Warning: Readers may find some of the content disturbing.
Marjorie Knight used to knock on doors alone. This Ontario election, her campaign team has decided to always have her canvassing with someone else.
“I had people call the police on me because I was ‘casing’ homes as I was going door to door knocking,” said the Cambridge NDP candidate. “You go up to somebody and they slam the door in your face and tell you that they don’t deal with your kind. Not sure what kind that is.”
Knight, who first ran in 2018, doesn’t want to put herself at risk — she doesn’t know who she may bump into while campaigning. One of her election signs was recently defaced with slurs.
“It was definitely hateful. And sadly, it’s within my community,” she said.
The incident isn’t isolated or specific to one party — all four major parties report dealing with hateful incidents so far during this campaign, often targeting racialized candidates.
Scarborough—Guildwood Liberal candidate Mitzie Hunter has had her campaign signs vandalized too, with hateful words like Nazi and fascist. In Peterborough, federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was accosted by protesters at a rally for a provincial NDP candidate. Protesters hurled vile insults and threats at him, and gave him the middle finger. (Peterborough police investigated and say there’s no grounds for criminal charges.)
Krystal Brooks, Green Party candidate for Simcoe North, felt upset and hurt after finding one of her signs defaced with personal attacks. Brooks is from Rama First Nation and is a human trafficking survivor.
“On the one side, it said, ‘Go back to the reserve,'” she said. “On the other side, it was a little too inappropriate to even say. But it was fairly targeted at my human trafficking background.”
Since sharing the incident on TikTok, her phone has been blowing up, with messages of love and kindness. Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner came to campaign with her to show his support.
She’s heard from candidates she’s running against. One even offered to help Brooks put up more signs.
“I did consider backing out. But I figured that it was more reason to continue and it was just more motivation.”
‘The climate has changed’
Both Knight’s and Brooks’s teams reported the vandalism to police.
The Ontario Provincial Police actually works with parties throughout the election, investigating potential criminal activity reported from the campaign trail. Its protective services section is in charge of security for leaders of the Progressive Conservatives, NDP and Liberal Party during the election.
Bill Dickson, OPP spokesperson, is noticing a shift in tone this election campaign.
“Things have changed. The climate has changed. People seem to have changed and some have blamed it on COVID,” he said. “If you don’t agree with a candidate, that’s fine. But to target them with words that are hateful? It’s just wrong.”
Dickson notes that between 2020 and 2021, the OPP saw a 14 per cent increase in “threatening and inappropriate communications toward government officials.” This anger and polarization was well displayed during last fall’s federal election. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau even had gravel thrown at him during a campaign stop in London, Ont.
The Ontario NDP has been tracking hateful incidents this election and have reported six to OPP so far, a mix of a vandalized sign, threatening online comments and hostile behaviour from those showing up at campaign offices. So far, the Green Party cites Brooks’s defaced sign as the lone incident.
Neither the Progressive Conservatives nor the Liberals provided types of incidents or frequency, instead saying they are reported to police as they happen. The Liberals did mention they run a session for candidates that looks at how to campaign safely and prevent violence, harassment and discrimination.
All four parties condemned the hate.
Tracking candidate hate online
It’s not just on the ground, in person — candidates are getting hate online too.
The non-partisan Samara Centre for Democracy is trying to track it. The centre is running a tool called SAMbot, which tracks toxic tweets received by candidates and parties on Twitter.
Right now, the bot is monitoring 486 candidates, specifically searching for language in tweets sent to them that’s rude, threatening, sexually explicit, attacking their identity, insulting or just straight up profanity. These are hateful personal attacks on candidates, not critiques of party policies or platforms.
During the past week of the campaign (May 11-18, including the debate), the bot analyzed 146,980 tweets and found 17,086 were toxic, actually a slight drop from the campaign’s first week.
The most toxicity was directed toward PC Leader Doug Ford (getting 5,760 likely toxic comments), followed by Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca (2,495), NDP Leader Andrea Horwath (1,730) and PC candidate Stephen Lecce (1,262).
Sabreena Delhon, Samara’s executive director, believes tracking is important to understand how big a problem hate and toxicity is on the campaign trail — and what it means for politics at large.
“Online toxicity is a barrier to civic engagement,” she said. “People are leaving politics or they’re not entering politics, or they’re just avoiding the political conversation altogether because of toxicity online.”
Ontario Morning from CBC Radio7:31Candidates confront racist slurs on signs, hate on Ontario campaign trail
Delhon’s hope is to find out if toxicity is getting worse. She plans to gather data this election to help steer policy and come up with possible solutions.
She knows stopping hate toward candidates outright would be nearly impossible.
“This is a very complex problem.”