Days of rage: Angry voters brought new tensions to the 2021 campaign trail
One former top bureaucrat describes it as a political virus. Can the system overcome it?
Scott Simms ran in seven federal elections, winning six of them. And while he came to terms fairly easily with his 264-vote loss on September 20, the long-time Liberal MP is having a harder time accepting what he experienced on the campaign trail in his largely rural riding in central Newfoundland.
"There was a lot of anger out there for a lot of people. Frustration and anger," Simms said in an interview airing Saturday on CBC's The House.
"I think that over the past little while ... all of our politics and public political discourse, whether it be on Facebook or through some or the radio shows, the anger started to creep back in and people wanted to change, and I accepted that wholeheartedly."
Simms was an MP for 17 years. But he said this election marked the first time he'd faced a threat of physical violence as he went door-to-door — when one man told the 5-foot, 4-inch Simms he'd pick him up and throw him off his driveway.
Threats, vandalism and violence
Political observers have been warning that the increasing polarization of Canadian politics is turning respectful disagreement on issues into open hostility. Examples of that trend were evident during the 2021 campaign.
The RCMP's protective details reported an increase in the number of threats directed at campaigning politicians, even though the election period was shorter than it was two years earlier.
Lawn signs were torn down or defaced in numerous ridings across the country. A candidate's car was vandalized during the night outside his home. A woman was charged with assaulting a candidate in his office.
Social media posts targeted female politicians in particular with vile, hateful comments.
And Justin Trudeau faced angry mobs at a number of campaign stops in the final weeks of the campaign, including one in London where gravel was thrown at him. Police later charged a man with assault with a weapon.
One of the earliest warnings came from former clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick. He warned a Commons committee in February 2019 about the "vomitorium" of social media and "the rising tide of incitement to violence" — the ordinary people suddenly using words like "treason" and "traitor" in public debates on the direction and leadership of the country.
In a separate interview on The House to discuss his new book, Governing Canada: A Guide to the Tradecraft of Politics, Wernick said intolerance and polarization are a virus infecting Canadian public life.
"And the test will be, if I can use a metaphor, whether we develop the antibodies for it," he said.
"My point that I make in the book is that the price of entering public life has gotten higher. The price of staying in public life has gotten higher. And over the course of several elections in several years, I think we are going to see fewer people wanting to come into political life and serve their country."
'I guess they wanted to take it out on me'
Simms said politicians need to do a better job of communicating to Canadians the reasons behind the decisions they make — especially with the pandemic and its economic consequences still weighing so heavily on so many people, including those in his former Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame riding.
Simms got an earful from outraged constituents during the campaign. He heard from seniors upset with the Liberal plan to increase Old Age Security benefits, but only for those older than 75.
He heard from small business owners who couldn't find people to work because they were receiving money during the pandemic under federal emergency support programs.
"And I guess they wanted to take it out on me for that reason, and many of them did not come my way," he said. "And that's fair. That's what we do. That's what we have to face in light of some unpopular policies."
WATCH: An angry crowd disrupts a Trudeau campaign event
Simms said that what worries him most is the way Facebook and other social media platforms stoke anger and fear, how they amplify the most negative comments. It's a significant challenge for politicians and political parties that affects how they reach out to voters — and draws attention to the tone and language MPs themselves choose to describe the motives of their opponents.
"It seems like we barely talk to each other," Simms said. "[We talk] only to put out what our position is and to be faced by a barrage of negativity.
"So I just find that we've now siloed into different camps and we don't venture outside of that silo much to engage in conversation. So, just to sum it up — for people like me who try to reach out to other parties and make things happen, I fear that we might become a dying breed."
Still, Simms isn't ruling out another run for office. Being an MP is, after all, the only life he's known for the nearly two decades since his first win at the age of 35.
"If I don't come back to federal politics, I can always say I've had a good run and enjoyed every minute of it," he said. "But I don't want to write it off only because, like I say, I have to get back to figuring out who I am before I go any further."