News

Politicians Say They Are Getting More Violent Threats Than Ever and They're Worried

The recent incident against Justin Trudeau is just the tip of the iceberg, Canadian politicians and their staff say.
28 July 2020, 9:15am
Justin Trudeau, threats against politicians
Justin Trudeau is seen wearing a protective vest in this 2019 file photo. Photo by The Canadian Press. 

Finance Minister Bill Morneau was walking through downtown Ottawa when he was approached by someone with some thoughts about his time in office.  The stranger then spit on the minister. Morneau, alone as he often is after work hours, braced himself as the man mimed pushing him into traffic on the busy street.

This particular encounter ended without escalation, but more than a half dozen current and former staffers and politicians from multiple parties, told VICE News that concerning incidents like these, and ones far more serious, are increasingly common for Canadian politicians. Security for high-profile Members of Parliament and ministers, they say, is sorely lacking. Most said it is a matter of time before something more serious happens, especially given the escalation in aggressive rhetoric from far-right groups, in particular against women and people of colour in office.

The issue is top-of-mind after a Canadian Forces reservist was arrested on the grounds of Rideau Hall—where the prime minister and his family are living—allegedly armed with two shotguns, a prohibited rifle, and a revolver. The man, who posted QAnon conspiracy material online, has been charged with making threats against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The Rideau Hall incident has spurred staffers to come forward with their own stories of security incidents that could have easily led to someone being hurt, or worse.

There was the staffer who was punched in the face at an election campaign stop by someone trying to get to a cabinet minister. One opposition Member of Parliament said they stopped going to public events without some kind of security presence. A cabinet minister was forced, due to a flight cancellation, to stay in the same small town as a man who had repeatedly threatened their life, without security. A parcel addressed to another minister was filled with literal shit. Death threats were spray painted across one minister’s home and cottage.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Canada’s federal police force, told VICE News that since January, “there have been approximately 130 threat files against the Prime Minister and the Ministers.”

While the frequency and seriousness has varied from one politician to the next, every source who spoke to VICE News said three things: They believe the frequency of threats is increasing; ministers and MPs, by and large, do not receive a dedicated security detail, even when it’s specifically requested; and they believe the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is often loath to investigate threats, even credible ones.

The threats have become “routine,” one MP said. And the threats are not just abusive or mean, they stressed.

“I’m talking ‘I’m going to kill you and your family and enjoy it’ type shit,” the MP said.

In Canada, security for high-level officials is managed by the RCMP’s Protective Policing Services, which is roughly akin to the American Secret Service. Its responsibility includes the prime minister, the cabinet, MPs, federal and Supreme Court justices, and visiting dignitaries. It is also responsible for security at sites across Ottawa, and for various Canadians travelling overseas on government business.

In practice, however, only the prime minister enjoys a consistent security detail while inside Canada.

“Ministers of the Crown are very exposed,” one former cabinet minister told VICE News. While they said that security would arrive for about half of their public events, the RCMP otherwise offered no real protection. For example, when they flew back to their home riding, they collected their own bags, flagged their own taxi, and went home alone.

“The positive thing is that we live in a country where ministers are free to do that,” they said. At the same time, where there are credible and real threats, and “close protections for ministers is something that should happen,” they said.

None of those who spoke to VICE News were keen to have the RCMP visit or intimidate individuals who had legitimate grievances with the government, have ministers escorted by police motorcade from one meeting to another, or to legislate changes to the Criminal Code. But the consensus is that the RCMP needs to do more to assess threats in order to flag those who may pose a serious threat. Calls to reduce the RCMP’s funding have risen recently, even as the force struggles to provide local policing to large parts of the country, conduct national security investigations, and provide protective policing.

Most of the staffers and politicians who commented for this story declined to go on the record. Some opted to remain anonymous as they weren’t authorized to speak on the record about their boss’s security detail, others didn’t want to call attention to security gaps in their security, while others did not want to publicly criticize the RCMP’s work—and some, a combination of the three.

The level of vitriol in Canada has hit new highs in recent years, as rabid partisanship has worsened; complimented by a rise of extremist groups like Blood and Honour and conspiracy movements like QAnon.

