The most debated issues at last week’s annual conference of B.C. municipalities may have been health care, housing and inner-city street disorder, but in private conversations, off the record, mayors and councillors shared story-after-story about another troubling trend – municipal candidates with extremist platforms running in the upcoming civic elections.
“The democratic process is something I believe is so sacred and should not have any interference at all,” said Municipal Affairs Minister Nathan Cullen. “I’m hearing from people that I know and trust from across the political spectrum, saying there’s something going on, and it’s organized, and it’s funded. And it’s got incredibly bad intent.”
“What we’re starting to see across B.C. is a bunch of groups that really just want to join hate, and want to disrupt the system,” said Clearwater mayor Merlin Blackwell. “We need to be strong, no matter how hard it gets, and just keep pushing forward to keep our communities well-served, to keep the trust of our citizens.”
With municipal candidacies now finalized and the Oct. 15 election looming, many community leaders are alarmed at some of their municipal contenders and wondering what to do about it.
“(Candidates) are not right wing or left wing, they’re not anti or pro-development. They are anti-science or anti-government and have a current of violence under their politics,” Municipal Affairs Minister Nathan Cullen told Northern Beat last week at the UBCM conference in Whistler. “(They) are organizing into this local election cycle. That worries me and troubles me greatly.”
Mayors across the political spectrum have shared their concern with Cullen, and it goes beyond partisanship, he said.
“From Squamish to Clearwater, to Victoria, to Prince George, I can find terrible examples of outright abuse and a level of hate that is just extraordinary,” said Cullen.
Several mayors have gone public about the relentless and abusive harassment they have faced. The family of Port Coquitlam mayor Brad West was threatened by a man with a replica gun. Squamish mayor Karen Elliott said she was targeted by “a purposeful, ongoing, well-funded misinformation campaign” intended to ” to sow distrust, throw accusations around, and create chaos.” Elliott will not run again.
A restraining order was issued against an individual to keep City of Fernie officials and staff safe. Fernie staff and elected officials have been verbally harassed, followed, and recorded at work and during their personal time.
“This bullying online spills over into the real world too,” Fernie CAO Michael Boronowki said.
“When you get into politics, you’re going to be criticized, that’s fine. That’s not a problem,” said Cullen. “This is something else.
“People better pay attention,” he said. “This is not a normal municipal election. This is something different.”
Cascade of fear, shame, and rage
There is a simmering rage emanating from some citizens that is making elected officials feel unsafe, said one rural mayor who asked not to be named due to concerns of retaliation. “Threats and intimidation are already happening here with those who have picked fights.”
As the pandemic wore on, many who already distrusted government grew increasingly skeptical of the public health mandates and vaccination imperative. Anger erupted in September 2021 when implementation of vaccine passports effectively outed everyone who didn’t get vaccinated. This was particularly hurtful in smaller communities, where practically everyone knows everyone else.
“All of a sudden, you were no longer one of the regulars at morning coffee, you were no longer the family that was there every Sunday morning,” Blackwell said. “And people were like, ‘Ah, they’re anti-vaxxers!’ And it created a visible division in small towns where these people were suddenly, ‘We’ve been shamed.’”
Then some of those same people got angry about being shamed. So, the “unintended consequence” of provincial public health policy – designed to keep people safe during the height of COVID – created deep, angry divisions in communities.
“And they cannot access (Health Minister) Adrian Dix – I can barely access Adrian Dix – but they can access me,” Blackwell said. “And they can take it out on me because I am government. And government is government.”
Now, here we are. Ongoing fear, uncertainty and divisions brought on by a two-plus-year pandemic, compounded by economic pressures and an escalating cost of living, has made some people very, very upset.
Frustration shouldn’t equal toxicity
“I know there’s anger,” said Premier John Horgan in response to a question from Northern Beat at a press conference last week.
“I know there’s frustration with many people not getting the services they need, whether it’s in health care, housing, education, any number of areas (and) businesses who are frustrated that they could expand if they only had access to more workers, not skilled, just workers,” Horgan said. “I don’t believe though that that frustration should create a toxic environment for solving these problems. And it’s a real issue.”
In fact, many municipal leaders have cited toxic public discourse and the stress of dealing with angry constituents as the reason they are not running again.
“When I hear of elected representatives who are saying, ‘I’m not doing this anymore because of this venom from anonymous people,’ that makes me very, very sad,” Horgan said.
No stranger to antagonistic public backlash himself, Horgan shared an experience he had on Family Day a few years ago after posting a personal photo of his wife, himself, and sons on social media.
“It’s an innocent picture: two kids, man and wife, trees in the background, smiles on their faces, a summer day. What’s to be toxic about?” Horgan said.
“Within two or three posts, the venom started. Completely unrelated to anything other than ‘Oh, here’s an opportunity to say to John Horgan and anyone who’s associated with them, that I hate you and everything about you.’
“It doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t advance any cause,” he said.
“My appeal to regular folks is to meet that hatred with kindness and compassion, meet that venom and toxicity with a collaborative approach.”
But summoning that compassion in the face of harassment rarely comes easily.
Emotions run high
Nelson councillor Nicole Charlwood said the pandemic and ensuing public health regulations brought out a lot of judgemental entrenchment in people both for and against the mandates.
“Some of us on council were talking to people who we didn’t agree with and just trying to keep that dialogue open,” said Charlwood. For many with opposing views, emotions ran so high, conversation was nearly impossible.
