Allison Hanes: It is our duty to report the bullying of elected officials

PQ Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon was right to be distressed by death threats. But he was wrong to blame the media for talking about it.

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There’s nothing like seeing a politician fight back tears to remind us that, despite their tough shells, our elected leaders are human beings, too.

This is something we seem to have lost sight of these days amid growing polarization and casual contempt.

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Unfortunately, it often takes an alarming incident to draw attention to the well-being or security of public officials, like the malaise experienced by Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante before Christmas or the abrupt resignation of Gatineau Mayor France Bélisle last month, halfway through her first mandate.

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Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon is the latest example.

Le Journal de Montréal revealed last week that he and his family were targeted by death threats. This is as sad as it is unacceptable, though increasingly common in politics.

The Sûreté du Québec arrested a man on March 8 in connection with threats emailed to the PQ leader’s office. The suspect has since been released on a promise to appear in court at a later date.

When asked about the traumatic incident by reporters at a press conference on another matter last Friday, Plamondon understandably lost his composure. He said he didn’t really want to talk about it, other than to confirm what was already on the public record.

Over the weekend, however, he cancelled an appearance at the Bloc Québécois convention in Quebec City and lashed out at the media for invading his privacy by asking him about the threats and covering his emotional reaction.

“I don’t believe that at that press conference I had the duty to show to 9 million Quebecers the anguish that those threats have caused us,” Plamondon wrote in a Facebook post. “It’s a lack of sensitivity, a lack of respect for my private life, a lack of ethics, but most especially a real lack of humanity that I didn’t think was possible in Quebec politics.”

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This has no doubt been a difficult ordeal for Plamondon and his family. But with respect, he is directing his umbrage at the wrong target.

The press should cover threats levelled against politicians and high-profile figures, both to expose the intolerable ubiquity and provoke conversations about the rise of incivility in public discourse. Ignoring the phenomenon will lead to its normalization. This is not a  societal problem that can be addressed if we don’t talk about it.

The list of elected officials who have been subject to death threats is long and constantly growing.

These include Plante, Premier François Legault and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, some of them on multiple occasions.

During the last election campaign, a man was arrested for threatening Liberal MNA Marwah Rizqy — while she was eight months pregnant, no less. Plamondon’s colleague, PQ MNA Pascal Bérubé, twice had to report messages of online violence aimed at himself and his wife.

And these are just a few examples of threats we know about, that met the threshold for police involvement or the bar to lay criminal charges.

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Actual political violence may be mercifully rare in this country, but it is not unheard of. Authorities must take no chances and treat the security of politicians seriously.

But the daily torrent of insults and invective directed at elected representatives under the guise of disagreement, be it via email, over social media, in public forums, or sometimes in person, is a separate but related issue that also exacts a toll.

During her resignation speech, Bélisle cited both threats and bullying among the reasons for her departure from the mayor’s office. During a subsequent appearance on Tout le monde en parle, she described an incident where she met a man at a public event, who later emailed to warn it was a good thing he hadn’t been carrying a knife that day. Absolutely chilling.

The constant abuse wears a person down.

“I don’t know many people who wake up every morning wanting to be picked on,” Bélisle said.

Bélisle is not alone in finding all the animosity was just not worth the price of her mental health. But she’s one of the few brave enough to talk about it. Since the last municipal elections in 2021, almost 800 of about 8,000 local officials have resigned their seats for various reasons, while many others have gone on leave. Quebec has since launched a help line and is considering other measures to keep elected representatives from jumping ship.

Criticism comes with the territory of elected office. Leaders deserve to be held accountable for their words and deeds, both in the court of public opinion and at the ballot box. That’s the way democracy works.

But this can surely be done with respect — and minus ugly threats.

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