With election day less than 48 hours away, Andrew Scheer suddenly found himself in the hot seat Saturday as reports linked the Conservative party to a co-ordinated effort to smear former caucus colleague Maxime Bernier and his nascent populist People's Party of Canada.
The Globe and Mail reported that strategist Warren Kinsella and his firm Daisy Group were hired to "seek and destroy" Bernier's party and portray its supporters as racist. A source with direct knowledge of the project said the client was the Conservatives, the Globe reported.
The Conservative leader, whom polls suggest is locked in a neck-and-neck duel with Liberal rival Justin Trudeau, refused to confirm, deny or even acknowledge the report during a news conference in Toronto that featured few questions about anything else.
"We don't offer comments on contracts that may or may not exist on vendors we may or may not have a relationship with," he said, repeatedly.
Bernier formed the People's Party of Canada — a populist, libertarian movement steeped in nationalist sentiment and aimed at draining support from the right-wing flank of the Tories — after he narrowly lost the Conservative leadership race to Scheer.
"This is the kind of dirty politics that fuels Canadians' cynicism about politics," Bernier told a news conference of his own, adding that he had filed a complaint with the Commissioner of Canada Elections, the office that enforces Canada's election laws.
"This secret campaign is an attack on the integrity of our democratic process. We had suspected for a long time that many of the supposed scandals of the last month had been fabricated by opponents."
He even suggested that Kinsella's so-called "seek-and-destroy" campaign might have had a hand in the satirical Rhinoceros party's decision to field a candidate also named Maxime Bernier in the leader's Quebec riding of Beauce in hopes of confusing voters.
Kinsella didn't confirm or deny the project to the Globe, but said generally his firm has worked on anti-racism campaigns. Later in the day, after his social media accounts vanished from the internet, he posted a statement on his website defending his work, which he said ended "many months ago."
"It was always going to be disclosed, by law. It was in no way inappropriate or wrong," Kinsella wrote. "Opposing organized bigotry is always appropriate and right. We were and are fiercely proud of the work we did."
In the statement, Kinsella implied that details about the campaign were leaked by a former employee — a "hater" — who "made anti-Semitic, intolerant remarks and stole from our company" before going on to assist Bernier's party, which he insisted is undeserving of sympathy.
"We don't help racists," he wrote.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the allegations are troubling and called on Scheer to address them directly.
"Canadians should expect transparency from leaders," Singh said during a campaign stop in B.C., where the New Democrat frontman is seeking to capitalize on momentum few observers would have anticipated at the start of the campaign.
"They should be able to answer those type of questions. If there's evidence to suggest he was involved in the hiring of someone for a certain task he should be able to answer those questions."
Justin Trudeau, for his part, used the report to buttress his now-familiar charge that the Conservatives are using dirty tricks and misinformation to propel their election effort.
"I think we've seen throughout this campaign that the Conservatives have had to use the politics of fear and division and indeed just make stuff up in order to try and get their message across," the Liberal leader said.
Contrary to the facts, Scheer has been insisting that Trudeau is "openly talking" about a coalition with the NDP after Monday's vote, one that would raise the GST, personal income taxes and cancel social transfer payments to the provinces in order to finance their big-ticket promises.
Trudeau has urged the need for a "progressive government," but repeatedly refused to answer a variety of questions Saturday about minority scenarios, sticking instead to a message that Canadians have an important choice to make on Monday and stressing issues of affordability, gun control and fighting climate change.
Trudeau was in the midst of a marathon day of campaigning — he started early near Niagara Falls, Ont., with plans to end with a late-night rally in Calgary after a stop in Winnipeg along the way.
Meanwhile, in Ottawa Centre, the Liberals brought in heavy hitter Jean Chretien, with the former prime minister helping to rally the troops at an event for Catherine McKenna.
Singh was in Vancouver, where a real-life example of his momentum in the polls presented itself, as a line of people wrapped around a downtown city block to get into a rally with at least 400 people were already in attendance.
Earlier in the day, Singh touted his plan to build 500,000 affordable housing units and fight speculation and money laundering that drive up housing prices.
The Green party's Elizabeth May was spending her day in and around Vancouver, boosting local candidates with sign-waves and door-to-door canvasses, but she finishes with a big regional rally at Canada Place featuring environmentalist David Suzuki.
This report by the Canadian Press was first published Oct. 19, 2019.