British Columbia

Criticism vs. abuse: B.C. politicians say they're facing increased harassment

Municipal and provincial politicians say they face a growing wave of harassment in-person and online — that is keeping people from staying in office or seeking it in the first place.

Addressing the abuse, not accepting it as part of the job, is key, say local leaders

A composite picture with Brad West, Karen Elliott, and Sonia Furstenau.
Across B.C., politicians — including Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West, left, Squamish Mayor Karen Elliott, centre, and B.C. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau — say they face an increased level of harassment and abuse, in-person and online. (CBC News)

In the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam, about 30 kilometres east of Vancouver, a man allegedly became so upset over a bylaw issue he threatened to cause death or bodily harm to Mayor Brad West.

West, who was not involved with the bylaw, claims the man also threatened his wife and two young children.

"My son is five years old, my other son is 15 months old. They have nothing to do with anything that might ever be going on in the city," said West.

"There is nothing more important to me in this world than my wife and my two young boys. And my first responsibility is to love and protect them. So I took that really seriously."

Coquitlam RCMP says the man, William Arthur Jones, was arrested and a replica gun was seized. Jones was charged with one count of uttering threats, according to the B.C. Prosecution Service. Last week, he pled guilty.

West's experience is one example of the growing wave of harassment, both in-person and online, that municipal and provincial officials say they are facing.

Over the past two years, Squamish Mayor Karen Elliott says a well-funded, anonymous social media campaign has targeted her office, spreading misinformation.

A man pushes a cart past a sign that reads 'UBCM'.
At this year's Union of B.C. Municipalities, the issue of politicians dealing with threats and harassment in-person and over social media was a common theme. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

People have walked up to her and screamed in her face, and yelled at her from their vehicles while she's walking with her child, she says. 

While the harassment isn't the primary reason she's leaving office — which she has held for eight years — it has played a role, she says.

"I would say my family is not sad to see me stepping back," said Elliott.

What's more terrifying, she adds, is how it has discouraged others from seeking a role in municipal politics.

"I asked a number of women over the last 18 months to consider running for council and the answer I got was, 'Look what's happening to you. Why would I do that?"

'There is a fear ... that wasn't there before'

Provincial officials are no strangers to the blurred lines of criticism and harassment either.

B.C. Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau recalls how she was once followed by a man in a car while walking her dog, telling her she was responsible for killing children because she supports the COVID-19 vaccine.

"There is a fear that has been introduced into politics that wasn't there before," she said.

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On another occasion, she says, her constituency office was stormed by a group of people who demanded to see her, leaving staff scared and uncomfortable in their workplace.

"There really should not be a tolerance for bullying harassment or intimidation of elected officials or media," she said. "We need a system where people can feel assured they are safe doing their work."

The harassment can also target the loved ones of politicians. When Premier John Horgan posted a family photo on social media, he says the comments section was quickly filled with "venom."

"Completely unrelated to anything other than, 'Here's an opportunity to say to John Horgan and anyone that's associated with him that I hate you and everything about you,'" he said.

Horgan says he understands people are angry and frustrated, but that shouldn't give way to toxicity. He admits he's heard from many elected officials who have decided to call it quits due to the abuse. 

John Horgan purses his lips. He is a white man with a white moustache.
B.C. Premier John Horgan says the level of harassment elected officials face is concerning. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"For those who are leaving because of that contempt, I hope they would reflect instead on the countless number of people who are just getting on with their lives and saying, 'I'm glad you're doing that because someone has to.'"

All politicians CBC spoke to for this story say addressing the abuse, not simply brushing it aside and accepting it as part of the job, is key.

In a statement, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs said there is no place for intimidation or threats to elected officials or any member of the public, and any threatening or potentially violent behaviour should be reported to local police.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joel Ballard is a reporter with the CBC in Vancouver. You can reach him at joel.ballard@cbc.ca

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