Before becoming premier, Alison Redford served for a time as Alberta's justice minister. Threats and hate-filled messages from mostly angry men were not uncommon during her time in the post.
But the day she sensed she was vulnerable to real harm happened when she walked into her constituency office and, near the front desk, she saw a rogue's gallery of photos, all men. When she asked for an explanation, she was told they were pictures of people believed to be behind some of the most menacing notes and e-mails she'd been receiving. If any of them entered the office, staff was instructed to call police immediately.
"That was unnerving," she recalled this week.
As someone viewed as a polarizing figure during her time as a public figure, including 30 months as leader of the province, Ms. Redford is not surprised by reports that Alberta's current Premier, Rachel Notley, is a constant target of angry and intimidating communication. According to figures compiled by the Edmonton Journal, there were more than 400 reported incidents involving the Premier last year, 26 of which were deemed serious enough to forward to police for further investigation. The number is vastly higher than in previous years under former premiers, in part because protection services in Alberta changed its reviewing process in 2016 to more heavily scrutinize social media.
Unfortunately, Alberta is beginning to build a bit of a reputation for this sort of thing. That Ms. Notley, a New Democrat, has become a favourite target of right-wing detractors unhappy with some of her policies (see carbon tax) is widely known. Some of the angry, overheated rhetoric uttered in the legislature has undoubtedly emboldened her online critics, many of whose posts are infused with unnerving vitriol.
MLA Sandra Jansen faced this when she left the Progressive Conservatives late last year to go sit with the governing NDP. The e-mails and comments she was subject to were singularly disgusting and often misogynistic in tone and substance. (She silenced MLAs when she read some of them aloud in the legislature.) Wildrose Leader Brian Jean had to apologize last year when he joked at a public forum about beating Ms. Notley – a remark that sparked laughter and applause. At a recent rally in Edmonton held to protest the NDP carbon tax, the audience began to chant "Lock her up!" in reference to the Premier.
There is certainly a red-neck, chauvinistic subculture in every province, and Alberta is no exception. Given that female political leadership is a relatively recent phenomenon in the province, there are undoubtedly men having a hard time accepting this. Ms. Redford associates the abuse, in part, to the high rates of domestic violence the province has been known for, and which have been on the rise during the economic downturn. She also felt that the Wildrose Party got away with a lot of vicious and mean-spirited attacks on her, which normalized that type of behaviour in society at large.
Still, it would be wrong to suggest this is anything like a localized issue. Last week, we heard Mississauga MP Iqra Khalid read in the House of Commons some of the horrible hate speech directed at her over the proposed motion she's backing that condemns Islamophobia. There have been other examples across the country as well. There seems little doubt things are getting worse.
Efforts to bring civility to public discourse have failed. In a piece in The New York Times headlined "The Culture of Nastiness," author Teddy Wayne writes that an ethos of malice "… has metastasized in which meanness is routinely rewarded and common decency and civility is brushed aside." He is right.
With Donald Trump now ensconced in the White House, his foul-mouthed acolytes are more inspired than ever. To think that their intolerant and insidious views and hate-filled language won't now become more prevalent on this side of the border is naive. Trump creep is already under way. While it is difficult imagining this phenomenon reversing itself any time soon, it's even scarier thinking that we, as a civil society, will simply accede to it.
Martin Luther King once considered this issue, which tells you how long it has been around for. The problem, he said, "is not the vitriolic words and the evil actions of the bad people. It is the appalling inaction and silence of the good people."
Words we must never forget.