Chrystia Freeland is the latest target of public threats and intimidation against women in Canadian politics

Public instances of threats and intimidation of women in public life have intensified in recent weeks, with significant examples of abuse targeting politicians – most recently Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland – as well as activists and journalists.

For weeks, a group of journalists, especially journalists of color, have publicly shared a series of private, anonymous emails they received. These emails contained specific, targeted and disturbing threats of violence and sexual assault, as well as racist and misogynistic language.

« It was very insidious, and the language around it was a perversion of progressive language that was used to abuse and torment us. Additionally, we were told that we had been put on a list of journalists to silence, » Erica Ifill, a columnist for The Hill Times and podcast host, told CBC Radio The House for a segment airing on Saturday.

The online harassment turned into an in-person encounter again on Friday, when Freeland faced a tirade of verbal abuse during an incident in Grande Prairie, Alta.

In a video shared widely on social media, several people, one of whom is filming, are seen approaching Freeland as she and several others walk through Grand Prairie City Hall towards an elevator.

During the brief encounter, the man yells at Freeland, calling her a « traitor », a « fucking bitch », and telling her to leave the province.

The couple are asked to leave by others in the building and eventually walk out to the parking lot.

Freeland, who was born in Peace River, about 200 kilometers from Grande Prairie, was on a multi-day tour of Saskatchewan and Alberta, meeting with government officials, businessmen and workers.

LISTEN | The Chamber hears journalists, activists, targeted by online harassment:

CBC News: The House18:02Online toxic damage – what can fix it?

The Chamber hears from two journalists of color and an activist who have been the target of online harassment. Next, experts Emily Laidlaw and Yuan Stevens study what government legislation could do to stem the tide of online toxicity.

Harassment condemned by politicians

The video’s actions were widely condemned by politicians and others across the country on Saturday. Conservative leadership candidate Jean Charest called it « gross intimidation » and « dangerous behavior » in a tweet. McKenna called it « beyond pale ».

In an interview with CBC News, Grande Prairie Councilman Dylan Bressey said the encounter was « completely ridiculous. »

« What we’re seeing across Canada – and our community is not immune – is that there are people who feel disenfranchised, angry and fearful. , but they’re expressing it in a completely inappropriate way that doesn’t help anyone. »

Legislation is only one piece of the puzzle: expert

Harassment has long been a problem for Canadians in public life, especially women. Former Liberal cabinet minister Catherine McKenna, for example, has at times been forced to have extra security due to the harassment she has suffered, and many other MPs have revealed threats made against them.

One of the most extreme examples of online harassment occurred in London, Ontario. recently, when transgender activist and Twitch streamer Clara Sorrenti was forced to leave the country after a campaign of harassment that included a case of « swatting » – when a threat of violence sent under her name but without her knowledge led the armed police to show up at his door and arrest him.

Clara Sorrenti, based in London, Ontario, known as Keffals on the online platform Twitch, says she was repeatedly harassed and even her family was targeted, so she decided to leave Canada for a certain time. (Michelle Both/CBC)

Ahead of the 2021 election, the federal government introduced legislation to protect Canadians from what it calls online harm, but that bill died when the election was called and, after much criticism, a new legislation is back in consultation.

Legislation governing how social media platforms tackle harmful content is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to online harassment, said Emily Laidlaw, Canada Research Chair in Cybersecurity Law. at the University of Calgary. Reforms to the legal system, education and other policy areas such as cybersecurity and privacy were also important, she said. The House.

« It’s through all sorts of different laws and social silences that we have to fight online harm, and that’s actually what makes it so difficult, » Laidlaw said.

Yuan Stevens, a human rights and technology lawyer, likened the problem to smoking, in which education and awareness have led to both legal changes and a change in public attitudes. .

“I think a holistic effort will be needed in Canada that is not just about banning this, banning that, punishing that,” he said, but rather an effort that tackles attitudes toward people of color. , women, LGBTQ people and others and addresses the « root causes » of harassment, threats and violence.

social media
Canadian journalists, politicians and others, especially women, have been the target of high-profile and disturbing cases of harassment, threats and intimidation. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

« It’s psychological warfare »

Hill Times columnist Ifill described how the campaign against her and other journalists appeared to be targeted, growing from a few people to a group of more than a dozen, many of them people of color.

« Each email gets more complex. They create scenarios based on our past work to torment us, » Ifill told guest host Ashley Burke.

« It’s more than just an email. It’s a concentrated effort. It’s psychological warfare. »

Raisa Patel, who previously worked with CBC News, including for The Housewas one of the reporters who spoke out in support of her colleagues and later received an email of her own.

She told Burke that even though the emails contained racism and misogyny, « Many of us felt no reaction to that element of those emails because it’s something we have used to receiving as racialized female journalists. But what was particularly alarming was the targeted nature of this campaign. »

Journalists said they also struggled with police responses, including difficulty reporting incidents in the first place and convincing police to take action.

« It was very difficult trying to get the police to understand the very coordinated nature of this campaign and some of the more threatening elements. Since we went public, I think the process has improved somewhat, » said Patel said. .


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