One woman would call a particular minister’s office daily, threatening to come to Ottawa and do the minister harm. She was “irrational and unhinged,” the staffer says, “but lucid enough to find our phone number.”

Another staffer reported a particularly violent voicemail message to the RCMP, featuring one man's ranting plans to assault the minister. During the profanity-laden message, the caller even provided his own address, inviting the minister to visit him. According to the staffer, the RCMP replied that, while they would try and identify the man on the phone, they did not intend to send an officer to the address he provided. The RCMP reminded the minister to call 911 if he needed immediate assistance.

Many who utter threats or try to harass ministers are more bark than bite. But all it takes is one person to follow through on those threats.

During the 2019 campaign, someone from the Trudeau campaign believed they spotted a man with a gun at one of the leader’s rallies. The event was delayed for more than an hour, but Trudeau was still sent out onstage—albeit with a bulletproof vest, and flanked by an extensive security detail. Seeing the prime minister in a bulletproof vest was jarring for many Canadians, who tend to think the country is removed from the more toxic rhetoric of America and elsewhere.

The RCMP insists that ministers “can receive RCMP protection in Canada and abroad as needed,” and that “these protective measures are determined according to regular threat assessments.”

Everyone who spoke to VICE News contradicted that statement. They say these threat assessments are opaque, and often withheld by the RCMP, sometimes even after they have been reported in the media.

Ministers have had an easier time getting a security detail for public events, but even that hasn’t been consistent. When one minister’s office made a last-minute request for a security presence at a weekend event, due to some particular threats, but they never heard a reply—the departmental security team had left on Friday, and wouldn’t be back until Monday.

“We went in there dark,” the staffer said.

Abroad, the RCMP was generally more serious about providing security. But, that wasn’t even a guarantee. “We would get them for certain countries and not other countries,” one former staffer said. “It was sort of confusing.”

Various ministers offices have pointedly requested additional security due to a rise in serious and credible threats in recent years. The staff who spoke to VICE News says their requests were denied. VICE News has seen emails from one senior minister’s office to the RCMP requesting protection due to an increased level of threats and incidents, and being denied.

“They don’t want to do anything until we give them more money,” one staffer said.

“It was never a conversation,” another staffer said. “There was a lot of guidance around electronic eavesdropping, not with someone coming up to you in-person and harassing your minister.” They chalk up the lack of appropriate security to “the same reason they won’t spend money on 24 Sussex,” the decrepit former residence of the prime minister. “How do you justify spending money on that?”

The RCMP told VICE News that, for the last year, they spent just over $88 million on their “Close Protection Policing Services” program, which employs nearly 600 people. Departments often have their own corporate security divisions who work in conjunction with the RCMP. Some departments, like the Department of National Defence, have additional layers of security and personnel—though that doesn’t necessarily lead to a greater security presence, sources said.

By comparison, the Secret Service has a budget of about $2.4 billion and upwards of 7,000 employees. (Other comparable countries, like the United Kingdom and New Zealand, do not disclose the budgets for their protective details.)

Sources told VICE News that two politicians, one minister and one opposition member, have paid out-of-pocket for private security. One, to keep watch on their home; the other, to provide security at public events for when the RCMP won’t.

“There is a lack of seriousness around the safety of our public officials,” a staffer said.

When threats do come in, the sources have said, the RCMP seems receptive. “There’s an officer who’s responsible for taking our calls,” one MP said.

There is a pervasive feeling that, despite reporting these threats, most aren’t taken seriously and are not thoroughly investigated when they clearly should be. One MP, quite morosely, told VICE News that they “report everything like that to the RCMP. If for no other reason, to make sure that if something does happen to me there’s stuff on file for after, so it doesn’t happen to someone else.”

One staffer, in dealing with the RCMP, recalled thinking, “do I need to get shanked for you to take me seriously?”

Some staff reported that they often find themselves ill-equipped to handle the influx of threats. “How should we be dealing with this?” one staffer asked . “There’s no playbook when you have 2,000 incels threatening you on the internet.” Yet when those threats were flagged to the RCMP, the response was often: “If it escalates, let us know.”

