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EntertainmentThreats against Quebec’s premier during pandemic part of ‘violent’ trend: terrorism agency
Threats against Quebec’s premier during pandemic part of ‘violent’ trend: terrorism agency

Threats against Quebec’s premier during pandemic part of ‘violent’ trend: terrorism agency

Online threats against Quebec’s premier during the COVID-19 pandemic are part of a larger and “increasingly violent” trend, according to an unclassified report that concludes it’s difficult for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to assess the validity of those threats.

The report, by Canada’s Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre (ITAC), was obtained by CBC News through an access to information request. ITAC works in tandem with Canada’s top spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

It was written in response to threats made online in January 2022, shortly after Premier François Legault proposed an additional tax for the unvaccinated.

The report says Legault’s home address was posted on a public online forum, among other threatening messages.

“Hopefully someone in Quebec decapitates that f—,” said one anonymous message.

“Give yourself at least a few weeks for a clean plan so that you don’t get caught,” said another.

In the report, ITAC concludes that violence against Legault is “unlikely” but says it “cannot discount the possibility” of an attack against the premier.

It also warns that the practice of “doxing” — maliciously publishing personal information online — adds risk, because it “provides those who have the intent and capability to use violence with valuable logistical details, potentially resulting in an opportunity to conduct an attack.”

Legault’s office declined to be interviewed, saying it doesn’t comment on security concerns.

National security expert Artur Wilczynski says he’s concerned about the volume of violent rhetoric online, saying it becomes even riskier when it’s paired with doxing, the practice of posting a public figure’s personal information online. (Mathieu Thériault/CBC)

But one former security expert with the federal government said doxing adds an extra layer of danger into the “toxic brew” of violent online comments.

“It does heighten the risk for specific individuals and specific institutions and communities,” said Artur Wilczynski, who is now a senior strategy adviser with consulting firm Samuel Associates in Ottawa. “It is a significant concern.”

Threats against officials are up during pandemic

The ITAC report is part of mounting evidence of polarization, according to Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., whose research interests include terrorism, radicalization and extremism.

“The pandemic really ramped up the temperature of the discourse,” he said in an interview with CBC News.

“Everything became a cosmic struggle of good versus evil and us versus them — and bringing down that temperature of politics is going to be enormously important.”

Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., says the ITAC report adds to growing evidence of polarization in the country. (Submitted by Amarnath Amarasingam)

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, threats against elected officials in Quebec have skyrocketed.

Provincial police received more than 200 complaints of threats against politicians in 2022, compared with 16 in 2019.

At least five people have been charged since the beginning of the pandemic with threatening Legault.

Canada’s top spy agency has also raised the alarm.

At a parliamentary hearing, a CSIS representative warned of a spike in threats against lawmakers since the start of the pandemic, saying the threats are ‘fuelled by an increase in extreme anti-authority and anti-government rhetoric, often rooted in … conspiracy theories.’ (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Speaking to parliamentarians last May, a CSIS representative warned of a “marked increase in violent threats addressed at elected officials and public servants,” saying it has allocated more resources to monitor the rise of ideologically motivated violent extremism.

Federal politicians have also been targeted. In August, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was harassed in Grande Prairie, Alta.

“The chatter online has increased exponentially, and we saw it kind of happening in real time, since exactly March 2020, when the [pandemic] mandates set in,” Amarasingam said.

“It’s difficult to know how many of these people will act on their words. Because they make threats all the time, but it only takes one to act on it.”

Heated political climate has ‘chilling effect’ 

Above and beyond the risks for the targeted lawmakers, the pro-democracy group Apathy is Boring warns that the current political climate will make it harder to convince people to enter politics.

“It does really have a chilling effect, particularly for women, people of colour, younger candidates,” said Sam Reusch, the non-partisan’s group’s executive director.

Sam Reusch, executive director of Apathy is Boring, said that some people will be deterred from entering politics because of the increase in threats against politicians. (CBC)

There’s no “silver bullet” or clear way to cool the political climate, she said, but her organization does work with youth to help identify their biases and online misinformation.

“We really need to be doing the work of reaching out to one another, of mending our communities, of reducing polarization by having hard conversations and not allowing it to fracture,” she said.

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Eliot Bowman (Eli Bowman) is a Journalist at Flaunt Weekly covering Business News.

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