A man who came to Nova Scotia from Syria and founded a widely-successful chocolate business is calling a polarizing political billboard in Halifax “divisive and dangerous.”
The billboard along the Bedford Highway was first seen by commuters Friday morning. It endorses Maxime Bernier and the People’s Party of Canada (PPC), while calling for voters to “say NO to mass immigration.”
Tareq Hadhad, founder and CEO of Peace by Chocolate, says the billboard isn’t only divisive, it’s inaccurate.
“There is nothing called mass immigration in Canada,” Hadhad told Global News in a phone interview Saturday. “You cannot call it mass immigration. The Canadian immigration system is renowned around the world.”
“Saying ‘mass immigration’ is certainly trying to make an illusion to the public that, you know, like caravans and waves of millions of people trying to hit the border, coming through the airports, but this is not happening.”
WATCH: Pro-PPC billboard calls on voters to ‘say no to mass immigration’
Hadhad abandoned his studies to become a physician and fled to Lebanon with several family members after a 2012 bombing destroyed his father’s chocolate factory in Syria. The family found a home in Antigonish, N.S., in early 2016, as Canada accepted a wave of more than 25,000 Syrians.
The chocolate business has since exploded, with Peace by Chocolate becoming a recognizable name across Canada and around the world. Hadhad has always said his family’s story is an example of how refugees fleeing their war-torn countries can find success in Canada.
Hadhad was hurt and disappointed to see the billboard installed in Halifax, a place he says is largely accepting of immigrants. For that reason, Hadhad doesn’t feel the message will resonate with voters come October.
“Eighty-four per cent of Nova Scotians are pro-immigration,” Hadhad said. “I think this is the wrong place for a sign like this.”
“It was very hurtful to see. I hope that this will not resonate with anyone in the city.”
The billboard was not authorized by the PPC; instead it was authorized by an organization called True North Strong and Free Advertising Corp., which is headed by the founder and CEO of a mining company in Toronto called KWG Resources. They did not respond to Global News’ call for comment.
The PPC would not comment on whether they have plans to seek the removal of the billboards, which have also been seen in Winnipeg, Ottawa and Vancouver.
Several people took to social media on Friday to condemn the sign and its message, including Premier Stephen McNeil, Progrssive Conservative Leader Tim Houston, NDP Leader Gary Burrill and Halifax MP Andy Fillmore. A petition was also started on Saturday with hopes of seeing the billboard removed.
The Halifax ad even caught the attention of Avnish Nanda with the Edmonton not-for-profit Everyone’s Canada, which hopes to undermine what they call “a growing narrative against multiculturalism and pluralism in Canada.”
For Nanda, he feels this type of political narrative was inevitable heading into the federal election.
“We know that our politics, the discourse is moving towards this direction where we’re really examining foundational changes and values,” Nanda said in a phone interview Saturday. “There’s a cloud of suspicion around whether we should be accepting immigrants, whether multiculturalism is a good thing, and if you’ve been following politics over the last three or four years, it was inevitable having to confront this head-on.”
Nanda says it’s important to accept there are views like this and acknowledge there are political parties seeking to “undermine the values” Canadians have around welcoming newcomers.
“I think Canadians, to some extent, are complacent,” he said. “They never would think that what’s happening down south, what’s going on in Europe, could happen here.”
“But I think this billboard reminds them, or hopefully corrects that view that it could happen here.”
As for Hadhad, he says he’s been overwhelmed by support from the community, and delighted to have witnessed a collective voice from Nova Scotians to condemn the billboard’s message.
“I’ve been so pleased. We’ve received many calls, people calling Peace by Chocolate, calling me to express their love, and their peace, and just sending a strong message of love and inclusion,” Hadhad said.
“That’s really what matters.”