Target practice

Thousands cheer online for activists to be murdered. How long before someone takes it literally?

“Next time just cut the cables,” wrote 67-year old John Les on Facebook. He was reacting to a CBC News video of police arresting Greenpeace activists dangling from the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge.

It’s tempting to dismiss Les as an old shitposter with nothing better to do at 6:30 in the morning. But he’s also British Columbia’s former public safety minister, a three-term MLA and the former Mayor of Chilliwack.

And Les is not the only pillar of his community calling for anti-pipeline activists to be murdered.

Brett Wilson says on Twitter "hang them for treason"

Brett Wilson calls for protestors to be hanged

For months, Saskatchewan oil billionaire and television personality W. Brett Wilson has posted on Twitter about killing people who oppose oil sands expansion.

“Cement boots work,” wrote the Nashville Predators owner and former Dragon’s Den host. Challenged by other users, Wilson has defended the comments as jokes, motivated by frustration with the slow progress of the Trans Mountain expansion project.

While Wilson claims he’s being funny, the men replying to him, retweeting him and posting similar comments don’t seem to think it’s a joke.

Violent rhetoric against protestors

Facebook user threatens to run protestors over

After two female Greenpeace activists climbed on top of tunnel-boring equipment in May, Facebook user Shannon Antle vowed to run them over in a crowd.

It was one of hundreds of comments that day threatening the two women with rape, murder and other violence.

Based on his Facebook profile, Antle likes the Ice Cube comedy Friday, Lemony Snicket books and listening to hip hop at the lake with his friends. He also works in pipeline construction.

Antle’s online comment echoes real-life violence in Charlottesville, Virginia last year. That’s where 20-year-old neo-Nazi demonstrator James Alex Fields rammed his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens more.

More recently in Canada, a young man ran down more than two dozen pedestrians in Toronto with a rented van, killing 10. The suspect, Alek Minassian, was allegedly motivated by hatred for women and anger that they wouldn’t have sex with him.

So you can’t defend threats of vehicle ramming as a “joke”.

Which brings us back to the gun guys. It is normal now after a pipeline protest to see men online posting about “target practice,” calling for police or the military snipers to shoot the activists or threatening to do it themselves.

a screenshot of a Facebook post by Austin Undseth saying "in Sask that gets ya shot" with the hashtag "colton," a reference to murder victim Colten Boushie

One chilling example was posted by Facebook user Austin Undseth, also in response to a Greenpeace action. “In sask that gets ya shot,” wrote the Swift Current man. Then he added the hashtag #colton, an apparent reference to Colten Boushie.

Boushie, a 22-year-old man from the Red Pheasant Cree Nation, was shot in the head by Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley. Stanley was acquitted of any crime.

This toxic blend of racism, violent misogyny and death threats appears to be intensifying as the Trans Mountain pipeline debate drags on.

Egged on by high-profile commentators and pro-industry Facebook pages, thousands of men are using their real names to cheer for the murder of Indigenous and environmental activists – their fellow Canadians.

Sooner or later, it seems inevitable that one of them will take that rage offline, with tragic consequences.

There are three things our elected leaders can do now, before it’s too late:

  1. Cancel the wasteful Kinder Morgan bailout.This ill-conceived megaproject should have died under its own weight back in April. By injecting billions of public dollars into keeping it on life support, politicians are deepening the rift in Canadian society. Tell them to stop.
  2. Give angry young men reliable, meaningful work. Since apparently we have $4.5 billion to spend, let’s retrofit some schools. Let’s drill geothermal wells, build electric buses and install some solar panels. In the meantime we’ll need more firefighters and disaster response crews.
  3. Resource the fight against radicalization. The RCMP shouldn’t have to wait until someone complains to investigate a death threat. If someone is posting publicly under their own name, maybe they could use a conversation with an officer – or a counsellor. These programs need to be expanded.

While we’re at it, here are three things the Canadian news media can do:

  1. Fact check. Every time a news outlet runs a story claiming the Trans Mountain pipeline has never spilled, a majority of affected First Nations are in support or the project will have no impact on climate change, they widen the divide. There are valid arguments for and against. No need to print false claims.
  2. Stop running op-eds accusing pipeline opponents of treason. There’s a difference between oil industry profits and Canada’s public interest. In a democracy, people have the right to criticize a company or campaign against government policy. Some NGOs, including Dogwood, accept donations from U.S. philanthropists. You don’t have to like it, but it’s not treason.
  3. Investigate. Where did this network of enraged oil patch defenders come from? How many of them are there? Where do they congregate online? Who organizes and mobilizes them? And if those efforts require funding, where does that money come from?

We don’t have to look far to see what happens when violent rhetoric spills over into the real world. In the case of the pipeline fight, we still have a window of time to stop it.

