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'Unfortunate' that politicians have to re-think security in light of hate-filled attacks: PM Trudeau

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Calling for politicians and Canadians to reflect on the kind of political discourse they want to have in light of increased vitriol and harassment directed at political figures, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday that it's "unfortunate" that the "aggressive bullying and hate-filled tactics of a small number of people" is causing a rethink of security measures.

"I think it's extremely important that we demonstrate the strength of our democracy, and part of the strength of our democracy is being able to see the minister of defence going shopping on the weekend to the local IGA," Trudeau said. "We need to be able to have that connection that we've always prided ourselves in, of Canadians being able to have proximity to those who represent them."

In recent months heightened attention has been put on security risks of politicians at all levels, after NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was verbally harassed at an event in Peterborough, Ont., which was followed shortly after by the decision to provide MPs with panic buttons.

The issue was catapulted back on the political agenda in a major way over the weekend after a video showed a man confronting Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland in Alberta, yelling profanities at her in the lobby of Grande Prairie’s city hall, as she and her staff entered an elevator.

The RCMP is now investigating, saying that "physical action and statements made in person or online can have a significant impact and can be against the law."

Freeland has not left the province since the incident, continuing on with her Western Canada tour. Appearing on Tuesday for her first public events since the incident, Freeland was seen flanked by a security detail. Speaking with reporters on Wednesday, Freeland was asked if she has plans to increase her security, to which she said she’ll follow the RCMP’s advice.

Aside from the prime minister, it's uncommon for federal cabinet ministers to have a consistent security detail, however the RCMP offers members of Parliament protection in Canada and abroad "as needed," based on threat and risk assessments.

This incident has prompted conversation over whether that should change, with Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino indicating earlier this week that he was looking into options when it comes to increasing security for politicians.

"We need to make sure that people who are doing their jobs and serving their communities, and serving their country— including at the highest levels—feel safe in the job that they're doing [and] aren't worried for their families, aren't worried that they're putting at risk their loved ones… either as journalists or as politicians," said the prime minister, referencing a parallel conversation about an increase in threats against journalists, particularly women and persons of colour.

Freeland echoed this during her media availability on Wednesday. “I am conscious that there are a lot of journalists and politicians across the country who have a lot less support than I do, who can face challenging situations, and it is important for all of us to support them,” she said.

WITHOUT ACTION 'GOING TO GET WORSE'

Speaking about their own experiences as elected officials, ministers Filomena Tassi and Helena Jaczek voiced concern that if the discourse doesn't improve, there could be grave consequences.

"Clearly my behaviour has changed," Tassi said.

"There's a role for all Canadians here. If Canadians don't enter into this dialogue, it's going to get worse and it's going to escalate. If this behavior is accepted as a norm, then we are going to be in a position that's far graver than we're in now," she said, citing the risk of the fear of harm to them or their families dissuading people from entering public life.

Tassi said that while additional security measures may be required, it's not the answer.

"I can't have someone by my side 24/7… The answer is this behaviour has to be ended."

Jaczek said she has been subjected to verbal abuse and intimidating behaviour, but being recognized and approached in her riding is "one of the best connections" she has with her constituents. "I don't want to be intimidated in any way from missing out on those opportunities," she said.

Tassi and Trudeau said federal politicians have a major role to play in setting the tone of political debates. They both said Wednesday that while disagreement is needed for a functioning democracy, all sides should be standing against the kind of rhetoric and behaviour that is making it harder for women and racialized Canadians to serve in government, or to hold government to account as journalists.

"That's something all parliamentarians and all leaders need to stand against, need to be unequivocal in being responsible leaders. To say: 'no, we are not going to become that toxic polarized country that some think we should become,'" Trudeau said.

While a number of federal Conservative politicians have also personally experienced and spoken about the increase in in-person and online harassment, they've said that the prime minister and other members of his government have played a role in driving the increased division being seen across the country that, coupled with a rise in disinformation, appears to be fuelling the growing anger.

"It’s more important than ever for political leaders - on left and the right - to resist the temptation to profit from political polarization. In practical terms this means not platforming wedge issues and instead, normalizing listening and consensus building," tweeted Alberta Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner this weekend.

"We need to debate from a position of respect for one another and where necessary, acknowledgement of past failures in this regard-both on the left and right… If we want cohesion and prosperity, we have to do better. I have faith in our country and I know we’re going to pull through this age of anger and hostility. It starts with each of us governing ourselves accordingly," she said.

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