VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – In a recent livestream, Metro Vancouver conspiracy theorists made hateful and violent comments about B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry.
Experts say it’s just the latest example of the outsized vitriol directed at women in prominent leadership roles.
“Alas, it is not surprising that the person who is the most prominent figure and figurehead of the public health messaging around COVID-19 has, in addition to the praise, also received death threats or other abuse,” Heidi Tworek, a UBC professor of history and public policy, told NEWS 1130.
On Saturday, New Westminster resident Mak Parhar broadcast video from a gathering of approximately 14 people in an apartment in Vancouver’s West End.
Parhar is an active member of Vancouver’s Flat Earth community, which believes planet Earth is flat and a conspiracy has deceived people into believing it is a globe.
The City of Delta revoked Parhar’s business licence for a hot yoga studio last March after he spread misinformation about the coronavirus. He was later arrested for allegedly violating Canada’s Quarantine Act when he refused to self isolate after returning to Canada from a Flat Earth conference in the U.S.
Conspiracy theorists imagine health officer’s execution
When Parhar asks the gathering’s apparent host, seven-time Juno nominee John Stetch, what he has to say to Henry, the pianist responds: “Yeah, she can go [beep] herself,” making a beeping sound to censor himself.
When another attendee suggests someone is a supporter of Adolf Hitler, Parhar says, “Hitler was a good guy, maybe.”
“Of course he was,” a man identified as “Chris” says flatly.
Parhar then asks “Chris” what he has to say to Henry.
“She needs to be hanging from the nooses,” he responds.
“Yes!” Parhar says, laughing.
Parhar later says of Henry: “She can suck it, anyways. Some lead between the eyes would be good for her. I’m just saying it’s a good idea.”
Chris says he favours capital punishment for Henry: “Tried in a court – in a fair court. Give them a fair trial and then hung.”
“Or a firing line,” Parhar suggests.
Someone offscreen tells Parhar his comments could be quoted by the news media: “They’re going to quote that from your YouTube video, your livestream, and then you’re going to go into court and they’re going to make it seem like you’re a psychopath or something.”
When Parhar asks what he said, he is reminded of his “lead between the eyes comment.”
Parhar says he was talking about a bindi – the coloured dot some Hindus wear between their eyes. “She’d look good with one right there, eh?” he says, laughing.
COVID-19 conspiracist threatens lawsuit
Reached via Facebook, Parhar said he felt NEWS 1130’s previous reporting had unfairly represented him by omitting comments about a trial preceding Henry’s execution.
“Make sure you guys put that in, otherwise you guys are scum,” he wrote.
Parhar made the “lead between the eyes” comment before Chris mentioned capital punishment.
Parhar did not acknowledge a request for an interview, but later sent NEWS 1130 a “notice of liability,” identifying himself as “a living man with unalienable God-given rights” and threatening to sue for defamation.
In the letter, Parhar said he does not wish to be contacted by NEWS 1130, “unless it’s to prepare a live broadcast interview, wherein I am given the full freedom to speak my mind without post-production editing for the purpose of creating propaganda.”
Police quiet on response to potential threats
Vancouver Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Steve Addison said the alleged “unlawful gathering” is under investigation.
“I can’t confirm any details about the video, including who was allegedly in it, when it was recorded, or where,” he said whenasked about comments made in the livestream.
The RCMP’s B.C. division did not reply to a request for comment by deadline, and the Victoria Police directed questions to the provincial government.
In an emailed statement, the Ministry of Health said: “Government takes threats to anyone in BC’s public service very seriously and works with the appropriate agencies and authorities to address them.”
B.C.’s top doctor says she’s received death threats
In September, Henry said she had received death threats and had to have security in her home.
“I’ve got a lot of very positive responses, but there are many people who don’t like what I do, or don’t like the way I say it, or don’t like my shoes … and feel quite able to send me nasty notes [and] to leave phone calls to harass my office staff,” the province’s top doctor said at the Union of B.C. Municipalities conference.
Henry said she believes people felt emboldened to attack her because she is a woman.
“I sense that people find that it’s okay to do that for a woman who’s upfront, more so than some of our male leaders, but I could be wrong,” she said.
“Maybe it is that we just don’t talk about it, and we hide it, but it is something that I think is really important if we’re going to bring up the next generation of diverse and confident leaders. We need to be able to talk about those things we need to be able to make it not okay for any of us to get that type of abuse.”
Prominent women targeted with more personal attacks
Tworek studied online harassment of Canadian politicians during the 2019 federal election and found the amount of negative comments public figures receive is most closely correlated with their prominence.
But the type of messages and comments women and men receive do differ, she said.
Women – as well as people of colour and members of the LGBTQ+ community – seem to bear the brunt of a disproportionate amount of personal attacks, according to Tworek’s research.
“Unfortunately, the fact that this abuse seems to be more directly targeted at Bonnie Henry, rather than, for example, the guidelines, is something that our research would lead us to expect,” she said.
Tworek said police and social media companies need clearer procedures for addressing online hatred.
While it has been “great” to see women in prominent leadership roles during the pandemic – including Henry and Canada’s chief public health officer, Teresa Tam – it’s also been “terrible” to see them targeted with hate, said Eleanor Fast, executive director of Equal Voice.
“It’s terrible and it’s completely unacceptable, that kind of language against anyone,” said Fast, whose organization promotes the participation of women in Canadian politics. “We have to call this for what it is: It’s hate. And it’s often directed against women in leadership roles.”
The vitriol aimed at women in powerful positions can discouraged others from following them into public life, Fast said.
She said the issue requires a multifaceted response – police and social media companies have parts to play, as do male public figures.
“All of us have a role in calling it out and making sure that it’s just not OK,” she said.