to do otherwise.

Politicians behaving badly leads to angry citizens spewing invective, which in turn leads to politicians playing to their audiences, which could in turn lead to disaster. When there is a big incident, such as Ms. Freeland’s in 2022, parliamentarians are quick to condemn it. But the same politicians need to put a stop to the daily affronts to civility that are at the root of this toxic age.

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