Elected officials at all levels have endured personal threats, protests, and harassment of themselves and their staff. The vitriol directed at politicians for their support of COVID-19 public health measures is in a category all its own.
“People have been very vocal on both sides. It has created a bit of a divide,” BC Liberal MLA Mike Bernier said in a recent interview. “Once people have entrenched themselves in a certain area on an issue… it’s hard to get them out of that trench that they’ve dug. I think that’s human nature.”
Bernier’s Peace River South constituents – many farmers or people employed in the oil, gas, mining or forestry industries – harbour an abiding mistrust of government, particularly the NDP variety.
Some believe COVID-19 has been “blown out of proportion” and that government is over-reaching into people’s lives.
“They are very strong-willed, independent people who just want to work,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I gravitated to that area, why I love it so much.”
Bernier’s support of public health measures has caught him plenty of flak in a region with some of the lowest vaccination rates in the province.
(All of the 87 sitting MLAs are double or triple-vaxxed, meeting the same public health standards required of Legislative Assembly staff.)
Skeptical and frustrated
“People are skeptical and frustrated,” he said. “And because of that frustration, are no longer listening to or believing that message.”
Earlier this month, Bernier addressed the acrimony directly in COVID through an MLA lens, an open letter to his Peace River South constituents.
“I really struggle with the fact that we have gotten to such a divisive place in society, on so many issues, that just because someone disagrees with a point of view, they are wrong and deserve to be personally attacked,” Bernier wrote on Feb. 4. “It’s a lose-lose to even try to discuss the issues it seems.”
Picking a side may seem simple to constituents with strong opinions, Bernier continued. “As a person elected to work for every person in the region, which side should I take?”
Taking a stand has consequences
Taking a stand on issues, not caving to partisan gamesmanship, has consequences, said newly elected BC Liberal Party leader Kevin Falcon.
“We’re going to have to tolerate a lot of hatred coming our way. I understand that. I get that already,” Falcon said. “But it is important that we try to use language that brings people together.”
The last two years have impacted people’s mental health, some more severely than others, Falcon said. “We should be careful not to be too judgmental or smug about the people that are expressing those frustrations.”
The empathy of elected officials has been particularly tested by repeated harassing and haranguing behaviours.
Crossing the line
Last year, protesters forced their way into the constituency office of NDP North Island MLA Michele Babchuk, refusing to follow COVID-19 protocols. Another time, about 20 demonstrators gathered at Babchuk’s home. The police were called both times.
“Lawful, peaceful protests are an important part of our democracy and a good way for me to connect with our community members,” Babchuk wrote in a Dec. 13 social media post. “Those lines were crossed when (demonstrators)… decided to protest at my home.”
Boundary Similkameen NDP MLA Rory Russell recently appealed to protesters to “actively, unambiguously and immediately condemn” bullying behaviour after South Okanagan Secondary School students were harassed at their school.
Over the past couple of years, people have experienced frustration across the board, said Premier John Horgan. “I understand that. But taking that to another level (with) people yelling at school children for wearing masks… it’s just not acceptable.”
In 2020, Extinction Rebellion protesters, known for their more extreme methods of protest, converged on the premier’s home while his wife was home alone. The group knocked on the door and blockaded the couple’s driveway. Three people were reportedly arrested, the other seven or so, left of their own volition.
“If people think that it helps their cause to terrorize my spouse, then they’re dead wrong,” Horgan was quoted as saying at the time.
Disgruntled constituents and unruly protesters forced BC Green leader Sonia Furstenau to move her constituency office from the shared retail space where it had been located since October 2020.
Several incidents disrupted the work of other businesses in the building, causing discomfort and worry for their staff, Furstenau said.
“I felt really distressed that other tenants and their patients, midwives and moms, and people coming for counseling, were being disrupted in this way,” she said. “That’s why I gave our notice.”
Her constituency office continues to operate while they look for a new office space that will meet heightened safety and security requirements to protect staff.
Shirley Bond, who remains BC Liberal legislative Opposition leader until Falcon is able to win a seat as an MLA, represents the urban-rural riding of Prince George-Valemount. Bond has met with her share of constituents angry about the vaccine mandates. She is sympathetic about the consequence for people in their ability to provide for their families.
“But on the other hand, I personally believe that we have responsibility to the greater community as well. And we continue to believe that if you can be vaccinated, you should be,” she said. “So it’s not easy. These are challenging days.”
For Bernier’s part, his letter seems to have sparked dialogue. Some who had previously spoken out against his stance sent him private messages, remarking that they hadn’t thought of it from his perspective. Others even apologized, he said.
“Everybody’s trying to make it better. Everybody’s trying to find their path through this. We all have different ideas, maybe, of how to do that,” Bernier said. But, you know, everyone’s struggling with this.”