Politics

Senators receive panic buttons in response to rising concerns about security on Parliament Hill

Canada's senators have been issued panic buttons as concerns about the safety of members of Canada's upper house pile up, CBC News has learned.

Recent incidents have included online harassment, death threats and tense encounters with protesters

A man in a dark suit walks down a hallway.
Conservative Sen. Don Plett was accosted by pro-Palestinian protesters while driving to a caucus meeting in November 2023 — an incident he said made him feel 'very, very unsafe.' (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Canada's senators have been issued panic buttons as concerns about the safety of members of Canada's upper house pile up, CBC News has learned.

Senators have been targeted by online harassment campaigns and threatening phone calls in recent weeks. In November, Conservative Sen. Don Plett's car was surrounded by pro-Palestinian protesters who banged on the windows and climbed onto the hood of his car while he was headed to a Conservative caucus meeting on Parliament Hill.

Sen. Peter Boehm, a career diplomat, said senators once thought they were shielded from the kinds of security risks sometimes faced by members of Parliament.

"All that I have noticed in my time in the Senate is that the threat levels have increased," he said. "The personal safety of senators is a concern."

Boehm said senators first began to feel the security environment had changed during the convoy protest that paralyzed downtown Ottawa for weeks in early 2022.

Protesters and police standing face to face in Ottawa, with the parliament building in the background.
Police move in to clear downtown Ottawa of protesters after weeks of demonstrations on Feb. 19, 2022. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

"I got hassled a few times, but I'm a tall white guy," he said. "Some of my colleagues, reflecting the diversity that the Senate now reflects, brown or black or women, wearing masks, they were significantly hassled."

Senators were offered mobile duress devices — also known as panic buttons — early last fall, more than a year after the House of Commons offered them to MPs.

Boehm said accepting the buttons was voluntary and some senators didn't feel they needed them. Some accepted them but don't necessarily keep them on hand at all times, he said.

The Senate and the Parliamentary Protective Service have refused to say what prompted the decision to offer senators panic buttons, or how much the measure is costing.

"The Senate has taken steps to provide additional support for senators' security when they are off Parliament Hill," said Alison Korn, spokesperson for the Senate's internal economy committee. "For security reasons, detailed information about these programs and services [is] not shared publicly."

In a debate earlier this month over the Senate's spending plans, Sen. Lucie Moncion said security costs for the Red Chamber have increased.

"There are security issues now that we did not have 10 years ago," she told senators. "There are security elements that are part of the budget now that weren't there before."

Moncion did not elaborate on the new security costs and declined an interview request from CBC News.

The Senate isn't the only part of the Canadian government that is spending more on security.

People sit in a group and laugh.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his son Hadrien, third from left, are greeted at the North American Indigenous Games 2023 in Halifax. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

The cost of RCMP protection for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family has shot up to $30 million a year and the cost of protecting members of Parliament is at a record high.

Sen. Bernadette Clement said she initially didn't think she would need the panic button she was issued. But that was before she was targeted for online harassment last fall and received a threatening phone call that prompted her to leave her home for a few days.

"After that threat came through, [the panic button] is fully charged and always on me," said Clement, who was named to the Senate in 2021.

The harassment and threats came after she moved to adjourn debate in the Senate on Bill C-234, a Conservative private member's bill to extend a carbon tax exemption farmers receive for gasoline and diesel to natural gas and propane.

A post by Conservative House leader Andrew Scheer encouraged Canadians to contact Clement and fellow senator Chantal Petitclerc to tell them what they thought.

While Clement has been in politics for years, she said her experience in November changed the way she looks at security.

"That incident really changed my view of things," she said. "And then online, because I'm a Black woman politician, a lot of the vitriol is — not all of it, but a lot of it — tinged with racism and misogyny."

Clement said she sensed a shift in the tone online even before that incident.

WATCH | How the security climate on Parliament Hill has changed life for one senator: 

How the security climate on Parliament Hill has changed life for one senator

2 months ago
Duration 2:31
Sen. Bernadette Clement describes her life since she was targeted with threats and online harassment last fall.

"I've been a senator now for two years and even in those two years, I feel like there is anger and aggression that seems to be unleashed now in an increasing way," she said.

"And it has meant that I walk into rooms with a different view. I go into a room now and I am very, very careful to look and see who is there."

Sen. Paula Simons said that while she hasn't really noticed a change in the atmosphere around senators, she recently had to deal with an incident while at an event in Edmonton.

"A group of pro-Palestinian protesters came to an event that I was emceeing, I'm assuming because I have a Jewish family background, and disrupted the event and yelled at me," Simons said. "But although I was taken aback — because, bluntly, as a senator that's the first time that's ever happened to me — I never felt like I was in danger."

Simons said the Senate should offer more training and develop plans on how to deal with security incidents.

Sen. Paula Simons described the Harper government's design as 'widely unpopular.'
Sen. Paula Simons says it's time for the Senate to come up with security protocols. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

"It would be a good thing for the Senate to develop some kind of protocols to prepare senators in a world in which we may see more active protests. How are we supposed to deal with them?" she said.

"Imagine if I had pressed my mobile duress button because some protesters were yelling at me. I mean, that would have been a complete overreaction. And yet, I realized in that moment that if somebody in that theatre had intended ill towards me, I had absolutely no protection against them whatsoever."

Sen. Plett raised the issue of Senate security in early November after his encounter with pro-Palestinian protesters.

"They actually jumped onto my car," he told the Senate's internal economy committee. "They were banging on my windows. They were lying on the hood of the car. They were trying to prevent me from moving … There was no security around to help me. I felt very, very unsafe."

Plett, who was named to the Senate in 2009, told the committee he felt senators were getting "less and less protection."

"The public should know what is happening here and how unsafe we, in fact, feel."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Thompson

Senior reporter

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.

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