‘Good PR’: Why anti-hate experts are urging politicians to step up vetting practices

Click to play video: 'Poilievre marches at head of convoy protesters alongside man who appeared on far-right podcast'
Poilievre marches at head of convoy protesters alongside man who appeared on far-right podcast
WATCH: Poilievre marches at head of convoy protesters alongside man who appeared on far-right podcast – Jun 30, 2022

Editor’s Note: The URL for this story has been revised to omit the words ‘white supremacist’ in order to clarify that there was no intention to associate James Topp with that label.  Global News regrets any harm or misunderstanding that may have been caused by the original URL.

Before politicians attend any event, it’s standard practice for them to look into who is going to be there — though the techniques used for this screening process might vary, some political strategists say.

Mistakes can lead to embarrassing gaffes at best, they say, and widespread condemnation at worst.

“We’ve seen this on all sides of the political spectrum,” said Garry Keller, a conservative strategist with StrategyCorp, who worked as an adviser to former prime minister Stephen Harper.

“We’ve seen stories where all parties have had questions raised in the media about attending certain events and being photographed with certain people.”

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Fresh questions are being raised about these vetting processes after Global News learned that a march multiple politicians attended earlier this summer was organized by a person who has a history of posting Islamophobic comments online, who spoke at a rally attended by a self-proclaimed white nationalist, and who has expressed support for extremist groups in the past.

Anti-hate and extremism researchers — who say they have been monitoring this individual for years — say political parties and staff need to step up their vetting practices.

“(Politicians) absolutely have a responsibility to research and figure out who is the person who’s putting this (event) on,” said Elizabeth Simons, deputy director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.

“I mean, that’s just good PR. Why wouldn’t (their) team be looking at who the organizer is? And if they did look at who the organizer is, were they okay with that?”

Click to play video: '“Freedom” becomes rally cry co-opted by far-right actors: experts'
“Freedom” becomes rally cry co-opted by far-right actors: experts

Stephanie McEvoy, who self-described on social media as the Ottawa organizer for a march against COVID-19 mandates that took place on June 30, was named on the City of Ottawa permit application as the “primary event contact.”

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Global News has obtained a copy of the permit application.

In 2018, McEvoy spoke at a small protest, which local media at the time described as anti-immigration and anti-Justin Trudeau. Dan Dubois, national president of the Canadian Combat Coalition, or C3, organized the event. According to its YouTube page, C3 describes itself as a “non-profit multi-cultural group of Canadian Patriots concerned with Canada’s future in all respects.”

“We oppose mass immigration, open borders, New World Order and Sharia Law,” it claims.

On the YouTube channel on the eve of the 2018 protest, Dubois can be seen having a fireside chat with a self-described white nationalist Kevin Goudreau, who has a swastika tattooed on his chest. Goudreau attended the protest.

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McEvoy, who was one of the official event speakers, can be seen in a YouTube video telling a cheering crowd that Canada was founded on “Judeo-Christian principles.”

Global News also obtained a number of screenshots from McEvoy’s social media.

In one post, she says it was “just weird” that a Muslim woman rang up her items at a Victoria’s Secret store. In another, she proclaims that she is “pro-ProudBoy.”

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‘Good PR’: Why anti-hate experts are urging politicians to step up vetting practices - image

The Proud Boys, a far-right group whose members were involved in the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill mob, were designated a terrorist group in Canada last year.

Global News contacted McEvoy over Facebook to ask for her comment on the decision to speak at the C3 rally, as well as her social media posts about Muslims. She did not reply to a request nor multiple follow-up requests.

The march McEvoy helped organize centered around a man named James Topp — a Canadian soldier who has spoken out against the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine requirements and is now set to face a court martial — who had been walking across the country to draw attention to his opposition to vaccine mandates.

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While the permit application itself was denied — the City says it wasn’t submitted in time, among other reasons — the march went ahead as planned. Four people were arrested after Topp arrived at the National War Memorial, in what Ottawa police characterized as an “interaction” during which they said an officer was “choked.”

Before the march arrived at the War Memorial, a handful of politicians, including Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre and People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier, briefly walked alongside the group.

It’s unclear whether they were aware of McEvoy’s role in organizing the event, as multiple requests for comment and follow-up attempts were left unanswered over the course of more than two weeks.

Questions about political vetting

The June 30 march is far the first time politicians have come under criticism for people associated with events they’ve attended.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced a firestorm of criticism in 2018 when a convicted failed assassin was invited to a reception he attended. That same year, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was forced to disavow Sikh separatists after extreme elements showed up to the same rally he was attending.

Earlier this year, after attending a so-called “freedom convoy” protest, Conservative MP Michael Cooper released a statement condemning Nazism because a flag bearing a swastika flew behind him during an interview with CBC News.

“If you were attending a rally, you should know who’s organizing,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor at Queen’s University and expert on extremism.

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If politicians don’t do due diligence before attending a rally, he added, it could send a message to those in attendance.

“It says either you agree with (their) broader agenda or that you’re not paying close attention to the rallies that you attend,” said Amarasingam.

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According to Keller, politicians have different capacities for political vetting. If you’re in government — as the Liberals are right now — he said, you can consult the RCMP about events you plan to attend.

Other politicians are often left to rely on their own screening efforts, he said, through tools like Google.

“There’s obviously a very large difference between the tools available to the members of the government in Canada and tools available to everybody else,” Keller explained.

According to Susan Smith, a Liberal strategist and co-founder of Bluesky Strategy Group, it would be “impossible” for political staff to screen every single attendee of a large event like a protest — or a march.

Still, she said, “any good leadership team is checking out who’s organizing a particular event before you make a decision that your candidate is in attendance.”

Politicians are responsible for deciding who attends events they plan, Keller said, and when they go out to attend an event with the public, there “are always, inherently, risks.”

“You may never know who shows up at one your events,” he said.

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“But at the end of the day, the politician’s the public figure, and they’re the one responsible and are accountable…to the general public,” Keller said.

It’s unclear whether the politicians who attended the June 30 march were aware of McEvoy’s role in organizing the event.

Multiple requests for comment sent to Poilievre’s team over the course of two weeks, including four follow-ups, were left unanswered. McEvoy also did not reply to Global News’ request for comment over the same period of time.

Bernier’s team also did not respond to a request for comment.

Smith said that if Global News was able to learn details about the march’s organizer, however, political staff likely would have been able to do the same.

“It’s highly unlikely that the leader themselves would be making those phone calls to find that out,” she added.

“But they should be asking those questions and they should be making the decision.”

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