The leaders were pressed after revelations that at least three founding members of the People’s Party of Canada had current or previous ties to extreme far-right groups.
Elections Canada documents obtained by Global News showed the former leader of a U.S. neo-Nazi group, a former Soldiers of Odin member and a Pegida Canada official were among those whose signatures were submitted to the federal government last year to officially register the PPC.
WATCH: Current and ex-members of far-right groups among People’s Party signatories
They were among the more than 250 party members that had signed membership declarations, forms required to obtain party status for Bernier’s party.
The Canadian Anti-Hate Network said the revelation that the party’s founding members included associates of extreme far-right and anti-immigrant hate groups should be grounds for removing Bernier from the televised election debates.
“We’ve lost track of the number of their most vocal supporters who have the most odious views in Canada,” Evan Balgord, the anti-hate group’s executive director, told Global News.
WATCH: Party leaders comment on Maxime Bernier
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said this information should give debates commissioner David Johnston “cause to reconsider” the decision to invite Bernier to the televised debates in October.
“It’s deeply shocking and I never thought we would hear the terms white supremacists or neo-Nazis,” May said speaking to reporters in Prince Edward Island. “I think the effect of what has happened in U.S. politics has given oxygen to opinions, to views, to prejudices, to hatreds that I thought were long annihilated.
“It’s horrific and these groups need to be called out.”
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said he looked forward to calling out Bernier “for his intolerance” but did not support calls to have the PPC leader removed from the debates.
“I trust David Johnston and his team of experts to make determinations removed from politics, about who should be in the debates,” Trudeau said Monday at a campaign stop. “I look forward to the opportunity to call out Mr. Bernier for his intolerance and his approach that I think hurts Canadians.”
Singh, who has previously written a letter calling for Bernier to be removed, sharply criticized Trudeau’s response saying the PPC leader should not be given “a national platform” for his “hateful beliefs.”
“It’s disappointing that Justin Trudeau has refused to denounce Maxime Bernier’s participation in the debates, even after we learned that founding members of his party are members of known hate groups,” Singh said in a statement. “Canadians expect Justin Trudeau to do everything possible to fight racism. He should be saying clearly that we should not be giving a national platform to hateful beliefs.”
Meanwhile, Scheer was evasive when asked whether he would support calls for Bernier to be removed the French and English debates, instead blaming the Liberal government for creating the Leaders’ Debates Commission.
The commission was set up by the Trudeau government after former prime minister Stephen Harper refused to participate in the English-language televised debate during the 2015 election.
“The Liberal government established this debates commission. It’s really up to them to explain to the outcomes of it,” Scheer said during a campaign stop Monday. “I absolutely condemn groups that promote hate and intolerance and spread these types of hateful ideologies.”
The commission uses three criteria to decide which parties should be invited to the debates: whether the party is currently represented in the House of Commons by an MP elected under the banner of that party, whether the party is planning to run candidates in 90 per cent of ridings; and if that party has a “legitimate chance” of electing more than one MP.
A spokesperson for the debate commissioner said Johnston “did not give consideration to the argument that the PPC’s policy ideas should in and of themselves be used to determine its qualification for the debates.”
The commission has said the PPC met two of the three criteria, citing polling data which suggested the possibility the party might elect more than one MP.
In a statement to Global News, the PPC said the party accepts any members or candidates “regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation.”
“Global News has mentioned two other members of our party who were original signatory members. Neither of those members has espoused racist views. Their only ‘offence’ is that they would like to see Canada’s immigration rate lowered and have said so publicly,” the statement said. “While that opinion is considered unacceptable by Global News and other mainstream media, it is what a majority of Canadians desire. Only the People’s Party of Canada has a policy that reflects this desire of most Canadians.”
*With a file from Mike Drolet