Social disintegration and misinformation has put a target on workers.

Labour | Gregory Beatty

A recent CUPE Saskatchewan survey of library workers said 78 per cent reported experiencing verbal abuse in the workplace. Another 71 per cent said they had seen violence, and 50 per cent had endured violence themselves, while 44 per cent had experienced sexual harassment.

Those are stark statistics. And they’re not just limited to libraries, says CUPE Saskatchewan president Judy Henley.

“As union president, I represent not just library workers but workers in many public sectors including health, education and municipal workers,” says Henley.

“We don’t have a sector that doesn’t have violence,” she says.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly considering its obsessive focus on private corporations and the  extraction industry, the Saskatchewan Party government actually seems aware of the issue. In fact, the government is on the third reading of Bill 91, which is intended to address violence and harassment in the workplace.

“There is legislation to strengthen provisions around violence and harassment so that all workplaces have to have policies,” Henley says. “But if there’s just policies and no actions, that’s just words on paper.

“But it is a first step.”

Ironically, it is “actions” the government is currently taking in other policy areas — such as social services, health, education and justice — that are fueling a good chunk of the violence and harassment workers experience.

All The Problems, None Of The Funding

People of all ages and backgrounds visit libraries on a regular basis. The institution is meant to be a safe place to read, learn and experience culture and community.

But as poverty and homelessness have risen in Saskatchewan (and elsewhere), libraries have become an indispensable resource for people struggling with life challenges — challenges that critics say have been made worse by poor policy choices by conservative governments like the Sask. Party.

“We know that poverty, mental health, addictions and homelessness are on the rise,” says Henley. “But if we ban people with those types of illnesses or misfortunes from libraries, then we’re putting up further barriers for people who already have barriers.”

Accessibility is a core principle of libraries. But patrons don’t leave their personal problems and stresses at the library door. The result? Libraries struggle to balance safety and security concerns with their mandate to serve the public.

After a patron was killed at Winnipeg’s downtown Millennium Library, the facility installed metal detectors at the front entrance and now wands patrons as they enter. Saskatchewan libraries haven’t gone that far, but they have installed security cameras and deployed uniformed security guards (three per shift, in the case of Regina Central). Staff training has also been beefed up.

Despite those steps, Henley says the survey shows more work needs to be done. She encourages library administration to think outside the security box, too.

“Maybe rather than security they should provide someone like an elder or a trained social worker who could help deescalate situations. I think that would be a better strategy,” she says.

As part of their programming mix, libraries now regularly partner with community agencies to provide services such as counselling, health clinics, literacy, job training and skills development, legal help and more.

“Many of the people who are in those circumstances, they don’t see a way out,” says Henley. “There’s a hopelessness in that. No one wants to be on the street.

“But if you’re going to address those problems, that takes money. Libraries need to have resources put toward them so people can get the help they need.”

Anger In The Hospitals

Saskatchewan hospitals have also seen a sharp rise in workplace violence and harassment in recent years, says Tracy Zambory, president of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses.

Covid removed all sorts of social decorum, Zambory says.

“Health care has always been a political game,” she says. “But the politics was always away from where the care happened. Covid shoved it down between the healthcare provider and patient. It started to create a divide where there’d never been a divide before.”

The biggest flashpoint, says Zambory, came from people angered by mask mandates in healthcare facilities.

“There was a public health order in effect. Healthcare workers had to uphold that standard.  When we did that, some people felt their rights were being violated. And healthcare workers suffered terrible abuse,” says Zambory.

“It was such a pressure-cooker of a time. The whole world seemed flipped upside down and it really brought out the worst in some people. They were protesting, honking horns, holding up signs, calling nurses serial killers. That’s absolutely abusive behavior,” she says.

While Covid has faded in the news as a public health threat, its toxic legacy, fueled by the same mix of social problems and funding shortfalls public libraries struggle with, remains.

“I speak to our members regularly,” says Zambory. “In hospital emergency rooms they tell me they are getting punched, kicked, slapped, called names, threatened.  It’s just nothing but mayhem. Our emergency rooms are over capacity, and people are frustrated.”

That frustration is shared by nurses and other healthcare workers, who are leaving the profession in droves — or, at least, leaving Saskatchewan, where perceived government indifference to proactive measures to aid people in crisis along with a healthy appetite for Fox News/MAGA-style misinformation and outrage have escalated workplace tensions [see sidebar].

That, in turn, has forced the Sask. Party government into costly recruiting campaigns to poach scarce healthcare workers from countries such as the Philippines and South Africa.

“There are so many things we could be doing as a society to talk about and manage these issues,” says Zambory. “We need to find out what the root causes are and why people are so frickin’ angry. And why is it they think they can take it out on the workers who are only trying to help them be healthy and keep them safe?”

