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The polarizing statement brandished across The People’s Party of Canada billboard towers above the Bedford Highway and is impossible to miss.
The federal fringe party’s stance is spelled out beside the smiling face of its leader Maxime Bernier: “Say NO to Mass Immigration.”
Joanne Hussey was on her way to work Friday morning when she spotted the spectacle — what she calls borderline racist ideology.
“I don’t think it meets the community’s standards of what we would say is appropriate,” said the mother of two. “It’s not something that as a community that we should be tolerating.”
The Halifax resident and deputy chief of staff for the provincial NDP is convinced that the billboard’s placement was strategic, targeting a culturally diverse community. No one from the party’s head office responded to inquiries to define exactly what the billboard is implying and who it’s targeting. But the billboard is giving people permission to be hostile to one another in a community that largely welcomes diversity and is a richer place because of it, said Hussey.
“There needs to be a process that allows the community to say, ‘No, this is not acceptable and this is putting people at risk.’”
The Facebook page People’s Party of Canada — Halifax West did reply to an inquiry about the billboard. The author of the statement, which characterizes mass immigration as “unsustainable and a very bad idea with our current economic climate,” would not provide their name.
“We are not interested in being misrepresented by liberal media outlets as racist for simply standing up to national policies that threaten to degrade the quality of life for Canadians,” reads part of the statement. “Our candidates unequivocally show our diversity and commitment to Canadian values. Regardless of colour, religion the PPC values all of our citizens and will protect their interests.”
Wayne MacKay, a Dalhousie University law professor, agrees that the statement is divisive and does play on irrational fears and racism, but said it falls within the parameters of free speech. But MacKay, who’s an expert in humanitarian and human rights law, argues it’s largely up to Elections Canada to ensure that the people the party is targeting are offered the same opportunity and resources to counter such a polarizing, public message. Many of those people are marginalized members of society, he said.
“The challenge is to ensure that it is a free market place of ideas and that’s the counter charter argument here, that there’s an equality point that has to counter the free speech element of this debate,” said Mac Kay. “That those who are being targeted who are in the margins of society, which the sign may well be targeting in some way, should be given real opportunity to respond to that kind of message.”
Failing that, the federal parties that embrace multiculturalism and immigration have a greater obligation to act on their behalf, said MacKay. “I do agree this kind of an offensive, devisive tone is kind of reminiscent of the politics of divisions south of the border, which Canada tries to avoid as much as we can.”
Elections Canada could not be reached for comment. Adding to the problem is that there are no clear provincial laws or municipal bylaws governing the contents of billboards in the province.
Pattison Outdoor Advertising, the company that owns the billboard promoting the ad, made no apologies on Friday. President Randy Otto said it meets company guidelines and falls within the realm of free speech.
“There are some things that are purely offensive but there are opinions that many people may not agree with,” he said. “But we’re a society that allows people to voice their opinion. Who are we to deny that?”
But Everyone’s Canada has a different stance in response to the billboard.
“There is no ‘mass’ immigration to Canada,” said spokeswoman Avnish Nanda in a statement released Friday. “This is an attempt to sow and exploit the anxieties and fears Canadians have towards immigrants.”