MONTREAL — Death threats over an animal control plan, personal insults over stop signs, social media attacks targeting spouses — these are examples of what politicians in Quebec say has become an increasingly difficult reality of their jobs during COVID-19.
From suburban mayors to the premier, politicians in the province have been raising the alarm about the rise in hateful and occasionally violent online messages they receive — and some are calling for stronger rules to shield them.
On Saturday, Premier Francois Legault denounced the torrent of hateful messages that regularly follow his online posts, which he said has worsened "in the last months."
"Each time I post something now, I'm treated to an avalanche of aggressive and sometimes even violent comments, and to insults, obscenities and sometimes threats," Legault wrote on Facebook.
Several Quebec municipal politicians have announced they won't be running again in elections this fall, in part because of the hostile climate online. Others, including the mayors of Montreal and Quebec City, have spoken in the past about receiving death threats. In November, police in Longueuil, Que., arrested a man in connection with threats against the city's mayor and other elected officials over a plan to cull deer in a municipal park.
Philippe Roy, the mayor of the Town of Mount-Royal, an on-island Montreal suburb, says he's leaving municipal politics when his current term ends, partly because of the constant online insults directed at him and his spouse.
While taking criticism is part of the job, he said he's seen a shift in the past two years toward more falsehoods and conspiracy theories, which he said are undermining the trust between elected officials and their constituents. After 16 years in politics, he said he's tired of the constant accusations directed his way.
"When people are questioning your integrity, you start saying, 'Well, maybe I have better things to do somewhere else,' " he said in a recent interview.
The problem is serious enough that the group representing Quebec municipalities has launched an awareness campaign and drafted a resolution denouncing the online vitriol. It has so far been adopted by some 260 municipal councils.
Suzanne Roy, the group's president, says the campaign was launched in response to a "flood of testimonials" from mayors and councillors about an increase in abuse and hate speech during the pandemic.
She attributes the phenomenon to a rise in "stress and frustration."
"People, without having the proper tools to manage their stress, will let off steam on social media and write inappropriate statements towards decisions taken at city council about a stop sign at the wrong place, a hole in the road, everything," she said in a phone interview.
Roy, who is mayor of Ste-Julie on Montreal's South Shore, said she experienced the perils of social media firsthand earlier this year when someone stole her identity online and posted anti-COVID conspiracy theories from her Facebook account.
She is among those pushing for stronger rules to combat hate speech, and for platforms such as Facebook to take quicker action to remove hateful comments or restore someone's identity when it's stolen. She said the platforms need to take down the messages as soon as they appear to ensure debate remains respectful and false messages aren't spread.
"It’s a question of debate and a question of democracy," she said.
Federal Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has promised to introduce new legislation to combat hate speech this spring.
In an interview Tuesday, he said the legislation will define five categories of illegal online activities and create a regulator. The regulator's job would include pushing online platforms to respect the law and to remove hateful messages within 24 hours.
He said the bill's goal is to take stronger actions against hate speech, child porn and non-consensual sharing of intimate images. He was careful to say that it would not tackle misinformation, saying it's not the government's job to "legislate information."
Guilbeault said his government has also had to contend with critics who accuse the government of wanting to limit free speech, a charge he denies. Rather, he says the aim of the legislation is to ensure that laws, such as those against hate speech, are applied online as they are in the real world — something he argues will protect free speech rather than stifle it.
"Right now in the virtual world and, I'm sad to say, in the physical world, we're seeing the safety and security of Canadians is being compromised, that freedom of speech is being affected online," he said in a phone interview.
"We're seeing it now with Quebec politicians who say, 'No, no I don't want to run for politics, it's so violent.'" He said the chilling effect extends to equity-seeking groups and racialized Canadians, many of whom avoid the platforms because they're constant targets of abuse.
"How does that protect free speech?" he asked. "Well, it doesn't."
Suzanne Roy says her group, the Union des municipalities du Quebec, gives new councillors some training on how to manage social media accounts, including advice on handling adversarial situations. She says the advice generally includes not getting into debates online and instead steering people to more formal channels to express their opinions, such as city council meetings and public consultations.
Philippe Roy, the soon-to-be ex-mayor of Mont-Royal, says that while there appear to be strong candidates to take his place, he's already met people who have been discouraged from running by the prospect of online hate — something that bodes poorly for the future if the problem isn't tackled.
"We're losing people who could give back to the community, and that's one of the threats that comes from this situation," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2021
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press