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MPs take steps to protect themselves as anti-Islamophobia motion sparks threats

By Abbas Rana      

House Deputy Sergeant-at-Arms Patrick McDonell recently briefed the Liberal caucus on security matters and is expected to do the same for other parties in the coming weeks.

House Deputy Sergeant-at-Arms Patrick McDonell conducted a 25-minute briefing at the last Liberal caucus meeting on March 8 about how MPs can keep themselves and their constituency offices safe from potential threats. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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PARLIAMENT HILL—With threats against some federal politicians on the rise as a motion condemning Islamophobia makes its way through the House, MPs have been taking measures to keep themselves and those around them safe.

In response to rookie Liberal MP Iqra Khalid’s (Mississauga-Erin Mills, Ont.) private member’s motion, M-103, introduced in December and last debated in February, a number of Liberal MPs have received nasty and racist comments via email, phone, and on social media.

Ms. Khalid was not available for an interview last week, but she told The Hill Times two weeks ago that she has received about 90,000 emails on the issue, along with “thousands and thousands” of phone calls and social media messages. Of the messages received, she estimated, 60 per cent are negative and 40 per cent positive. The negative responses include “a number of death threats” now under investigation by the RCMP, she said.

The Peel Regional Police is also still patrolling Ms. Khalid’s residence and constituency office.

Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, pictured in this file photograph on the Hill surrounded by Liberal MPs. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

House Deputy Sergeant-at-Arms Patrick McDonell conducted a 25-minute briefing at the last Liberal caucus meeting on March 8 about how MPs can keep themselves and constituency offices safe from potential threats.

“We’d organized the briefing to ensure that all our Members [of Parliament] know where they can go to learn about the resources available and to know who to speak to if they have a particular problem,” Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia (Lac-Saint-Louis, Que.), chair of the national caucus, told The Hill Times last week.

He declined to discuss details of the briefing because of caucus confidentiality and the nature of the subject. Mr. Scarpaleggia said he is currently looking at a program to train all constituency staff on security, but said details are still being worked out with the Parliamentary Protective Service.

Mr. McDonell did not respond to an interview request, and his office referred all questions to Heather Bradley, director of communications for House Speaker Geoff Regan (Halifax West, N.S.). She declined a comment for this article, saying the House does not comment on security issues.

Mr. McDonell will hold similar briefings for the Conservative and NDP caucuses in the coming weeks, spokesmen for both parties told The Hill Times. Both parties were still in the process of working out the dates of these briefings.

Sources told The Hill Times that Mr. McDonell told Liberal MPs that the Parliamentary Protective Services could get their constituency offices assessed and suggest any required improvements. He said that depending on the recommended improvements, the costs could be shared by the House and MPs’ office budgets.

Liberal MP Adam Vaughan told The Hill Times that making threats to MPs is a scare tactic that is unacceptable in politics. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

He also advised MPs that if they receive any threat, they should share the information with local police departments and with the House. Sharing the information with the House is aimed to ensure that the security staff follow up with the local police.

MPs was also told to have access to panic buttons in their offices, use security cameras to monitor their offices and surrounding areas, and use door buzzers to keep an eye on who is coming in or leaving their constituency offices. He told MPs to vary times and routes in their commutes between their residences and constituency offices. Mr. McDonell also provided a phone number and an email address for MPs to report any threat or incident to the House of Commons.

Some Liberal MPs interviewed for this article said they didn’t want to speak on the record about the threats or how they’ve dealt with them. They said by talking about it publicly, they might create an atmosphere of “alarm or fear.” The MPs also said sharing such details might give ideas to mischief-makers.

These MPs, however, said they have passed on information about threats to local police and House Protective Services.

MPs interviewed for this story said that even before the Islamophobia motion, it was not unusual to receive threats, but the frequency of threats has increased and they’ve taken on more racist and hateful tones.

Liberal MP Adam Vaughan (Spadina-Fort York, Ont.) said he received threats but that they were not “criminal” in nature. He declined to share further details. He said, however, that MPs have adequate support from law enforcement agencies and that if someone makes a threat to an MP, that person could end up in serious legal trouble.

“People should know that idle threats that they think are just rhetorical are being dealt with in a very serious way because we’re not going to tolerate one serious threat getting through as we tolerate seven or eight or 10 or 15 sort of casual threats,” Mr. Vaughan said. “The public should understand that if they choose to use threatening language against a Member of Parliament, against the government of this country, they’re in fact trying to scare people and using scare tactics in politics is unacceptable and the police will be called.”

Liberal MP Anita Vandenbeld (Ottawa West-Nepean, Ont.), chair of the Liberal Women’s Caucus, said she does not want to overstate the level of threat that MPs face, but said on and off, MPs do face challenging security situations, mostly from individuals who have mental-health issues. She said the House has provided effective tools for MPs to keep themselves and their constituency offices safe and that all MPs should make themselves familiar with those tools.

“We have very good support. Not all MPs know about the support that is available,” said Ms. Vandenbeld. “It’s very important that we know what we can do to keep ourselves safe and also in the process to keep the people that we are meeting within the community, the people around us.”

Liberal MP Anita Vandenbeld says that all MPs should familiarize themselves with the security tools that the House of Commons has provided to them and their Hill and constituency offices. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette (Winnipeg Centre, Man.) said he and some Winnipeg-area Liberal MPs organized some staff security training last week on how to deal with “disruptive constituents” and how to “de-escalate situations.” He said that he and four staffers and volunteers from his office attended the day-long training session, along with several staffers from other area Liberal MPs offices. A Winnipeg security company provided this training for $100 per person.

“The idea of the training is how to deal with disruptive people. How can we take a problem down so we don’t have to call security or do security related things or with police services, but actually just really deal with the issues that the person is facing,” Mr. Ouellette said, adding that he did not receive any threats related to Islamophobia motion.

Liberal MP Majid Jowhari (Richmond Hill, Ont.) said his constituency office has cameras and two levels of security for the safety of his staff and office.

“Our office perimeter and our staff is quite secure,” he said.

Liberal MP Omar Alghabra (Mississauga Centre, Ont.) said he received “a lot of” negative comments and some of those could be “interpreted as threats.” He said that he’s going to consult his staff members one whether they should get the office assessment done. Also, Mr. Alghabra said he’s considering getting his staff security training in the coming weeks.

Liberal MP Bob Bratina (Hamilton East-Stoney Creek, Ont.) was not available for an interview last week. His executive assistant, Jesse Shea, told The Hill Times that Mr. Bratina received a threat via social media recently and passed on the information to Parliamentary Protective Service, which dealt with it immediately.

Meanwhile, the CBC reported last week that Ottawa police charged a 27-year-old Ottawa woman who stole a taxi to drive to Parliament Hill and then stole another vehicle after she was turned away from the entrance by security last Monday afternoon. The woman was unarmed and was charged with two counts of theft of a vehicle and one count of theft under $5,000.

“In order to ensure that the safety and security of the Parliamentary Precinct and the grounds of Parliament Hill remain paramount, we will not be disclosing the origin of the vehicle,” Melissa Rusk, a spokesperson for the Parliamentary Protective Service, told CBC.

arana@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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