The recent appearance — and subsequent disappearance — of xenophobic billboards pushing the People’s Party of Canada’s anti-immigration agenda shows how shadowy outside groups can carry water for a political candidate and, simultaneously, help launder the candidate's image.
True North Strong & Free Advertising is a mysterious company with very little public record until now. Though it has been around since 2016, it has no known social media accounts — an anomaly for modern advertising firms — and was not even registered under its current name until July 2019.
According to government records, a third-party advertiser registered as a federal corporation in June 2016 under the name “eExc Corporation.” It underwent a name change to become True North Strong & Free Advertising on July 4 of this year.
The company funded a series of anti-immigrant billboards promoting the People’s Party of Canada (PPC). The billboards have been taken down following intense public criticism.
The billboards, which appeared in numerous Canadian cities, featured a photo of PPC Leader Maxime Bernier alongside the word “VOTE” and a message telling voters to “Say NO to mass immigration.”
The PPC is known for its hardline anti-immigration policies, but it maintains that it was not aware of the billboards. Elections Canada says registered third-party rules do not have to declare their political leanings, but all their advertising must include a clearly visible tagline identifying the group behind each ad and indicating that group has authorized the ad.
Photos of the PPC's billboards show this tagline was included.
A third-party group with no link to the PPC has bought billboards across the country to call for an end to mass immigration.— Maxime Bernier (@MaximeBernier) August 24, 2019
What do you think?
The decision to remove the billboards came amid intense criticism of the anti-immigrant messaging. By the time Pattison Outdoor, the company that owns the billboards, announced that it would take them down, more than 11,000 people had signed an online petition calling on them to do so.
Bernier criticized Pattison Outdoor for the decision, writing in a tweet that the company had “caved in to the leftist mob.”
The company that owns the billboards has caved in to the leftist mob and decided to remove the ads supporting the PPC’s stand against mass immigration.— Maxime Bernier (@MaximeBernier) August 25, 2019
The authoritarian Left want to censor and silence anyone who disagrees with them. They will fail. https://t.co/koddSqTL2u
Financial filings with Elections Canada show True North Strong & Free Advertising Corp. spent $59,890 in August for a billboard campaign slated to run in “select cities in Canada.”
On Aug. 2, just weeks before the expenditure, the advertising company received a $60,000 contribution from Bassett & Walker International, which says it “specializes in the international trade of a variety of proteins for use in the food and pharmaceutical processing industries.”
Elections Canada filings list Frank Smeenk as the head of True North Strong & Free Advertising Corp. Smeenk is also the CEO of Toronto-based mining company KWG Resources, Fletcher Nickel Inc. and Debut Diamonds. His Bloomberg Business profile shows he also sits on the boards of several mining and mineral companies.
The business address associated with True North Strong & Free Advertising is the same address listed for KWG Resources and Debut Diamonds. The former two companies also share a phone number.
National Observer tried to reach Smeenk and True North Proud & Free several times but didn't receive a response.
In a response to Canadian Press, Smeenk tried to distance his company from the messaging on Bernier's ads.
"The True North Strong & Free Advertising Corp. was created as a vehicle to help third-party activists promote their views prior to the upcoming election with the intention that this would be welcomed as an innovative way to participate in our democratic process," he said.
The recent appearance — and subsequent disappearance — of xenophobic billboards pushing PPC's anti-immigration agenda shows how shadowy outside groups can carry water for a candidate and simultaneously help launder their image.
Though Bernier and the PPC maintain that neither the candidate nor the party knew about the billboards, Bernier does have a prior relationship with KWG resources.
In June 2018, KWG Resources hosted a fundraiser for Bernier, saying he “supports our vision” with regards to development and mining in Northern Ontario.
The anti-immigrant rhetoric featured on the billboards also lines up with Bernier’s public statements and policy proposals. In a July 24 speech, Bernier railed against the other political parties in Canada for sharing the “same position” on immigration, which he disparagingly referred to as “mass immigration.”
He used similar language in an Aug. 21 tweet, when he warned that immigration policies proposed by other parties would “forcibly change the cultural character and social fabric of Canada.”
That tweet came just two days after True North Strong & Free Advertising Corp. paid for the billboard campaign.
Editor's note: This story was edited on August 26, 2019 at 8:25 p.m. EST to include Elections Canada's rules on third party ads and National Observer's attempts to contact True North Proud and Free. It was edited again on August 28, 2019 at 10:14 a.m. EST to include Frank Smeenk's comments to Canadian Press.