Skip to main content

Protesters wait for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to arrive at a campaign event in Bolton, Ont. on Aug. 27, 2021. The event was cancelled because of security concerns.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Party leaders are contending with how to handle emboldened protesters on the campaign trail, where outdoor campaign events, designed to reduce the spread of COVID-19, have created security challenges.

Because the events take place in public places, with few barriers to attendance, protesters have become a frequent presence. On Sunday, a group of them directed “lock him up” chants at Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in Cambridge, Ont. And on Friday, Mr. Trudeau’s planned appearance in Bolton, Ont., was cancelled because of security concerns.

Chris Mathers, a security expert and former Mountie, said in an interview that social media allows for protesters to organize and converge on particular locations easily.

Vitriolic protesters give Trudeau a welcome foil and campaign prop

O’Toole, Singh denounce aggressive protesters dogging Trudeau campaign

Outdoor events pose particular security challenges, he added, because there are more access points compared to events held inside. It is easier to vet attendees at indoor events and prevent people who may pose a threat from coming in, he said.

“There was no violence [in Bolton], thankfully, but it could have gone that way from what I could see,” he said. “There’s always a potential for violence.”

At the Bolton event, a podium was set up for Mr. Trudeau and circles were drawn on the ground to encourage physical distancing among supporters. Prior to the leader’s arrival, a number of protesters gathered nearby. Many expressed opposition to COVID-19 vaccines and lockdown measures. They began to scream expletives and express anger toward Mr. Trudeau. Some also held anti-Trudeau signs and flags.

While speaking later that day at a park in Brampton, Ont., Mr. Trudeau said allowing the event to go ahead would have put supporters at risk, but that he would not stop talking to Canadians.

Alex Marland, a professor of political science at Memorial University who has researched message control for political parties, said it is possible for an outdoor campaign event to unfold without protesters being around, such as at a location that people are not informed about ahead of time. He said the Liberals will want to take a different approach if protests continue, because “they do not want this to be in the news every single day.”

It appears that change in approach is happening. Mr. Trudeau’s itinerary was released on Tuesday morning about an hour and a half before an event in Kanata, Ont. Previously, his plans were usually released the night before an event. His schedule also included a reference to an event in Sudbury on Tuesday afternoon, with no location given.

A group of protesters was still able to find Mr. Trudeau’s motorcade after he arrived at the airport ahead of the Sudbury event. One of the demonstrators, Sudbury resident Dan Dubois, said Mr. Trudeau is a “terrible politician.”

Mr. Trudeau later said he was not going to back down, no matter how many people show up “to shout us down.” He added that the majority of Canadians support COVID-19 vaccination.

The challenge with changing the Liberal approach to sharing Mr. Trudeau’s whereabouts is that it projects a lack of accessibility, which goes against the image of openness that Mr. Trudeau often tries to embody, Prof. Marland said.

It is time for Mr. Trudeau’s security detail to think about how extreme protesters are becoming, Mr. Mathers said. Outdoor events need to be cordoned off with fencing, he added.

Conservative candidate Michael Barrett said in a statement distributed by the party on Tuesday that the Tories have “consistently condemned the threatening images and behaviour at some of Mr. Trudeau’s rallies.”

“This needs to stop immediately,” he said.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who has encountered vocal protestors on the campaign trail, said Monday that some people seem to be extremely angry about COVID-19 vaccinations or mask mandates. A few have been making violent threats or using horrible language and “there is no place for that,” he added.

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul said in a statement last Thursday that social media makes it much easier to provoke people into extreme acts, and that the hate directed at her and other candidates is “alarming.”

“Most of the security threats are online,” Ms. Paul said. “We haven’t had any hecklers showing up at rallies or press conferences. However, there have been online posts proposing to come and disrupt our in-person events.”

With a report from Menaka Raman-Wilms in Ottawa

Follow the party leaders and where they stand on the issues this election campaign by signing up for our Morning or Evening Update newsletters.

For subscribers only: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.