“For workers who are constantly exposed to that reality, it can result in PTSD where their mental health is affected from what they are seeing,” says CUPE Sask’s Henley. “Then the mental could become physical, where their physical health suffers.”

While Henley represents library workers, she’s also concerned about the safety and wellbeing of patrons.

“Libraries are a public service for patrons from all walks of life. My concern is for the safety of all who enter the library. We need to address this issue, because we don’t want to see anyone hurt or killed simply for accessing a public service,” she says.

The first step the government needs to take to improve conditions for frontline workers is meaningful consultation, says Zambory.

“Sit down with the people who are hurting, and sit down with the people who are trying to help them,” says Zambory. “Consultation doesn’t mean I’m going to tell you what we’ve already initiated.

“Speak to people before you actually create a policy, so you can have a positive outcome at the end,” she says. ■


Antisocial Media

Why are people so “frickin’ angry?”, as SUN president Tracy Zambory asks? Some of it, obviously, comes from real-life struggles and frustrations.

Dysfunctional social media interactions are another obvious factor.

The dysfunction starts with the sheer scale of Facebook and, to a much lesser but feistier degree, Twitter. Users have seemingly endless public and private spaces to congregate, chat, argue and hurl abuse. Then there’s the ability to act anonymously, which emboldens people to be confrontational and combative.

Throw in disinformation campaigns, quietly funded “astroturf” groups masquerading as grassroots activists, and algorithms and bots that drive engagement by pushing people to extreme content, and it makes for a toxic media environment — one where conspiracy theories have free rein to spread and where public figures including politicians, academics, activists and journalists get threatened and harassed.

When social media first emerged in the late 2000s, says Alec Couros, it was a promising tool to promote democracy by giving marginalized groups a voice.

But it didn’t take long for that utopia to be co-opted and turned into yet another tool of oppression and hate.

“Lately, things have shifted even more, such as with Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter,” says Couros, who teaches technology and media at the University of Regina.

“Twitter used to be one of the spaces with the greatest potential for democratic dialogue,” he says. “But inevitably, the dialogue needed some constraints. Then Elon comes along with a ‘freedom’ discourse where anyone can say whatever they want. That has made Twitter much more hostile and unsafe.”

The pandemic was a textbook case of how social media can short-circuit rational public policy and debate, says Couros.

“A lot of the disinformation can be tracked back to Russian server farms, or China. Other countries are involved as well. And the rhetoric can create incredible hate, violence and mistrust,” he says.

“With Covid, there was distribution of pro-science and pro-lunacy information. The intent wasn’t necessarily to oppose or support vaccination, it was just to sow discontent and create polarization. And they’ve certainly been quite successful at that,” says Couros.

Climate change is another area where debate has been poisoned. Foreign actors are active there too, but the biggest propagandists are the fossil fuel industry and their political backers who, despite mountains of scientific evidence to the contrary, continue to downplay and deny climate change because change threatens titanic industry profits.

White supremacists, Christian nationalists and other right-wing extremists have also been energized by social media. Increasingly, their fringe ideas are entering mainstream politics, says Couros.

“It’s happening to a greater extent now, where our public policies and even laws are directly affected. If you look at Alberta’s premier, some of these conspiracy theories, especially around vaccinations, have directly affected public policy and health spending. To a certain extent, that’s happened in Saskatchewan too,” says Couros.

With the growing sophistication of generative AI that can produce legit-looking news stories and other communications, complete with “fake” photographs, videos and voice recordings, Couros isn’t optimistic things will get better any time soon.

“Europe has been doing some things around regulating data privacy. Those laws will affect social media companies when they do business in the European Union. There is some hope, perhaps. But I don’t think the U.S. has ever been good at taking advice from Europe. And in Canada, we’ve traditionally just followed the U.S. lead,” he says.

By their very nature, authoritarian regimes are less vulnerable to social media manipulation than liberal democracies, which value free speech and diversity of thought. But as recent years have shown, not everyone has the media literacy to navigate the minefield that social media has become.

Inevitably, says Couros, people retreat into silos where they’re spoon-fed information by “reliable” sources.

And he finds it interesting how revisionist some conspiracy theories can be.

“When climate disasters strike, for instance, it’s never about the fossil fuel industry. It shifts to other government failures [like flood control or forest management]. When people watch something like Fox News, they aren’t focused on the truth because it shifts all the time. They’re focused on the messenger. And in their minds, Fox News is true,” says Couros.

“Disinformation is a powerful drug, and you can certainly see examples of people who have taken this up quite explicitly. And it’s affecting all our lives,” he says.