TORONTO — A debate that will see Steve Bannon, the controversial former strategist for U.S. President Donald Trump, defend the issue of populism in Toronto this week is facing growing backlash, with critics calling for the event to be cancelled.
Community groups and some federal and provincial politicians have raised concerns about the Friday event, at which Bannon will argue against conservative commentator David Frum about the role of populism in the future of politics.
Several organizations banded together Tuesday to call for the event, part of the Munk Debates, to be called off in light of last weekend's deadly attack at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
They said giving Bannon a platform to express extreme views contributes to a climate of hatred that can encourage violence against marginalized or racialized groups.
"We're at an important and terrifying moment as we watch right-wing governments come into power all over the world. The hate we are witnessing is serious — in fact, it is deadly," said Rachel Epstein of the United Jewish People's Order.
"Opposing this kind of hate and violence and the violence it fosters is not up for debate. And that is why we are asking that Bannon's talk be cancelled, and if it is not ... there would be large numbers of people there, to let him know he is not welcome."
New Democrats at the federal and provincial level have also voiced concerns about Bannon's planned appearance at the debate.
We're at an important and terrifying moment as we watch right-wing governments come into power all over the world. The hate we are witnessing is serious — in fact, it is deadly.Rachel Epstein, United Jewish People's Order
NDP MP Nathan Cullen has said that efforts must be made to ensure people aren't given platforms to spread hate.
"I trust Canadians to be able to reject that but we've seen so tragically the effects of those in politics, in public discourse when they spread hate, that others pick up that language and turn it into actions," he said.
That sentiment was echoed by the leader of Ontario's NDP.
"We have enough divisiveness, we have enough hate being spewed everywhere unfortunately here in Ontario, across Canada, through the United States, the last thing we need is another platform for more hate to be spewed," Andrea Horwath said Tuesday.
Debate organizers defended the event, saying it would provide valuable analysis on a pressing issue.
"We believe we are providing a public service by allowing their ideas to be vigorously contested and letting the public draw their own conclusions from the debate," Munk Debates chair Rudyard Griffiths said in a statement.
"In our increasingly polarized societies we often struggle to see across ideological and moral divides. 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."
Bannon, former executive chairman of right-wing Breitbart News, was chief strategist and senior counsellor to Trump until August 2017. He was recently dropped from the speakers list at the New Yorker Festival following intense backlash and threats of a boycott by other guests.
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Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine, was a speechwriter for former president George W. Bush and is the author of the recent book "Trumpocracy." He has previously said the planned debate would be an important discussion.
"Liberal democracy is founded on the belief that free people can be inspired to make wiser choices by words and ideas," he wrote in statement posted on Twitter when the debate was announced.
"Mr. Bannon comes to the prestigious Munk platform because he believes his words can persuade people to follow him. I will face him there because I believe democratic ideas can defeat him."
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