Politics·Analysis

Canadian politics has a rage problem — and politicians have to be part of the solution

Anger in politics isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But there's a distinction between good anger and the bad kind — the kind of anger that is irrational or unjustifiable, that unfairly demonizes opponents or fellow citizens and isn’t aimed at finding real answers to real problems.

For anger and extremism to fail as political tools, voters also have to reject their use

Protesters gather at the Fairmont Hotel in Vancouver, B.C., where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was scheduled to speak at a Liberal Party event, on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Jimmy Jeong/The Canadian Press)

On a June day nearly 40 years ago, Brian Mulroney happened upon a 63-year-old woman named Solange Denis. Mulroney's government was proposing to make a change to Old Age Security. Denis was mad about that and — with reporters watching — she conveyed her displeasure directly to the prime minister.

Mulroney's run-in with Denis became a national story. The government was compelled to back down and "Goodbye Charlie Brown" subsequently became shorthand for how a single interaction with a voter can waylay a politician and a government.

What happened to Chrystia Freeland in Grande Prairie, Alberta last week was something else entirely — and many political leaders, from across the partisan spectrum, seemed to recognize that immediately. Among those who condemned the incident were Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Ontario Premier Doug Ford, two politicians who have had their differences with the federal Liberal government.

It's important for political leaders to recognize when a line has been crossed. But such moments are starting to become regular occurrences. Two years ago, a man drove through the barricades at Rideau Hall. Last fall, someone threw gravel at the prime minister. In May, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was harassed while campaigning in Peterborough, Ontario. In July, a restaurant in Prince Edward Island was targeted for online harassment after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stopped to have lunch there.

So in addition to condemning harassment and renewing the conversation about the personal security of politicians, voters and politicians also need to ask themselves whether that video of the deputy prime minister being profanely accosted points to a larger anger problem in Canadian politics.

The upside and downside of anger

Anger in politics isn't necessarily a bad thing. Anger directed at real injustice is understandable and anger can be productive if it leads to real solutions. But there's a difference between constructive anger and the corrosive kind — the kind of rage that is irrational or unjustifiable, that unfairly demonizes opponents or fellow citizens and isn't aimed at finding real answers to real problems.

In 1985, Denis was worried about a real thing. Whether the change in OAS policy was wise or not, her protest was at least based in reality. But the man who approached Freeland last week reportedly "ranted about the Trudeau government being part of a conspiracy involving the World Economic Forum" in a subsequent interview with the Tyee. He also "claimed the government was trying to starve the public by forcing fertilizer limitations on farmers and was killing thousands of people, including children, with vaccinations."

Beyond the misogyny and profanity of his comments, he also called Freeland a "traitor."

WATCH: Alberta man hurls profanity at Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland

Alberta man hurls profanity at Chrystia Freeland, sparking social media outrage

1 month ago
Duration 2:32
In a video circulating widely on social media, several people are seen approaching Freeland as she walks through Grande Prairie's city hall toward an elevator.

Jared Wesley, a professor of political science at the University of Alberta, said those who consider such extreme behaviour acceptable are still in the "very, very small minority." In that respect, he said, Canada's political culture is strong. 

"What we need are more politicians from across the spectrum to stand up and reinforce it," he added.

Wesley points to Alberta UCP leadership candidate Danielle Smith and federal Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre. Neither proactively issued a statement about the Freeland video — Poilievre did eventually comment when asked about it during an interview — and both have taken aim at the World Economic Forum and a federal policy proposal on fertilizer that is the subject of rampant misinformation.

United Conservative Party of Alberta leadership candidate Danielle Smith has been scoring political points off the World Economic Forum and a federal policy on fertilizers that has been the subject of widespread misinformation. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

It shouldn't be too much to ask of politicians that they not only refrain from encouraging conspiracy theories but also call out irrational fears — particularly when those theories are being espoused by their own supporters. In an interview with CBC Radio's The House earlier this year, Erin O'Toole recalled trying to correct constituents who came to him with "things they're reading on social media, conspiracies and ideas and frustration."

Wesley, who recently co-authored an analysis of Alberta separatists, points to the example set by Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008, when he publicly challenged a woman who asserted that Barack Obama was "an Arab" and she couldn't trust him.

If political leaders are willing to condemn the verbal assault on Freeland, shouldn't they also be willing to say that the World Economic Forum is not part of a sinister conspiracy and vaccines are safe?

Is the public following the lead of politicians?

In a newly published collection of academic analyses of the 2021 federal election, Christopher Dornan, a journalism professor at Carleton University, notes the public hostility that was on display during last year's campaign. But he argues that "it was rich, perhaps, to hear politicians express shock and dismay at the animosity of the public, given the example they set by making Parliament into a public theatre of perpetual anger, no matter how much of this is playacting."

It can be difficult to draw a causal link between any particular incident and a politician's words — and the mobs of people yelling at Justin Trudeau last year were no doubt inspired by far more than the tenor of question period. But it's fair to ask whether Canadian politics is unnecessarily fostering an atmosphere of anger and whether Canadian politicians are promoting a corrosive kind of animus.

A man, top right, throws gravel at Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, as the RCMP security detail provide protection while protesters shout at a local microbrewery during the federal election campaign in London Ont., on Monday, September 6, 2021. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Anger can lead to progress. But perpetual anger erodes the foundation of democracy — it undermines trust and tolerance and raises the stakes of political conflict to unsustainable extremes. Wesley recalls Michael Ignatieff's observation that democracy can't work if politicians (and voters) view their rivals not as adversaries, but as enemies. And when harassment and threats are commonplace, it will be that much harder to convince people to serve in public office — particularly women and racialized Canadians. 

While some politicians seem to be stoking anger, we should ask whether others are doing enough to minimize division.

As Wesley notes, politicians are ultimately rational actors. As long as anger serves as a tool to secure a comfortable victory (and in the current situation, that might require as little as 35 per cent of the vote), leaders might be tempted to chase it.

Ideally, politicians would take responsibility for the health of democracy. But for anger and extremism to fail, voters have to turn away from it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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