Graham Steele: A politician's balance between security and access

Graham Steele examines the delicate balance between security and accessibility of politicans after protesters managed to get on stage with Prime Minister Stephen Harper during an event in Vancouver this week.

Protesters managed to get on stage with Prime Minister Stephen Harper during an event in Vancouver

Sean Devlin, a climate change protester, holds a sign reading "Climate justice now" during an event with Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the Vancouver Board of Trade on Monday. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

When two climate change activists mounted a stage in Vancouver and silently held protest signs behind Prime Minister Stephen Harper, it was a shocking breach of security.

The activists did nothing wrong. They broke no law and the RCMP has confirmed no charges will be laid. The activists were expressing a political opinion and they had every right to do it.

The fact that they got through the prime minister's security cordon by dressing as waiters is a knock against the RCMP, not them. The roughness of their removal was a contrast to the peacefulness of their protest.

But what if their intent had been less peaceful? They should never have been able to get near the stage, never mind within arm's reach of the prime minister. We are too complacent about this sort of thing in Canada.

In Sweden, another equally peaceful country, a prime minister was killed in a public place in 1986 and the tragedy was repeated with a foreign minister in 2003. There are some threats that can't be answered with a Shawinigan handshake.

The spotlight that shines on politicians also attracts attention seekers, the angry and the bad. Few politicians have the kind of security the prime minister has. Most in Nova Scotia have none at all. They worry about their personal security, but they don't talk about it much.

When I was first elected as an MLA, security at Province House was light. People were free to come and go.

Then one day, someone spotted a large knife — some described it as a small sword — protruding from the belt of a visitor to the public gallery. After that, security tightened markedly.

Now there are identity badges, visitor registration, metal detectors and an armed police officer at the door of the chamber when the house was in session.

Being accessible

That's at Province House. Out in the constituency, politicians like to be accessible. Their doors are usually open and their phones will usually be answered.

I used to visit my constituents in their homes, rather than making them come to the constituency office, but I stopped after one incident that brought home to me the risk. I was lucky I had someone else with me.

Every constituency has its troublemakers and you have to learn pretty fast who they are. Some are very angry and it may have nothing to do with politics.

I heard one story, from before my time, of an MLA being held at gunpoint by a constituent distraught over his divorce.

The most threatening situation I ever experienced was from a constituent who raged in my office about the lack of adequate water treatment facilities in Africa. I also contacted the police a couple of times over threatening emails.

Because of various incidents like these, constituency offices, too, are becoming less welcoming.

The challenge, of course, is to strike the right balance between keeping politicians accessible to voters — and that includes exposing them to voters' complaints and protests — and keeping them secure enough to do their jobs.

Here's a good Nova Scotia example of how easy it is to strike the wrong balance.

Emotions run high

Back in 2001, emotions were running high over the Hamm government's back-to-work legislation. On the day of the vote, government MLAs had to be escorted out of the building by police.

But the police cordon that separated the public from the politicians also kept reporters from approaching the politicians and asking questions. That wasn’t what the security was for, but it was the result.

I worry that the public reaction to the Vancouver incident may be influenced by people's feelings about Stephen Harper.

But whether you agree with him or the activists, he is the prime minister of Canada, and he deserved better. Our elected representatives — and I mean all of them, not just the ones we like — have to be able to do their jobs without violence or fear of violence.

If we don't like them, we can march, protest, petition, write, call, organize, donate, canvass and vote — especially vote.

And then they can depart in peace.

About the Author

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.