Over the past couple years, Nelson council locked down city hall twice, and empowered the city manager to ban people from city hall, Charlwood said. One public protest last September involved an estimated crowd of 600 to 1,000 people – in a city of 11,000 population – who flooded the downtown and surrounded city hall to show their opposition to the vaccine passport, among other public health measures.
“Staff told me to lock myself in my office and not show my face because protesters had stormed the building,” Charlwood said. Protesters had reached the second floor and were demanding the councillors and mayor. “They were hunting for us through the building.”
At the time, Charlwood was the only elected representative on site.
“That was pretty intimidating,” Charlwood recalled. “As a woman who’s already on pretty much regular alert for my safety, that just added a complexity that I had never experienced.”
Several women have subsequently told Charlwood they won’t run for office “because of the temper that is just sort of rampant in our community,” she said.
Losing strong leaders
The province is losing a number of strong leaders at the municipal level, particularly women, said Municipal Affairs Minister Cullen. “Strong, incredibly determined, exceptional people who we need, and who we’re not going to have in those leadership positions.
“Not because of people disagreeing with their policies or having a different view of the world, but just brutal, brutal personal attacks, going after their families, their kids.”
Cullen and his family live in a small town and he has withstood numerous protests, swastikas on his office, and more. “Many times, I know the people who are screaming at me and calling me all kinds of names and talking about my children,” he said.
While people are stepping up around the province to combat the negativity, Cullen is concerned about the level of organization behind candidates with more extreme views who are showing up at both municipal and school board levels.
Angry grassroots energy
“There’s, I’ll call it, a grassroots energy that’s happening. It’s not just a right (wing protest). It’s on both sides (politically),” said Finance Minister Selina Robinson last week.
Robinson recalled the Wet’suwet’en protest in February 2020 when protesters blocked entrances to the legislature, and in some cases, harassed staff, politicians and journalists who tried to enter.
Politicians, in particular, were targeted and bullied.
“That was the most frightened I have ever been,” Robinson said.
Later, old-growth logging protesters blocked the entrance to her office, trapping her inside, and she was again forced to call for help.
“There’s this level of energy that is about very angry people, many of whom have forgotten their manners,” said Robinson, a former Coquitlam city councillor and family therapist.
“I love that we live in a democracy, that people can speak their minds. But when people’s safety and lives are threatened – and when I say safety, it’s physical and emotional and spiritual safety, all of that – it’s not OK; you crossed the line.
“To name call, to swear at, to threaten, to physically intimidate you – I’m a small woman and for people to step into my space, my personal space, is violence,” said Robinson.
Constant harassment can grind down a person’s duty to serve. Robinson referenced Squamish mayor Karen Elliott who said she was target of an organized and gruelling social media campaign of harassment that included repeated personal attacks on her integrity.
Serving with integrity
“I will do the hard work that is expected of me as an elected person, (but) I’m coming here with my integrity, and I need to leave with my integrity,” said Robinson. “I won’t compromise it.”
Personal threats have become so prevalent and worrisome, many mayors and councillors (along with MLAs and MPs) have ramped up security measures for their family and themselves.
”Security systems are going in at homes and city halls, and injunctions are going (into effect),” said a mayor who asked not to named. “Up till now, we’ve been keeping it fairly quiet in most towns, because it’s (been) one-offs. But now, it’s organized. It’s very organized.”
Behind-the-scenes, municipal leaders are talking with each other trying to decide what to do about the growing number of candidates with extremist platforms. They are documenting hate-spewed and threatening social media posts as some candidates cleanse their online presence for the election.
In many municipalities, citizens themselves are calling candidates on the more extreme elements of their platform and behaviour. But in some communities, where a candidate’s election platform is more anti-social, or even violent and threatening, some mayors feel more needs to be done.
“We need to start banding together and supporting each other and talking. But none of us wants to be the person (who speaks publicly) because we’re going to get doxed (and) focused on,” the mayor said.
When asked by Northern Beat about the increase in candidates with extreme views, Premier John Horgan noted the trend, held up the democratic process as the resolution and called out Maxime Bernier and the People’s Party of Canada as being the organizing agent behind some of the candidates.
“Their number is small”
“We live in a free society, and people can put their hand up and say, vote for me. But I am absolutely confident that the majority of people – whether they’re voting in a local election, whether they’re voting in a provincial election, or in a federal election – are more thoughtful than the anonymous voices on Twitter,” said Horgan.
“(Take) the People’s Party – a lot of noise, a lot of attention, a lot of cameras – six per cent of the vote.”
Horgan is a proponent of proportional representation. “Because it allows us to say, ‘There are the people who are hateful, and their number is small.’
“If you don’t put them on a ballot, they can pretend to be a majority. But they are not,” he said.
Turn to reliable sources
For the October election, people should try to understand who the candidates are and what they believe in, Cullen said. He recommends relying on trustworthy sources in the provincial media and people in the community, “not some deep dark spiral of a hole on Facebook and Instagram where fact has long ago left the conversation.”
Cullen doesn’t want people to wake up the day after the elections and be surprised by what their school board or city council looks like. He called the upcoming elections an opportunity for people to make sure that they’re voting in an informed way and advised people not to fall into “the politics of grievance and hate.”
“They’ve got to get out and vote. And they’ve got to know who they’re voting for,” said Cullen.
Ultimately, Horgan chooses to trust voters and the democratic process.
“When they put their hand up and say, ‘Vote for us, we’re angry at everything,’ and they get annihilated,” Horgan said, “that gives me hope that communities and people are more focused on positive outcomes, not just being angry.”