Rage, hate and harassment are everywhere in the public square. The Star is looking at the causes and costs — and what can be done to stop it.
Death threats carrying ominous white powder. Rocks through windows. In public, profane accusations of mass murder. At home, crowds banging on front doors, phone calls and emails rife with racist, misogynistic language.
The rising tide of abuse and intimidation battering federal and provincial officials is also hitting Toronto City Hall. One councillor who received death threats admits to being fearful of taking controversial positions. And with the Oct. 24 civic election looming, others are afraid people are being scared away from public service.
Council members and some city staff describe how over the past two years there’s been an escalation in abusive comments and threats far beyond the typical, sometimes heated exchanges that can happen with constituents unhappy with the city.
Several told the Star they have not publicized such incidents for fear of triggering more of them. They are calling it out now, they say, worried that toxic interactions are escalating out of control.
“From media to civil society organizations to political parties, we have the responsibility to ensure that this is not the new normal,” said Coun. Ana Bailão, who has twice replaced smashed constituency office windows, watched protesters on her home porch, and installed home security cameras at the suggestion of police.
“Everyone should be able to be a public servant without bringing (that anger) into their homes with their families. At the very least, your safety and well-being, and that of your family, should not be put in jeopardy.”
Bailão, council’s housing advocate who is not seeking re-election, was gratified by widespread condemnation of a man who accosted Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland in Alberta, calling her a “f—ing traitor” while recording her reaction on video.
Much of the threatening behaviour visited on city officials is related to vaccinations, lockdowns and other pandemic measures. Security cameras caught a man hurling a brick through Bailão’s constituency office window that bore a vaccination poster.
But protesters of other causes, including the city moving homeless people out of parks, the size of the police budget and more, have employed increasingly confrontational tactics.
“It has nothing to do with party lines,” Bailão said. “It’s happening to everyone. It’s a lack of respect, not for the person but for the institution.”
Dr. Eileen De Villa became Toronto’s medical officer of health about two years before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and, for many, is the public face of Toronto’s response to it, including vaccination mandates and mask rules.
Past initiatives, including the launch of safe-injection sites, generated some extreme reactions, but “it ramped up to a level that I had not seen before in this role when it came to COVID,” she said, including threats against her life.
“When powdered substances are sent to you, that elicits a whole protocol — are you trying to poison me or the staff at Toronto Public Health because of your views on how we’re managing the pandemic?” she said. “That’s a whole other level.”
The city has had to take steps to protect de Villa, her husband and children amid a barrage of threats calling her “every nasty word including the C-word” and ordering the proud U.S.-born Filipino Canadian “back to your own country.”
Like Premier Doug Ford, Mayor John Tory and a half-dozen city councillors, she has seen her home address publicized and watched from inside as protesters converged on it.
“When there are people on your street, it’s threatening,” she said, adding that, like the other officials interviewed for this story, she understands the role of peaceful protest and is open to respectful, constructive debate about her decisions.
“I don’t mind having those discussions — part and parcel of democracy is being able to debate. But debate isn’t intimidation or threats or non-substantive things like ‘You should just pack up and go home.’”
How to dispel conspiracy theories and restore reasonable debate about public health and public policy is “the million-dollar question,” she said.
But de Villa is concerned that in the current climate, calls for rational exchanges based on scientific evidence, which could both inform Torontonians and influence the policies she and the city initiate on their behalf, are not being heard.
“I don’t know whether there’s room for that now,” she said. “I do wonder a little bit about the challenges we have with social media and how the algorithms there frankly create those echo chambers — how much that actually plays into this.”
One city councillor, who asked for anonymity to prevent further threats, came under fire on far-right social media for a motion that called for increased racial representation but didn’t bind the city to any action and passed without debate.
The councillor admits to being “skittish” just out walking after a wave of 60 or 70 threats, including a half-dozen death threats and one specific enough that police were notified.
“You worry about your children and the rest of your family — is somebody going to take a shot at them or harm them for the work you’re doing?” the councillor said. “You get skittish about the work and, you know, you’re less likely to put stuff forward that might have any bit of controversy to it.”
