On Sunday, New Democrat MP Charlie Angus was attending a candlelight vigil in Ottawa for victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre when he was approached by an older Jewish gentleman. Many powerful words were spoken that day but this man’s message particularly resonated.
“He said, ‘How is it that in light of the people killed at the Tree of Life synagogue, Canada is putting out the welcome mat for Steve Bannon?’ ” Angus recalled of their conversation. “It really struck me and I thought, ‘We have to use our voices to speak out.’
“Because words from Steve Bannon have had an ugly effect. Is there a direct connection with the killings? No, but they’re setting the table for some very, very ugly violence.”
This week, Angus added his voice to a growing chorus of opposition to an upcoming Munk Debate with Bannon, the notorious alt-right provocateur and former chief strategist to U.S. President Donald Trump. The Friday night event — a debate over the future of populism and politics at Roy Thomson Hall — will pit Bannon against David Frum, an editor with The Atlantic and former speech writer to George W. Bush.
The event has drawn protests since it was first announced in September, shortly after Bannon was dropped by the New Yorker Festival amid fierce public backlash. But opposition to the Munk Debate has intensified in the wake of Saturday’s deadly synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, with federal and provincial NDP politicians now decrying Bannon’s appearance in Toronto.
Debate organizers held fast on Tuesday, however, and defended the event as a “public service” allowing ideas to be “vigorously contested” so the public can draw its own conclusions.
“In our increasingly polarized societies we often struggle to see across ideological and moral divides,” Munk Debates chair Rudyard Griffiths said in a statement. “Civil and substantive public debate of the big issues of our time helps all of us better understand the challenges we face as a society and what, if anything, can be done to resolve them.”
On Tuesday, a coalition of community organizers also held a press conference urging Munk Debates to cancel the event. Should the debate continue as planned, there will be a protest of “hundreds, hopefully thousands” outside the venue, the coalition said.
“Don’t give a megaphone and a stage to a white supremacist,” said Sharmeen Khan with the organization No One is Illegal.
At the press conference, the coalition laid out Bannon’s polarizing “resumé,” which includes executive chair of the alt-right Breitbart News website, architect of controversial Trump policies like the travel ban on Muslim-majority countries, and supporting nationalists and far-right leaders around the world.
Bannon has “personally contributed to the normalization of hate, which led to the rise of neo-Nazi fascist groups and hate crimes,” the coalition said.
“The hate we are witnessing is serious; in fact, it is deadly,” said Rachel Epstein, executive director with the United Jewish People’s Order.
Angus noted that after the Pittsburgh shooting, many Jewish community leaders asked Trump not to visit until he publicly denounced white nationalism. But Bannon, Angus said, is the “architect of white nationalism. So why is Canada inviting him on a week of such horrific anti-Semitic violence?”
“I think there’s a real naiveté around this, that this is somehow an exchange of ideas,” he said. “That’s not why Steve Bannon comes to Canada; he comes because we give him a platform to bring views into the mainstream that would otherwise be abhorrent to citizens.”
With files from The Canadian Press
Jennifer Yang is a Toronto-based reporter covering identity and inequality. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar