Politics

Threats against politicians 'very frequent', former Privy Council clerk says

Canada's former top civil servant says Canadians would be shocked and dismayed to learn the true level of abuse and the number of violent threats politicians face during their time in office.

Politicians often receive 'vile' messages attacking gender, religion, race, says Michael Wernick

Speaking before the House of Commons justice committee in February 2019, Michael Wernick warned of the risks associated with coarsening political discourse. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
Listen to the full episode47:12

Canada's former top civil servant says Canadians would be shocked and "dismayed" to learn the true level of abuse and the number of violent threats politicians face during their time in office.

"It's a very hostile environment to go into public life and we pay a price for that," former clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick told CBC Radio's The House. "It's a slide towards a degree of violence in our politics which I think we should resist."

Wernick said there is a "certain innocence" in Canada when it comes to political violence.

"I think Canadians would be dismayed to know that the people that step up and run for office and serve their country for a period of time are sent videos on how to commit suicide," he said.

"The most vile kinds of messages are sent to them attacking their gender, their religion, their race and so on."

The former clerk of the Privy Council talks about the current threat of political violence in Canada. 11:54

Wernick made headlines in early 2019 when he testified before the House of Commons justice committee investigating the SNC-Lavalin controversy. The 40-year civil servant used his prepared remarks to comment on what he called the coarsening of political debate and the risk it poses to the people who run for office.

"I worry about the rising tide of incitements to violence when people use terms like 'treason' and 'traitor' in open discourse," Wernick told the committee in February of last year. "Those are the words that lead to assassination. I'm worried that somebody is going to be shot in this country, this year, during the political campaign."

At the time, many felt Wernick's comments were alarmist and over-the-top. But now, 17 months later, two men have been charged in separate incidents for allegedly threatening the life of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

WATCH | Michael Wernick warns about the state of political discourse in 2019 testimony

‘I'm here to say to you that the Globe and Mail article contains errors, unfounded speculation and, in some cases, is simply defamatory,’ said Wernick, clerk of the Privy Council. 5:31

Corey Hurren, a Canadian Armed Forces reservist from Manitoba, faces 22 charges for allegedly smashing the security gate at Rideau Hall with his pickup truck and then setting out on foot toward the prime minister's house, heavily armed. Hurren also has been accused of threatening Trudeau.

André Audet of Boucherville, Que. was arrested and charged by the RCMP's national security team for allegedly making online posts that called for Trudeau's death and the eradication of Muslims.

"There are serious threats to people in office all the time and it's important that that be taken seriously," said Wernick, who during his time in the Privy Council Office (PCO) was briefed regularly on security and threat assessments.

"It's very frequent. I can't put numbers to it but I was constantly exposed to it."

Toxic language in politics a pathway to violence

That exposure started for Wernick during his first month in the PCO as the deputy clerk. That's when a gunman fatally shot Cpl. Nathan Cirillo while he stood guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. The shooter then stormed Parliament Hill, where he was killed in a gun battle in the Hall of Honour as MPs and staff barricaded themselves in meeting rooms and offices.

Wernick was with then-PCO clerk Janice Charette at the time and was evacuated to a safe location.

Police officers inspect the area around the National War Memorial in downtown Ottawa in 2014 after a gunman stormed Parliament Hill. Wernick was evacuated to a safe location during the incident. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

"We spent a very tense afternoon during that incident and I spent a lot of my time as deputy clerk on issues around the safety of the prime minister," Wernick said.

That work led Wernick to some strong conclusions. He argues that the increasingly toxic language used in politics (amplified by what he's called "the vomitorium of social media") is a pathway to violence — an inevitable outcome of the dehumanization and vilification of political opponents.

"Particularly when we're talking about starting to characterize your opponents more as enemies or even as traitors," Wernick said. "That's ground that is just not responsible for people in office or candidates for office."

Sussex Drive currently not a safe place for families

Wernick retired in April 2019 — in large part due to the fallout from the SNC-Lavalin controversy. As such, he no longer has access to security briefings. So while he doesn't know more than anyone else about the recent attack at Rideau Hall, he said it laid bare the security weaknesses that exist in Canada's official residences.

Wernick said that 24 Sussex Drive — the official yet uninhabited residence of the prime minister — would need significant security upgrades in addition to long overdue maintenance to make it safe for a prime minister with children.

"Frankly, it's never going to be a safe place for somebody [with] a family to live, unless some very, very expensive upgrades are put into those premises," he said. 

Trudeau and his family split their time between Rideau Cottage and the PM's summer residence at Harrington Lake. After decades of neglect, the projected cost of making 24 Sussex habitable is high, even before the security upgrades Wernick is calling for are taken into account. 

A report by the National Capital Commission released in 2018 said it'll cost approximately $83 million to restore and maintain Canada's official residences, including 24 Sussex Drive. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

The politics of spending large sums of public money on official residences has long stood in the way of those repairs. Wernick said the country needs to take politics out of those decisions.

"I think we have to be honest about the costs of personal protection for the prime minister and cabinet ministers and not subject it to the small politics of, 'Well, how could you spend so much money upgrading your residence' in an age of drones and sniper rifles and car bombs," Wernick said.

"We need to provide safe places for people who are obviously public targets to live in. And so, let's have an honest conversation about what it would actually cost to keep people safe while they're serving us."

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