The councillor replied to some of the emailed threats, trying to explain the thinking behind the council motion, but says responses included “We know exactly what you’re doing — you’re trying to destroy our country.”
Mayor John Tory told the Star he is extremely concerned about the dramatic increase in threats and harassment and is convinced they are the main reason far fewer candidates signed up for this civic election than for past ones.
Early protests outside his downtown condo building were over the city’s clearing of homeless encampments in parks but now are more often people accusing him of poisoning Torontonians with vaccines, and similar charges.
Residents of the condo were urged by building management to avoid going outside during protests, and if they did, to carry identification so they’d be allowed back inside. After white powder was sent to Tory’s home, triggering fears of poison, residents asked the condo corporation to urge the mayor to move out.
Tory responded with a letter to his neighbours expressing “sincere regret” that protesters don’t rally at city hall instead and offering to talk to residents one on one, but noted he can’t stop the protests, the noise or the police presence.
Out in public, Tory said, he has been videotaped while dining with his wife and accused of killing businesses with lockdowns, had a man attempt to serve him with what he said was a subpoena for mass murder, and had a woman with a young child call him “garbage” and “a piece of s–t” for being pro-vaccine.
“I think it is a very small number of people who account for a large number of abusive comments directed at politicians,” Tory said.
“It’s all chained together — they feel freer to say that in a public meeting, or on the street to a politician, because they see people doing it on social media using that sort of language,” he said. “It’s a breakdown in civility that I do think has a big impact on a lot of people saying, ‘Why would I subject myself to that if I want to serve the public?’”
Other reasons suggested for the drop in candidates for this election include pandemic fatigue and the increased workload overseeing wards dramatically expanded in size in 2018.
Diane Yoon, a climate justice activist, registered as a council candidate in the University-Rosedale ward but last week pivoted her campaign to fighting developer influence on the civic election and at city hall.
Yoon said the kind of “hostility and unacceptable online vitriol” she received after registering will, if left unchecked, prevent “many young, queer, racialized women and non-binary people out of running for office and out of politics.”
Coun. John Filion, who is not seeking re-election in Willowdale after 40 years in elected office, suffered an attempted home invasion and somebody shooting his home and car in 2019.
Nobody has been charged with the crimes that Filion believes were an attempt at political intimidation with a financial motive. He says he’s not sure if that incident is tied to the rise he has seen in polarized views that prevent healthy debate.
People met with rational counterarguments “get angrier and say, ‘That person who doesn’t agree with me must be a bad person,’ so they are justified in being a bad person to them,” Filion said.
Coun. Cynthia Lai, who is seeking a second term in Scarborough North, recently had to hang up on a belligerent constituent who, not getting her way on an issue, started repeatedly complaining about “Asian gypsy moths.”
“She knew I was Chinese Canadian and was just trying to antagonize me,” Lai said. “This is an ongoing problem. There is a lot of verbal abuse and discrimination” aimed at her and her office staff.
Cathy Crowe, a street nurse and advocate for homeless Torontonians, noted that, before amalgamation, protesters turned up outside the home she shared with a local councillor, angry that they were living in a co-op.
She says she didn’t find the experience threatening or abusive and said she herself has protested in front of Tory’s condo building.
“I know the … visits to (the homes of) several councillors, by people protesting the city’s treatment of encampments dressed in city worker costumes, was disturbing to those with young children or who had elderly neighbours,” Crowe said.
“Street theatre has its place. Maybe that wasn’t the right place.”
A homeless Torontonian who helped organize the protests, who goes by the name Gru on social media and whose legal name is Jesse Allen, said protesters were acting like the city’s “park ambassadors,” who he says “harass and surveil our unhoused neighbours.
“That councillors found the very tactics that their employees use against their homeless constituents to be unacceptable in their own neighbourhoods speaks volumes about how they feel about poor Torontonians,” he said.
A common worry from councillors and city officials about the tide of vitriol and threats is the impact it is having on family members who had no choice in their profession.
“They really shouldn’t get it,” de Villa said of the impact of threats and abuse on her family. “That’s the guilt that I carry around with me. They shouldn’t have to be subject to that.”
David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering city hall and municipal politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider