National AffairsPolitics

Exploiting our fears

By Susan Delacourt / June 16, 2023

Our safe places suddenly feel unsafe, and Canada’s politicians are only making it worse

It is only a matter of time, perhaps, before politicians in Canada start accusing their rivals of killing people.

OK, to be fair, the country is not quite there yet, but the rhetoric is definitely heading in that direction.

For months now, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has been urging his audiences to blame Justin Trudeau and his New Democratic allies for random acts of violence against people on public transit and in other places much too close to where they live.

“Justin Trudeau and the costly coalition are going to continue to unleash this wave of violence and crime on our streets,” Poilievre declared at a news conference in Edmonton in April.

This week, however, Poilievre took exception to the way in which the prime minister was linking Conservative climate-change policies to the wildfires poisoning the actual skies over Parliament.

“Has he really sunken to the low of exploiting these fires for political gain?” Poilievre said during a raucous question period.

Difficult as it may be to tune into this overheated level of debate, the politicians are tapping into a disturbing theme that has been running through the news of late: people are feeling unsafe in the places that are supposed to be safe – public transit, the classrooms, even soccer fields. Being a politician is also a riskier proposition, safety-wise, than it was a few years ago. Members of Parliament have boosted their own personal security measures in the past couple of years and, as CBC reported last week, the RCMP is looking at ways to expand protection for public officials.

Keeping the public’s faith

in civic order

Beyond the personal toll this takes on politicians and governments, though, this heightened concern about safety raises some important questions about keeping the public’s faith in civic order. If the public square and community gathering places are seen as less safe, how are governments supposed to respond? Can they even respond?

Many are tracking this development back to COVID-19 and what three years of isolation and public-access restrictions did to individuals. When Ontario Soccer launched its program of equipping referees with body cameras a couple of weeks ago, for instance, several people observed how parents in the stands have become more far more emboldened in the wake of COVID-19 to threaten and harass the officials on the field.

“We’re just seeing a heightened animosity coming out of COVID,” said Michelle Loveless, executive director of the Durham Region Soccer Association. “It’s like people have forgotten how to be in social public settings.”

Premier Doug Ford recently voiced his shock over a survey of elementary school teachers that reported a troubling level of violence in the classroom.

“When we all grew up?” Ford said. “It starts at home. Man, if I will speak for my parents. God forbid I ever went up and hit a teacher. I’d get twice the hit when I got home.”

Ford of course wasn’t counselling parents to hit their kids, but he was speaking to the incredulity many feel about the aggressive streak surfacing in people’s public interactions, whether with teachers or politicians or fellow citizens.

‘Some areas of violence

have increased’

I talked to Tracy Vaillancourt, a professor at the University of Ottawa who holds the Canada Research Chair in school-based mental health and violence prevention, about whether society is really more unsafe these days.

“Yes and no,” Vaillancourt said. “The evidence on physical violence suggests global reductions for the past two decades. But the rates for bullying in youth have not changed at all during this period in Canada, except for a reduction during the pandemic.”

However, she added, “Some areas of violence have increased. For example, technology-facilitated violence like threats, harassment, doxxing, impersonation, and image-based sexual abuse and the like has increased.”

Major targets, she said, are politicians, journalists, human rights activists and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

‘It’s like Twitter has come to life’

By “technology-facilitated,” Vaillancourt means social media, which also appears to have unleashed some of the worst in people. The incivility starts on the computer screen, in other words, and then leaps into the actual, physical square.

I remember standing watching a horde of protesters descending on a Trudeau campaign event in the 2021 election, chanting conspiracy theories and calls to violence. One of my colleagues said, “It’s like Twitter has come to life.” Indeed, it was.

Long before that election and the pandemic, former Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick testified at a Commons committee in 2019 about his fears about how public life had become less safe. “I worry about foreign interference in the upcoming election campaign,” Wernick said. “I worry about the rising tides of incitements to violence when people use terms like ‘treason’ and ‘traitor’ in open discourse.”

The former top public servant told me last week that the toxicity has definitely increased since then. “The atmosphere, the environment is definitely harsher,” Wernick said.

He worries about the deterrent effect it will have on people – not just on those running for office, but people who want to be teachers or in any position of authority. Yet he also notes that in Toronto, where public-transit violence is a major issue in the current mayoralty campaign, more than 100 candidates have put their names forward.

Wernick said he’s pleased that Canada, for the most part, has not gone down the road of other countries, with politicians blaming immigrants for threats to public safety. It’s an interesting observation – while Canada is no stranger to race-based violence and anti-immigrant sentiment, politicians are far more likely to look at domestic causes for the disruptions in community safety: homelessness, the cost of living, addiction and mental-health troubles.

Dan Arnold, now at the Pollara public-opinion firm, has worked in both worlds, as a gatherer of opinion for governments to digest and as the person within the halls of power who sifts through that data for clues on how to govern. From 2015 to 2021, Arnold was head of research for Trudeau’s government.

Public safety is one of those issues that ranks high on the scale of public demands for immediate action, said Arnold. “It’s one of those issues where it can rise up quickly,” he said, especially when the incidents hit in places where people feel they could personally be a victim, like in the classroom, or on transit.

“Well, I ride public transit, so that could impact me, right? So it’s very instinctual as an issue of safety; it’s kind of an emotive, instinctual, primal sort of concern.”

As a result, this won’t be the kind of thing where the public is going to be happy with a five-year plan or an announcement of mere dollars or “strategy,” Arnold said. Politicians of all stripes are going to be pressed about what they’re doing right now, immediately, to make people feel safer.

Arnold points out that neither the political right nor the left can claim to own this issue, though both will try to exploit it. Conservatives will present themselves as tough, law-and-order types, but Liberals and progressives have staked strong claims to be the champions against gun violence. It hasn’t escaped Arnold’s notice either that public safety issues, unlike economic ones, aren’t ones where Conservatives are asking the government to get out of the way.

The influence of political


I asked Vaillancourt whether it mattered how politicians talk to each other about this issue. For example, if the public’s faith in institutions is declining, how much will political conversation have any influence?

On the one hand, Vaillancourt does have lots of views (like Ford) about how this starts at home and how families speak to each other. But she also believes that public words matter. And in her mind, there’s no question that “we’re really eroding civil norms. We’re changing the landscape and that’s a problem.”

So yes, when politicians start flooding the public square with playground-bully rhetoric, we shouldn’t be surprised when citizens start talking like bullies, too. In her work, Vaillancourt said, it’s called “moral disengagement.”

“The process of moral disengagement is a gradual one in which people perform milder acts of incivility, which in time, lead to more egregious behaviour. The issue with incivility and aggression in politics is that people see powerful people being reinforced and sanctioned for their poor behaviour. This impunity is problematic because people are more likely to imitate people who are powerful and rewarded for their behaviour. This changes our normative beliefs about aggression and impacts future behaviour.”

What this means, in layman’s terms, is that politicians might want to reverse the descent of their rhetoric on public safety – or at least hold off before they’re tempted to blame their rivals for random violence and mayhem. That’s not making the world more safe.

Twitter: @susandelacourt

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