Controversial billboard advertisements promoting the People’s Party of Canada and its anti-immigration policies will be removed following “overwhelming” criticism, says the ad company that owns the billboards.
“I regret that the decision we made to allow the ad has been construed to suggest that I or anyone at Pattison Outdoor endorses the message of the advertiser,” reads a statement attributed to Randy Otto, president of Pattison Outdoor Advertising, that was posted to the company’s social media accounts Sunday afternoon.
The ads, which started popping up on billboards in cities across Canada late last week, feature a photo of party Leader Maxime Bernier, the slogan “Say NO to mass immigration” and a call to vote for Bernier’s party. They were immediately criticized as promoting anti-immigrant rhetoric. At least one of the billboards is in Toronto, at Lake Shore Blvd. E and Carlaw Ave.
An online petition calling on Pattison to take down the “racist” ads had garnered more than 11,000 signatures as of Sunday afternoon.
The billboards were paid for by a third-party advertiser called True North Strong & Free Advertising Corp., which is run by Toronto mining executive Frank Smeenk, according to Elections Canada filings. Smeenk is the president and CEO of KWG Resources Inc.
Calls to Smeenk’s office on Sunday afternoon were not returned. Neither were emailed interview requests sent to KWG Resources.
The phone number and business address associated with True North Strong & Free Advertising are the same as those of KWG Resources. The address and phone number are included in small print at the bottom of the billboards, as required by Pattison’s policy on “advocacy” ads.
True North Strong & Free Advertising Inc. filed interim financial returns with Elections Canada that show it spent $59,890 on billboards in “select cities in Canada” and received $60,000 from Bassett & Walker International Inc., a company that specializes in the international trade of protein products.
Last week, Smeenk declined to comment to The Canadian Press on the billboard beyond what appeared in the Elections Canada filing. Messages left at Bassett & Walker by The Canadian Press were not returned.
KWG Resources hosted a fundraiser for Bernier’s Conservative party leadership campaign at its Toronto offices in June 2018, before Bernier launched his new party. In a press release announcing the event, Smeenk is quoted as saying: “Maxime Bernier supports our vision that the development of the Ring of Fire (in northern Ontario) can be expedited by the needed transportation infrastructure being built and owned by a transportation authority.”
Toronto city Councillor Paula Fletcher, who represents the Toronto-Danforth ward where the billboard was recently erected, called the ad an example of “dog-whistle politics” and said Pattison should not have allowed it to go up in the first place.
“These are really bordering on hate and racism and I don’t think there’s a place for that in outdoor advertising,” she said in a phone interview.
Earlier on Sunday, Pattison had issued a statement saying the ads did not violate Advertising Standards Canada’s code or the company’s own policies. If people had a problem with the billboards, the statement said, they should contact True North Strong & Free Advertising.
“We take a neutral position on ads that comply with the ASC code as we believe Canadians do not want us to be the judge or arbiter of what the public can or cannot see,” the company’s initial statement read.
In the statement issued later in the day announcing the ads would be removed, Otto reiterated that the company followed its protocol for advocacy advertising. “That being said, it was never my or Pattison Outdoor’s intention to offend, alienate or in any way insult the public by allowing this ad to be run,” Otto said.
Otto added the company would be reviewing its “advocacy guidelines, specifically relating to political messaging.”
In the initial statement, Pattison Outdoor included a link to the People’s Party of Canada platform, prefacing it by saying it “outlines that they would prioritize economic immigration over mass immigration.”
Canada does not currently have a policy of “mass” immigration and no political party is proposing such a policy.
The People’s Party platform pledges to dramatically slash the number of immigrants Canada accepts, arguing the Liberals and Conservatives use “mass immigration” as a political tool to buy votes. On top of cutting the number of people admitted to Canada, the party would cancel a program that allows people to sponsor their parents and grandparents, and strictly limit other family immigration programs, as well as accept far fewer refugees.
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The People’s Party of Canada has said it is not associated with the group that put up the signs, but Bernier tweeted about the billboards on Saturday, writing: “A third-party group with no link to the PPC has bought billboards across the country to call for an end to mass immigration. What do you think?” He included a Twitter poll, in which more than 15,000 votes had been cast as of Sunday afternoon. Eighty-two per cent of votes were cast in favour of “NO to mass immigration” and 18 per cent for “YES to mass immigration.”
Bernier officially launched his party’s national campaign Sunday at an event about two hours outside of Montreal.
Polls suggest the party has around 4 per cent of national voter support heading into the October election, and thus far Bernier has been excluded from the upcoming official leaders debates.