Relentless online abuse of female MPs raises concern for safety of staff

For years, MPs targeted by online hate speech and threats have had to figure out on their own how to make their staff feel safe. But as the volume and intensity of online abuse - especially against female MPs - continues to grow, some federal politicians say it's time for Parliament to tackle the issue.

Countering online vitriol a 'priority' for this Parliament, says Liberal whip

Staff discovered a vulgar word — which CBC News has blurred — painted across Catherine McKenna's campaign office Oct. 24, 2019. (David Richard/CBC)

NDP MP Jenny Kwan had a panic button installed in her Vancouver constituency office.

Elizabeth May, the former leader of the Green Party, flew in a private security consultant to assess her staff's safety after receiving death threats.

Liberal cabinet minister Mélanie Joly keeps her Quebec constituency office locked. Her staff members use a doorbell and a security camera to control access to the office.

For years, MPs facing down online hate speech and threats have been forced to work out their own approaches to security. But as the volume and intensity of the abuse grows — especially the abuse directed against female MPs — some federal politicians are saying it's time for Parliament to intervene.

"I don't want to stoke fears about this," said May. "But yes, there's a risk of a violent attack against a woman MP. Of course there is.

"Staff can feel under threat when the MP for whom they work is under threat."

Liberal MP Mark Holland is the chief government whip. Through his role on the Board of Internal Economy, which governs the House of Commons, he's responsible for keeping the parliamentary workplace safe.

Support is available for MPs and staffers who feel under threat — and MPs' staff members aren't at the point where they're afraid to go to work, he said — but "more needs to be done."

'The hate is designed to break people down'

Tackling online vitriol targeting federal politicians has to be a "massive priority" for the board in the new Parliament, he said,

"This hate is designed to break people down, to push them out of office, to bully them out of the way," said Holland. "I have certainly seen that over the last number of years grow and intensify ... We have to be deeply concerned about that."

Liberal cabinet minister Catherine McKenna is the most high-profile target of online threats and harassment in the current Parliament. A vandal defaced her campaign office almost two weeks ago with a sexist slur. The RCMP tasked a protective detail with keeping her safe after she was publicly threatened while she was out with her children.

Joly accepted RCMP protection after receiving death threats over M-103, a non-binding motion condemning Islamophobia and religious discrimination, according to a spokesperson at her office.

And last winter, someone sent a video to a staffer in the Prime Minister's Office offering suicide tips.

It's not just Canada's problem. In the United Kingdom, multiple female British lawmakers have quit their jobs over relentless online intimidation and abuse.

Holland said the Liberal government has been focused on tackling workplace harassment, including harassment by constituents. In the past year, the government quietly rolled out a new reporting system for instances of workplace harassment involving MPs' offices.

NDP MP says constituency office has a 'panic button' for security

4 years ago
Duration 0:43
Vancouver MP Jenny Kwan describes the safety measures she's taken to keep staff safe at her Vancouver constituency office.

An employee who has been verbally abused, or has suffered some other form of harassment, can report the incident to the office of Parliament's chief human resources office, or to the government whip's office. Either office can conduct an independent assessment of the complaint and take appropriate actions to ensure the worker is protected, said Holland.

MPs have their own operating budgets to fund office security measures and can ask the House of Commons for security assessments or advice.

But some MPs said proactive measures could go a long way in making staffers feel secure — measures such as offering specialized training for employees, staffing constituency offices with at least two people at all times and installing special security measures, such as panic buttons.

"I do think we're going to have to expand the scope of support for staff who are involved with dealing with this kind of material that's racist, misogynistic, hateful," said Holland.

'People wish horrible things happen to me'

Kwan is a female politician, a member of a visible minority (she was born in Hong Kong) and an immigration critic. The vitriol she receives online, she said, comes in waves that can hit multiple times a day — mostly in the form of racist screeds and misogynistic attacks.

MP Jenny Kwan has received more than her share of online hate and anonymous threats. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

"People wish horrible things happen to me," said Kwan. "I'm in public life and I get that people want to hold me to account and they have an opinion to share with me. I still think that's not appropriate for people to level that kind of behaviour toward any elected person of any political stripe."

Kwan's tires were slashed and her office window was shattered by unknown vandals when she was a provincial MLA in B.C. Since her election to the House of Commons in 2015, she's watched someone toss a smoke bomb into the crowd at an anti-racism rally and stood by as a stranger walked up to her on the street and told her to go back to her former country. As a result, Kwan has had to learn a lot about office security.

White nationalists set off a smoke bomb at an anti-racism rally in 2017 in Vancouver that Jenny Kwan addressed. (Supplied by Gabriel Yiu)

Gabriel Yiu, Kwan's assistant in her Vancouver constituency office, is the MP's first line of defence, reporting racist comments to social media platforms, answering angry phone calls and dealing with outraged visitors — "to the point where some of our staff felt intimidated and worried about our own safety," said Yiu.

Kwan said she's reported incidents of online abuse to police in the past. She said she tells her staff that they have her full support if they need time off after an incident, and uses her own office budget to make sure that no one is stuck working alone.

Mark Holland recommends MPs don't read online hate

4 years ago
Duration 0:56
Chief government whip says staff should vet content before it gets to MPs because of how damaging it can be.

She said it would help if the House of Commons itself staffed constituency offices across the country — especially those in remote communities — with two people at all times.

The PMO told CBC News that, while it wouldn't comment on specific incidents "out of respect for the privacy of individuals," it's still "critically important that all staff in government, including those in the Prime Minister's Office, work in a safe and respectful environment."

"Training is held for staff in Minister's Offices and the Prime Minister's Office to ensure they are aware of how to mitigate and respond to negative situations and what resources are available to them to do so," the PMO added.

'A constant stream of abuse'

May said she's developed a thick skin over the years but the online abuse still "takes a toll."

"To be attacked just because you're a woman over and over again ... It's a constant stream of abuse and it's gotten much worse," she said.

Years ago, she said, she asked the RCMP for help after receiving death threats. They told her to put a pair of worn work boots by her front door so that anyone thinking about breaking in would assume a man was home.

"I did that," said May. "I got some old work boots and put them by the door because I didn't quite know what else to do."

MP and former Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said threats directed against an MP can make the entire office feel unsafe. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

She ended up hiring a private security consultant to assess the safety of her B.C. constituency office. That led to the installation of a panic button with a direct line to the police. That same sort of security assessment could be done proactively at MPs' constituency offices across the country, she said.

May's chief of staff, Debra Eindiguer, said Parliament could offer MPs' staffers training on the proper protocol for dealing with online hate. Office managers also need to understand how a close encounter with threats or expressions of hate, online or in the real world, can make people fear coming to work.

"To recognize ... that they may not sleep when they go home," she said.

MP's staffers often feel personally protective of their employers. That, said Eindiguer, can make it even harder for them to cope with threats of cruelty and violence they wouldn't think of sending to their "worst enemy."

"It's exhaustion, it's heartbreaking and it does indeed make you lose a little bit of hope in society," she said. "Some people just innately have the skills to deal with difficult people, but that's not necessarily the norm."

'The absence of a human connection'

Conservative MP Rosemarie Falk was elected in a by-election in late 2017. In her relatively short time in the Commons, she said, she's been the target of online abuse — something she blames in part on how social media have warped communication.

"As a Member of Parliament, I have experienced online comments and messages that are aggressive, derogatory, hateful and inappropriate," she told CBC News. "The anonymity and the absence of a human connection online has fostered a platform for individuals to behave in a manner that they likely would never in person."

As Parliament gets ready to resume, new MPs are undergoing orientation with some broad security training, said House of Commons spokesperson Heather Bradley.

Holland said MPs themselves could work to stem the flow of threats and abuse directed at MPs by setting an example — cleaning up their own language and eschewing personal attacks.

"When we move out of debating policy and into personal attacks, that language could be weaponized in the online world in a very hateful way," he said.


Ashley Burke

Senior reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa who focuses on enterprise journalism for television, radio and digital platforms. She was recognized with the Charles Lynch Award and was a finalist for the Michener Award for her exclusive reporting on the toxic workplace at Rideau Hall. She has also uncovered rampant allegations of sexual misconduct in the Canadian military involving senior leaders. You can reach her confidentially by email: ashley.burke@cbc.ca or https://www.cbc.ca/securedrop/