POLITICS
04/27/2019 09:22 EDT | Updated 04/27/2019 13:10 EDT

Bernier's Party Encouraged Organizers To Court 'Radical Fringe Group' Votes

Several organizers have recently resigned.

Justin Tang/CP
Maxime Bernier, leader of the People's Party of Canada, speaks to reporters in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 19, 2019.

OTTAWA — A People's Party of Canada executive encouraged national organizers to court votes from the Canadian Combat Coalition but cautioned against giving public support to the "radical fringe group," HuffPost Canada has learned.

The Canadian Combat Coalition, also known as C3, is a self-described group of "patriots concerned with Canada's future." It has downplayed suggestions it endorses "any racist or hate ideologies," despite Islamophobic and anti-immigrant messages dominating its online community and having members who are known to show up at anti-Islam rallies.

"Let's take their votes, but no publicized cross endorsement of any kind," reads a message sent in February by national co-ordinator Caleb Voskamp in a Facebook group chat for PPC executives and organizers.

Voskamp, a former PPC volunteer, was hired as a full-time employee to liaise with electoral district associations (EDA) and regional organizers across the country in February. (An EDA, or riding association, is registered with Elections Canada and helps organize local activities for a political party.)

Voskamp's message appears to clash with PPC Leader Maxime Bernier's public stance. Bernier, who founded the party last August after losing the Conservative party leadership race, has insisted his party does not welcome racists.

Despite Bernier's declarations, several former senior PPC members told HuffPost Canada that the leader and party executives have ignored internal concerns about the company the party is keeping.

Mark Zielke recently quit the PPC claiming disagreement with a strategy that "now appears to be pandering to a small group of anti-Islamists, extremists, racists, and conspiracy theorists."

Bernier did not make himself available for an interview this week.

Earlier this year, the PPC leader, along with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, attended a United We Roll rally on Parliament Hill where they gave speeches in support of out-of-work oil and gas workers in Western Canada.

Neither Bernier nor Scheer denounced the extremists who showed up at the protest, including C3 supporters or Faith Goldy, a white nationalist and former YouTube personality.

Stance on identity politics

Bernier has garnered a substantial amount of attention since his split with the Conservatives. His economic ideas, notably calling for the abolition of Canada's supply management system, have been a source of continued advocacy for free market capitalism among his supporters. But his tweets about multiculturalism and identity politics have been heavily criticized by other politicians, columnists, and pundits.

'Follow-Up' Podcast: Maxime Bernier likes talking about immigration

Zielke, a Saskatoon businessman, said the party's economic platform grabbed his attention to Bernier's political endeavour. His curiosity brought him to a hotel ballroom for a meet-and-greet in the fall where Bernier joined by conference call.

A former municipal candidate, Zielke decided to seek the PPC nomination in Saskatoon—Grasswood. But his confidence in the party waned after Saskatoon Yellow Vest organizer Mark Friesen was greenlit to join the nomination race.

Friesen helped organize the United We Roll convoy and spoke at the Parliament Hill rally. He railed against the loss of energy jobs in Western Canada; raised concern over the influence of non-binding United Nations accords on domestic policies; and sowed skepticism toward "establishment governments" and the media.

Many in the crowd wore yellow vests, a symbol of anti-government protest stemming from a movement in France opposed to that country's rising fuel prices. But in Canada, far-right extremists have emerged as Yellow Vests' loudest voices. They've frequently expressed anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant views and threats of violence against politicians.

Its similarities to the French movement are in uniform only, according to Canada's ambassador to France.

"When you see a news report that claims the Yellow Vest is racist, they're calling us all racists," Friesen told the crowd on the Hill in February.

Watch: 'Yellow vest' activists rally in pro-pipeline protest in Canada

Zielke said he shared his concerns about Friesen's candidacy for the PPC nomination with "multiple levels of the party," but was met with silence.

"If the PPC wishes to be taken seriously in the upcoming federal election, then by default, the party must take seriously its image, the vetting process, and the backgrounds of potential candidates," Zielke said.

