St. John’s MP ‘grateful’ for political panic buttons amid rising safety concerns

St. John’s East MP Joanne Thompson is one of several politicians who have used a panic button due to personal safety concerns. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

A federal MP from Newfoundland and Labrador says she’s grateful she carries a government-issued panic button as threats and harassment directed at politicians rises in Canada.

St. John’s East MP Joanne Thompson is one of several members who have used the buttons, also called mobile duress alarms, in recent months. The buttons alert the Parliamentary Protective Service or local police of a safety concern when pressed.

While Thompson said she hasn’t had to use the button while working in St. John’s, she often carries it while in Ottawa.

“Early in the fall, not long after the election, I did have a worrying encounter with a constituent in the riding. And it was at that point I did see the panic button and I was quite grateful for that,” Thompson told CBC News Thursday. 

“I was in Ottawa was when I used it the most often. You know, walking to work in the dark, returning in the dark. It was an extra precaution, so I’m grateful for that.”

Thompson said most of her concerns come from emails and social media, saying the rhetoric of others has intensified in recent months. Other MPs have shared stories of harassment, death threats and dangerous messages that caused them to use a panic button.

When asked about how safe she feels in her job, Thompson said she doesn’t allow herself to think that way.

“I don’t engage in back and forth on social media … and I don’t want to really travel the road where I begin to question my safety,” she said. “The people who are sending those messages, I think that’s what they want.”

Police panic buttons like these are used to alert law enforcement when politicians feel they are in imminent danger. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Scott Matthews, an associate professor of Political Science at Memorial University, says increased use of the panic buttons is likely a response to how people are feeling about the current state of Canadian politics as tension rises between parties.

“People who like one party or feel close to one of the parties tend to feel very far away from and very negatively toward the other parties. This is especially the case between Liberals and Conservatives or between New Democrats and Conservatives. They really dislike each other in a way that isn’t the case in the past,” Matthews told CBC News.

Matthews says he’s seen that trend go through waves in recent decades, but adds the politics of COVID-19 have amplified discord in the short-term.

He believes it could continue when it comes to future elections, especially in areas where races are more contentious.

Even if we disagree on policy, there’s a lot that we have in common. A lot that we share.​​​​​– Scott Matthews

Asked about what could be done to tackle the overarching issue of rising threats, Thompson said she believes it begins in the classroom.

“We have to create a shift in how we access news, how we question sources…and also how we speak to each other,” she said. “Respect matters, and personal and public safety matters. How we conduct ourselves has a significant role to play in achieving that.”

MUN associate professor Scott Matthews says panic buttons aren’t a true solution to the problem of increased threats in the political landscape. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Matthews says things can be done by the politicians at the centre of the issue, especially regarding the use of hateful rhetoric.

It’s one thing to disagree, he said, but it’s another to suggest that disagreement creates enemies in politics.

“Panic buttons, and more generally kind of securing our political system against conflict, is not any kind of solution. That’s the sign of a problem, in fact,” he said. 

“What we kind of need to be doing is finding ways to reduce the heated rhetoric and to depolarize our political system.… Even if we disagree on policy, there’s a lot that we have in common. A lot that we share.”

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