One staffer said, over years of vile abuse and direct threats targeting their minister from a litany of sources, the RCMP had launched only one investigation, as far they were aware.

The staffer who was punched in the face at a campaign stop walked over to an RCMP officer posted nearby—the officer told them to call the local police if they wanted to lay charges. That’s a common refrain: The RCMP often passes off responsibility to follow up onto local police agencies.

Staffers often bear the brunt of this abuse, serving as a front line—both in-person, over the phone, via social media, and when it comes to physical mail. (It was a staffer that opened a human body part mailed to then-prime minister Stephen Harper in 2012.)

One former minister reported that, in the few instances where a criminal investigation was opened to threats made against them, the RCMP worked well with local police.

In the five years Trudeau has been in power, his government is facing an unprecedented number of threats from extremist movements. While Trudeau has highlighted the diversity of his cabinet, in terms of race, Indigenous status, and gender, that has come with an increase in specific and credible threats against those politicians.

Some ministers have faced more threats than others.

In 2017, VICE News obtained a classified threat assessment prepared about Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan. It revealed that while threats against past defence ministers had been relatively uncommon, protecting Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan posed a “unique challenge.” The assessment noted right-wing extremism, the Islamic State, and Sikh extremism were all a pressing concern to Sajjan’s safety.

Ahmed Hussen is Black, Muslim, and spent two years as immigration minister (he is currently minister for families, children and social development.) Those three factors, staffers say, made him a particular target, especially for the far-right. He has received consistent lynching threats online.

Catherine McKenna, who served as environment minister during the Liberals’ contentious first term in office, has been subject to a deluge of sexist vitriol that has evolved into consistent threats against the life of her and her family. In 2019 it was revealed she was afforded a dedicated security detail, although it remains unclear what that constitutes.

Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef and International Development Minister Karina Gould have also faced disproportionate levels of hate and threats, sources said.

Trudeau’s cabinet aren’t the only targets. Numerous MPs, including opposition members, particularly women, face serious threats, and are afforded an even lower standard of protection from the RCMP.

While Canada has not seen a successful assassination of a sitting politician since Quebec minister Pierre Laporte was killed by the FLQ in 1970, there have been recent violent acts against politicians in many Western countries.

UK Labour MP Jo Cox was stabbed and shot to death at a constituency event in 2016 by a neo-Nazi extremist. A man who railed against the Republican Party online, and made numerous angry phone calls to his congressman, opened fire on a baseball game being held by GOP politicians, injuring several. Centre-right German politician Walter Lübcke was shot to death outside his home, allegedly by a pair of neo-Nazis.

“If there’s a panic button to be pushed,” said Andrew House, who served as chief of staff to the former Public Safety Minister Stephen Blaney. “Let’s push it.”

There has been growing awareness that Canada’s decision-makers are particularly soft targets. During the previous Conservative government, under which House served, a gunman inspired by the Islamic State made it past security posted at the front doors of Parliament. The attacker made it hundreds of metres into the building, passing the doors through which Blaney and prime minister Stephen Harper were meeting, before being shot dead by the RCMP and Parliamentary security.

Even still, House said, the tempo of threats during their time in office was manageable. He explains the assessment as thus: Lots of people have the intent to harm a public figure, but lack the capability. Similarly, lots of people have the capability to do so, but lack the intent. The overlap of those two factors is where things get dicey.

House said, in his time in government, he recalled just three or four times where the RCMP had to investigate someone who showed intent and capability.

“The number and nature of threats has gone up,” said House, who now does government relations and security consulting. “It’s really disturbing stuff.”

House explains that the security package afforded to each politician may vary, depending on need. They could range from a full-time detail, like the prime minister has, which is incredibly expensive; to having more “light touch” options that could involve having officers dedicated to thoroughly investigating threats against individual ministers.

That all costs money, he explains, and “these resources are not infinite.”

One ex-staffer, who themselves faced threats, was resigned about the state of affairs.

“Somebody’s going to get hurt. It’s just a matter of time.”

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter. 

Correction: A previous version of this story said Minister Morneau was in Toronto when he had a threatening encounter. He was in Ottawa.