Lake Cowichan town councillor Bob Day knows it sometimes takes a thick skin to be a politician.
But Day, who is also vice-chairman of the Cowichan Valley Regional District, said two incidents on consecutive days last week in which a man from Lake Cowichan harassed and intimidated him at his workplace in a local grocery store was a bit more than he bargained for. The man created a placard, and followed Day around, making defamatory comments.
Day said the man had a “difference of opinion” with council regarding a traffic issue in Lake Cowichan and chose him to take it out on.
“I’ve worked there for 10 years and this man shops there almost every morning,” he said.
“His actions weren’t specifically directed at me, but at the council as a whole, and he knew where I worked. I tried to ignore him, but it was hard to do.”
Day said he has only had one other incident in which he was directly harassed by someone due to politics in his 10 years on Lake Cowichan’s council and four years as a director with the CVRD.
“About seven years ago, a man entered my workplace and verbally assaulted me over a zoning issue that was before council,” he said.
“Again, his issue wasn’t against me personally, but with council. Local politicians are the people on the ground and, because they can’t see the premier every day, many look to us to right all the wrongs and we take the brunt when people are upset.”
Day told his story to a large crowd at a workshop at the Union of B.C. Municipalities meeting being held in Vancouver this week dealing with the rise of incivility in local government, and the conduct of the public toward elected officials and municipal staff.
Day said while actual physical acts of harassment and intimidation have been rare against him, social media is another story.
He said he, and many other local politicians, frequently face a barrage of criticism and personal attacks on a fairly regular basis through social media.
“It’s often over a difference of opinion on the issue, but many just don’t want to hear the other side to the story,” Day said.
“It’s something we face on a regular basis. I think these type of issues often dissuade good people from running for public office because they don’t want to be in the public eye.”
Jon Lefebure, mayor of North Cowichan and chairman of the CVRD, recalls only one incident about 12 years ago when he was harassed in a public place.
Like Day, it was in a grocery store.
“The man threatened my family,” Lefebure said.
“I have no idea who he was and I never saw him again, but it was very upsetting. What I have seen recently is an increase in attacks against politicians on social media.”
Lefebure said his personal policy is to avoid most social media, and even e-mails, that he considers uncivil, and he advises other politicians and municipal staff to do the same.
“Some people believe that social media has given them the licence to be very harsh and not deal with the issues, but to attack the people involved,” he said.
“If people ask me questions civilly, I’ll usually respond, but if they aren’t civil, I won’t respond to them. I like to be optimistic and I think that, in the future, limits will be placed on social media to deal with these issues.”