13 Responses to “Target practice”

  1. Jennifer Dyck says:

    Well stated facts and civilized as well as any judge puts in remarks with a court decision.
    Please send this piece to all news media outlets and every elected govt rep. Fed. Prov. Municipal

  2. Lori L Borthwick says:

    I agree. The level if hatred directed towards me and others like me as we try to stop these environmental disasters is awful. When you report them only twice has facebook or other social media taken action.

  3. John Callas says:

    As we have a democracy and a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canadians have every right to protest for or against the TMX, but neither side has the right to resort to, or threaten violence. The police should follow up on these open threats before they turn into another mass shooting.

  4. Milan says:

    All threats of violence are reprehensible.

    While recognizing that, it’s also frightening to consider the political polarization demonstrated by these threats. This isn’t a disagreement about the pace of decarbonization, but a flat rejection by some of the need to change our energy sources, coupled with a willingness to at least threaten violence to maintain a status quo which is permissive of unlimited (even subsidized) fossil fuel use.

    Depending on how technology and infrastructure evolve, decarbonization may make some lifestyles impractical — especially those which are currently fossil fuel intensive and where easy substitutes don’t exist. People will resist that. Groups like Greenpeace and Dogwood need to develop effective strategies to make mainstream Canadians and decision-makers reject the view that continued fossil fuel development is desirable.

  5. Jen says:

    How about the police arrest these people for uttering threats? Enough is enough.

  6. Rob Ord says:

    This is a slippery slope. The progression from words to violence can happen in less than five years, if Germany in the 1920s and 1930s is anything to go by. The only way to deal with it is for better education on ethics and morality in our young. For schools, that will be taking some time away from computing, I know, but hey, we got along just fine before computers. For parents, listening and comment with their kids to one hour of reliable mass media per day. I recommend the old one-hour news hour in the evening.

    It needs to start now. Otherwise I fear a war is coming, and the right will win, with their bullying, their guns, their vehement aggression and their connections to big money.

  7. see Global Witness report says:

    Canada is home to most of the world’s mining company headquarters, and they have a long-standing pattern of killing activists elsewhere in the world. This year over 200 environmentalists and land defenders were killed around the world, although mining was supplanted by agriculture as the industry that killed the most people fighting to protect their territories and environments.

  8. Jeff White says:

    It’s wrong to equate violence with “radicalization”. We need to combat violent threats and violent acts themselves. But our society needs radical change, and that requires radicalization in order to accomplish such change. We definitely do not need programs to “fight against radicalization”.

  9. Greg Kemp says:

    Bad stuff happens when people believe that no-one is watching. Studies have proven it over and over again. If someone threatens violence, even in general, and not in the direction of anyone in particular, they should have a visit from the RCMP or local police. Not OK that this is normalized and they are not called out and observed by police. Haven’t we learned anything about mass shootings and isolated people?

  10. ingamarie says:

    An excellent article, raising a disturbing issue that many Canadians are blithely unaware of. The virulence of right wing…and often macho, commentary is shocking and we should not have to tolerate it.

    I don’t see why Facebook can’t respond to complaints about such on line threats, by shutting down that account. If foul and murderous language got the user booted off social media………perhaps for a set period of time for the first offence….it might sink in that aggressive and violent verbal threats are criminal and won’t be tolerated.

    Time to hold social media to account. Time to expect our law enforcement to come to the defence of civilians, male or female, who are being harassed by such behavior. HERE’S WHERE WE NEED THAT SNITCH LINE FORD IS WASTING ON ENCOURAGING PARENTS TO BULLY TEACHERS…..LET’S REPORT THE REAL THREATS TO OUR DEMOCRACY……..AND TO ALL OUR CHILDREN.

  11. Katherine Maas says:

    Well said!

  12. Elizabeth Lee says:

    These are the same individuals that run their car in the middle of a crosswalk and will not move back and threaten you if you yell at them or hit their precious car and want you to walk in the middle of the road because as one man said to me today, “I was at the crosswalk first so I have right of way. As well as come closer so I can punch you in the face.” This is in civil Langley, BC, so the law needs to send a strong message to men, especially men between 50 – 90 smarter up you are not special, you are not privileged, you are a human being. Get over yourself!!

  13. Sylvie says:

    I am afraid your fears (war) can soon be realistics.

    The problem comes partly from the media that do not understand the environmental issues and do not fully inform themselves and people about it.

    Moreover, schools have technology oriented programs, but very few or no course at all are talking about or explaining the complex interplay of environment. That’s why sometimes educated persons are not understanding more the importance and consequences of environmental inactions or industrial destruction. Our government should be smarter and more foresighting when they suggest school planning; however, lobbies behind them are powerful. It’s important to elect the right peoples and, above all, inform our family and neighbours about the importance of these environmental issues.

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