Early on, the party had taken measures to prevent people with extremist views from wielding power. Seven months ago, it created a one-page form as a way to screen new members.

All elected EDA officials were asked to sign a pledge that they "have done or said nothing in the past, and will do or say nothing in the future, that would publicly embarrass the party."

People applying for an EDA position, such as president or director, were asked to submit their resume, as well as a list of social media accounts for review. Party organizers said they also performed a criminal record check.

But, according to former PPC B.C. organizer Angelo Isidorou, that vetting process eventually came to a halt.

It's sort of this race to 338.Angelo Isidorou, Former PPC regional organizer

One possible explanation for the sudden change is timing, he suggested. With the federal election six months away and new rules governing eligibility for the leaders' debate, Bernier needs to hustle and nominate candidates in at least 90 per cent of federal ridings to have a chance at competing with the other leaders on stage.

"It's sort of this race to 338," Isidorou said.

The University of British Columbia psychology student joined the party after organizing campus free speech events with divisive speakers such as Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro. Those experiences prepared him for dealing with public backlash but, he said, his involvement in the PPC brought a new level of scrutiny he wasn't prepared for.

He found his libertarian values at odds with the "hardcore" social conservatives who had risen to influential roles in the party, he said.

"You're now seeing people who have a very vocal and prominent evangelical bent and in some cases, at least in B.C.," he said. Isidorou claimed these individuals had also expressed, what he called, "a racist bent."

PPC executive director Johanne Mennie told HuffPost in an email that former party members' concerns over "radical changes" and alleged racism within its leadership were groundless.

"The allegations made by former party members are false and unfounded," she wrote.

More from HuffPost Canada:

Isidorou said he had taken a semester off to help Bernier's B.C. team set up EDAs in the province, but he quit the party last month, making his decision public with a lengthy Medium post.

"It basically got to a point where it actually became detrimental just in my personal life to be associated with the direction the party has decided to go," he explained on the phone from Vancouver.

Isidorou said the party had been "hijacked by egomaniacs." And that the PPC had become "completely compromised," echoing criticism Bernier himself levied at the Conservatives back in August when he said that party had become "too intellectually and morally corrupt to be reformed."

Isidorou called the PPC "more of a fan club" for Bernier than a well-organized political party.

Bernier announced in December that his party had achieved its goal of setting up EDAs in all 338 ridings. But according to Elections Canada, only 281 of the party's EDAs have been formally registered so far.

'Wisdom told me to go'

Shannon Kewley was the party's former provincial organizer who was tasked by Bernier to help set up EDAs in B.C. The North Vancouver realtor has 20 years of candidate recruitment experience after working on both BC Conservative and BC Liberal party campaigns.

Her political background and support for Bernier during the Conservative leadership race found her managing two byelection campaigns, in Burnaby South, won by NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, and in Nanaimo—Ladysmith, scheduled for May 6. During this time, Kewley put her real estate business on hold to volunteer for the PPC.

The Burnaby South candidate was Laura-Lynn Tyler-Thompson, a social conservative and former host of Christian TV show "The 700 Club Canada." She finished with more than 10 per cent of the vote.

Around the same time, Kewley claimed she was getting complaints from people "left, right, and centre" about the Burnaby South candidate who felt her messaging had become offside from the PPC platform. Kewley's calls to Bernier relaying members' concerns were ignored, she said.

Bernier defended Tyler-Thompson on CBC's "Power & Politics" in January, saying his candidates are free to hold their own opinions, but are expected to support the party's platform.

He added that divisive social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion are not part of his party's platform.

Kewley interpreted that as the party leader giving the candidate a pass. "Wisdom told me to go," she told HuffPost. She resigned in late February, claiming concerns she had raised to party brass were ignored.

But the experience hasn't tarnished her support for "Mad Max."

"I love Max. Still do. I mean, he's a great guy. But he either is displaying very poor leadership skills — or he has a vision for this party he's not telling the members."