Nova Scotia

Politicians, academics worry where extremist behaviour in Canada could lead

N.S. Liberal MP Sean Fraser, whose constituency office was targeted by protesters making references to the Nuremberg trials on Thursday, says there is a line of civility that more and more people seem comfortable crossing, and that causes him concern.

Politicians' offices targeted this week with chemical irritants, N.S. Legislature closed due to threats

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser's constituency office in New Glasgow, N.S., was targeted by protesters on Thursday who made reference to Nazi Germany. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Federal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser says no one should be surprised by extremist behaviour making its way to Nova Scotia, including outside the doors of his Pictou County constituency office.

Unmasked protesters gathered Thursday in New Glasgow, N.S., and attempted to enter the locked office after promoting the event with a reference to the Nuremberg trials, the tribunals held in the wake of the Second World War for the war crimes of Nazi officials.

People don't have to share his opinions or agree with everything — or even anything — his government does related to the COVID-19 pandemic or other issues, said Fraser, but there is a line of civility that more and more people seem comfortable crossing, and that causes him concern.

"There is no place for comparisons between public health measures and the Holocaust," the Central Nova MP said in an interview from Ottawa.

"There is no place in our democratic discourse to threaten elected officials with violence because you don't agree with them, particularly when they were elected in a democratic way by your friends and neighbours who may not share your point of view."

MPs, MLAs targeted 

The incident at Fraser's office comes during a week when multiple federal and provincial politicians in Nova Scotia received suspicious packages, some of which contained chemical irritants. Most of the envelopes were left sealed, but at least one that was opened included disturbing images of politicians being hanged. Province House was closed to the public Friday following threats against it and other nearby government buildings in Halifax.

The incidents follow protests that have shut down the Canada-U.S. border crossing and taken over parts of downtown Ottawa. While they're touted as opposing public health measures, such as vaccines mandates, the protests have also included people waving Nazi and Confederate flags, while others have intimidated people in communities and danced on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Fraser said he's not just worried about where things could lead, but the immediate threat of physical violence.

"Let's not forget that people who are in Ottawa today have been threatening journalists and elected officials," he said.

Lori Turnbull, the director of Dalhousie University's school of public administration and an associate professor of political science, said right-wing extremism is having an effect on mainstream conversations as frustrations about public health measures mount and there is a breakdown of trust for institutions among some people.

"It's not all explainable by one thing, but we have a serious far-right presence in Canada that is starting to kind of become more visible to the mainstream," she said.

Nelson Wiseman, professor emeritus in the University of Toronto's political science department, said what's playing out in Canada is a proliferation of something that's been developing for a few years.

"It's become very common in the United States," he said. "The United States always shows Canada its future in all kinds of areas — in consumer trends, cultural trends, politics — and so you have spillage, and that's what's going on."

A woman in a blue jacket speaks in front of boats and water.
Lori Turnbull is director of the school of public administration and an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University. (CBC)

Wiseman said the overt anger and public expressions of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry that emerged during the time of Donald Trump's presidency in the U.S. are spreading.

It's why Turnbull believes it's so important for political leaders in Canada at all levels and from all parties to speak out against the actions unfolding in recent days.

"Political leaders have to resist the urge to try to tap into what they see as a potential basis of support at all costs," she said. "There has to be some defence of the integrity of democracy."

In recent days, the leaders of all major parties in Ottawa have called on protesters to go home. What started as a supposed show of support for truckers, despite the majority of people in that industry being vaccinated and continuing to work, morphed into something very different.

West Nova MP Chris d'Entremont's office in Yarmouth, N.S., received mail that included a chemical irritant this week. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

West Nova MP Chris d'Entremont, whose Yarmouth, N.S., constituency office received one of the letters with a chemical irritant, said there needs to be a change in the language people are using as they debate contentious issues. He said there is growing recognition of that within the caucus of the Conservative Party of Canada.

"I do worry sometimes that people treat it as a sort of western movement or another movement, and therefore [they] need to support it," he said.

"But in the end, I think as this goes on longer, I think they'll realize the fault in that. It's not just that."

During 16 years in provincial office and three in Ottawa, d'Entremont has seen his share of protests and frustrated constituents. But he said a new tone has emerged.

'People are calling very angry'

"People on social media, people on the emails and the phone calls, people are calling very angry and demanding of things and that's different than really anything I've really seen since I've been elected," he said, adding that it's beginning to affect the way politicians do their jobs.

"We should be interacting with our ridings. We should be interacting with the public. And because of the added threats that seem to be popping up all over the place, we end up having to put in, you know, barriers in that work."

Like d'Entremont, Turnbull and Wiseman, Fraser believes that at least part of the problem is the last two years of public health measures have caused people to turn inward and communicate online, rather than face to face.

In many cases, Fraser said, it's caused them to seek out points of view that validate and reinforce their own, rather than considering the views of others and engaging in constructive exchanges.

Even interactions among MPs have changed, he said, as Zoom meetings have removed opportunities to bump into people in the hallways of Parliament or at a restaurant or bar in downtown Ottawa, the places where real cross-party relationships are forged.

Staff caught in the way

Fraser is also troubled by the fact that the people who are actually on the receiving end of threatening mail and protests at political offices often aren't politicians, but rather the staff whose job it is to help constituents.

That job has been particularly difficult and all encompassing during the pandemic, he said, as staffers worked to help get people access to financial benefits, support for small businesses and wage subsidies for larger companies.

"This is the kind of thing they've been doing to literally help thousands and thousands of people over the last few years, and they do it in the face of this kind of aggression where the protesters would compare the policies that our government have adopted to the work of the Nazis during the Holocaust," said Fraser.

"This is not OK."