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'Things have definitely changed': Incidents of harassment, bullying towards elected officials on the rise

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As president of Alberta Municipalities and mayor of the City of Wetaskiwin, Tyler Gandam has spent more than a decade in the public eye.

"Things have definitely changed," he said. "I think there's been a lot more abuse towards elected officials."

Gandam has noticed incidents of harassment and bullying have gotten worse since the pandemic – especially on social media platforms.

"They can post anonymously, they can post using a fake account and feel like what they're saying is totally fine," said Gandam.

He said he's been the target of at least a hundred incidents in recent years.

"Last week we had a threat of somebody bringing a gun to city hall so we upped our security," Gandam said.

"Then even for doing that we took criticism that again, well if you're doing your job you don't have to worry about it," he added.

Gandam said nobody, including elected officials, should go to work and feel threatened.

"It's absolutely unacceptable," he said.

Gandam said more and more the attacks aren't just about policies or the issues but have become personal.

"It's not only the individual who was elected but their families as well. Moms, dads, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives and kids," said Gandam.

"I know that for sure men face threats of violence, whereas women are facing those threats of violence but a lot more descriptive of what that violence could or would be, or even getting into the sexual nature of what that threat would be," he said.

Edmonton councillor Anne Stevenson stays off social media and has staff screen her messages as a way to insulate herself from some of the abuse.

"Quite abusive language, misogynist language, but also just frankly sometimes some of the scolding we get," said Stevenson.

Polarization, disinformation and worsening abuse were some of the reasons Shannon Phillips said led to her resignation after nine years as an NDP MLA.

"People in my line of work, I think don't know how to deal with it yet. Our party structures don't know how to deal with it. Our legislative assemblies don't know how to deal with it to keep us safe. Our legal environment doesn't know how to deal with it," Phillips said at the time.

"The far right is responsible for whipping up disinformation, anger and hate," she said at the time.

"Folks that are in positions of power or running for office are actually courting some of these folks, if not outright encouraging them and that's really worrisome," said Jared Wesley, a political scientist at the University of Alberta.

Wesley said although research shows local politicians face the most hate it extends to all levels of government.

In May, a federal committee heard the number of harassment incidents involving MPs jumped nearly 800 per cent over the past five years.

There's growing concern some of the harassment and bullying elected officials face will lead to more resignations or prevent people from entering politics.

"There are very deliberate media strategies, political strategies, to stop people from getting involved," said Stevenson.

"There are costs associated to people's poor behaviour and we need to start calling it out more. We need to be taking it seriously and when applicable, making sure that the police are involved as well," said Gandam.

Wesley agreed and said voters need to be part of the solution.

"To speak up and say enough is enough," Wesley said.

"And to hold politicians to account for courting, encouraging and condoning this type of behaviour because it helps them to win elections," he added.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Chelan Skulski