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Rob Shaw: How two political adversaries turned to each other when the online threats became too much

In politics, they say, everyone has to watch out for each other
NDP cabinet minister Selina Robinson, left, and BC United MLA Elanore Sturko joined forces to find the source of online threats.

The threatening emails arrived every day for months at the Coquitlam-Maillardville constituency office, all with the same subject line: “I WILL KILL YOU SELINA ROBINSON.”

Inside, the sender wrote in graphic detail about how he’d cut and disfigure Robinson’s female anatomy. Sometimes, as many as 15 messages would arrive in a single day.

Across town, the same situation was playing out in the Surrey South constituency office of MLA Elenore Sturko.

Scared, but also mostly furious, the two MLAs decided to team up across party lines — Sturko, the former RCMP officer turned BC United MLA, and Robinson, the feisty veteran New Democrat minister of post-secondary education.

Together, over months, they fought back, combining their cases, pushing police and eventually identifying their tormentor. Late this summer, he was arrested.

“We did it together, we supported each other across the aisle,” said Robinson. “This is how women roll.”

“Hopefully it sends a strong message to people interested in getting into politics that your colleagues, no matter the party, are going to stand up and support you,” added Sturko.

Unfortunately, it is not unusual for provincial politicians to receive hate mail and death threats. The vitriol only seems to have risen after the COVID-19 pandemic. But what makes this case unique was the sheer volume, a deluge of hate and threats that started in January and crescendoed for months through the spring.

“My staff, every time it came in they got a little shot of adrenaline,” said Robinson. “It’s like a visual assault. It makes them anxious. Over time, it creates trauma.”

At Sturko’s office, the sender at one point tried to make an appointment to see Sturko in person.

“One of my assistants recognized it as a suspicious interaction, and when she said no the person responded by threatening again, and threatening bodily harm and sexual violence and all kinds of disturbing things,” she said.

“They were very, very upset and frightened. And at this point you don’t know if this person is writing from another country, or down the block. So it’s pretty distressing.”

Finance Minister Katrine Conroy’s West Kootenays office was also targeted.

The messages took a heavy toll.

Robinson became highly nervous hosting her community’s annual Easter egg hunt at Blue Mountain Park. She instructed her staff not to let anyone into the constituency office that didn’t have an appointment. Her husband, Dan, fumed.

“It made him crazy because he can’t keep me safe — he doesn’t know what this guy looks like,” said Robinson. “If he shows up on our front lawn, or as a delivery driver, he wouldn’t know not to open the door. The threat is real for all of us.”

Sturko stopped taking her wife and children to public events.

“The threat is psychological as well,” said Sturko. “Even for myself, it made me second-guess large events, in crowds of more than 100,000 people, and receiving death threats from a person whose identity and appearance was unknown to me at the time.

“Does it impact your ability to do your job? It does because you are constantly looking over your shoulder to do a risk assessment on every stranger you meet.”

Robinson and Sturko both initially turned to the legislature’s protective services division, under the sergeant at arms. They weren’t happy with what they were offered, which was basically a filter for emails and advice to contact local police.

“They did not have sufficient protocols,” Robinson said, diplomatically.

“I was like no, not good enough,” added Sturko. “Especially where we have Selina Robinson, cancer survivor, outspoken politician, small in stature woman, she deserves to have that peace of mind when she’s going out to fight for her community.

“It was unacceptable to me. Which is why I was like: Here’s what you are going to do.”

Sturko took the lead, getting both of their files sent to the RCMP, then combined into one case, then elevated up in priority. The two coordinated to follow-up on the case, again and again, as advocates for the well-being of not only themselves but their staff.

“This is not just an email, it goes beyond someone complaining they don’t like your face, this is actually someone committing a crime,” said Sturko.

RCMP were able to trace the messages back to a 32-year-old man, with apparent mental illness. But the two MLAs were left in the dark over his name and what he looked like. As time ticked by, their frustration increased.

“El kept asking, we need a photo,” said Robinson. “It will provide me with some sense of control in keeping an eye for this person. But the way the laws are written, it was about his privacy.

“We couldn’t keep ourselves safe because his privacy was seen as more important than our safety. And that was very concerning.”

Eventually, with a lot of pushing and arguing, they got a photo. And then, police made an arrest — though the case is still active.

The messages have stopped. And both Robinson and Sturko say they’ve formed a friendship out of the ordeal.

“I don’t like being threatened, but felt a lot of comfort in knowing when it came to something like this there was no partisanship whatsoever,” said Sturko.

“I’m glad we worked together, because now we will use this as an example to teach other MLAs about how to navigate that process.”

The duo is now working on ways to gather female MLAs from all parties to help give them advice and guide them in responding to online harassment and threats.

“We’re not BC United and NDP when we talk, we’re just two women having a conversation together about how to make things better in our workplace,” said Sturko.

“Just two regular people, both mothers, doing a job that can be really challenging.”

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]