People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier posed for a photo with members of an organization described as a hate group in Calgary Sunday.
The photo, which was taken at an event where Bernier announced new candidates for his party, shows the PPC leader in a cowboy hat posing with men who are wearing vests with patches depicting the emblem of Northern Guard.
One of the men flashes a hand gesture that the American Anti-Defamation League says has been used by white supremacists, ironically or sincerely, to symbolize white power.
The symbol was infamously flashed by Brenton Tarrant during a mid-March court appearance. Tarrant is accused of killing 51 people in a gun attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15.
Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University, said she’d describe the Northern Guard as a hate group that has “crawled out from under the shadows.”
“It’s disturbing,” she said, referring to the photo of Bernier. “From the very beginning when he created the party … there was a flood of far-right nationalists, you know, sort of coming to the party, and he was not very vociferous in turning them away.”
Bernier says everyone welcome at his events
A spokesperson for Bernier said he takes many pictures with people and does not inquire about their views prior, adding that Bernier isn’t aware of the group.
When asked a follow-up question about whether Bernier was comfortable with having supporters that make “white-power hand gestures,” his spokesperson did not respond.
On Tuesday afternoon, Bernier told media that everyone is welcome at his events.
“People believe in our values are welcome in our party and people who don’t believe in these values are not welcome in our party and that’s it,” he said.
“I will continue to have open rallies with the population and will take a photo with everybody who wants to take a photo with me … if you’re right, if the media is right, I didn’t do any research on them, I condemn them. I think the people who are racist and doesn’t believe in the Canadian values aren’t welcome in our party.”
This isn’t, you know, a mistake or this is not an inadvertent gaffe. I think this was deliberate.– Duane Bratt, political scientist
Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said he doesn’t believe that Bernier was ignorant of the group’s identity as an offshoot of the neo-Nazi group the Soldiers of Odin.
“Everybody knows what the Soldiers of Odin are now in politics. I’d be surprised if we found anybody who truly didn’t know who they are … At this point they should know, when somebody comes up wearing a vest like that, to take a closer look at it,” he said.
“Maxime Bernier and his supporters could just be terrible people that find terrible cause with other terrible people, or they could be specifically courting kind of these hate groups. What I could say about it is that it’s not done unknowingly.”
That view was echoed by Duane Bratt, a political scientist at the University of Calgary.
“This isn’t, you know, a mistake or … an inadvertent gaffe. I think this was deliberate,” he said.
“Bernier’s been in the public eye a long time, you know, as a cabinet minister. And he was always viewed as a straight-shooter libertarian and now he’s just gone full identity politics. And is that just a transformation or is that something he hid? Or is it a political strategy?”
Bernier has made controversial statements and decisions more than once since he announced the formation of his party last year — stating he will tackle “extreme multiculturalism,” bringing a 9-11 conspiracy theorist on as a candidate, saying blackface is a “non-existent phenomenon.”
Calgary police said they’re aware of the Northern Guard, as they are aware of most activist groups that use social media to promote their viewpoints, but don’t currently have any criminal complaints against the group.
‘They are militants’
Balgord said the Northern Guard was formed as an offshoot of the Soldiers of Odin in Canada around 2017.
The Soldiers of Odin, he said, are primarily an anti-Muslim group founded in Finland by a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi who was found guilty of multiple racially motivated assaults.
He said members of the Northern Guard have been pictured posing in front of Nazi flags on social media.
“They are militants. They go to most anti-Muslim demonstrations and they have a presence across Canada at this point,” Balgord said. “They’ve engaged in premeditated attacks on counter-demonstrators and they’ve associated with the kind of who’s-who of anti-Muslim groups that hold regular demonstrations across Canada.”
One of the men in the picture, Kyle Puchalski, insisted on Facebook that the Northern Guard is not a hate group.
“I am not a white suppremist (sic) I’m not a neo nazi nor is any member of this club. The hand gesture is just that a gesture meaning OK, PERFECT, GREAT, AWESOME,” he wrote.
‘Acceptable talking points’
Brad Galloway spent nearly a decade as part of a neo-Nazi group and now works with Organization for the Prevention of Violence to help people leave similar organizations. He said it’s not out of the ordinary for these groups to put out more palatable messages in public, but say other things in private.
“If it’s not centralized around the theme of white supremacy or white power or things like that, and more centralized around stuff like immigration or anti-Islam or anti-government stuff, those are kind of more acceptable talking points,” he said.
Galloway said he’s seen the ‘OK’ hand symbol — like the one used in the photo with Bernier — used as a hand-sign by white power groups to signal their shared message or to “troll” the media.
Perry said her research has shown hate groups in Canada have increased in number and visibility in the past few years.
“It’s also obviously their outward facing representation, so perhaps attempts to lure people, you know, into the group,” she said.
“They’re not necessarily as careful in their language even in their public-facing platforms as some of the groups. But that’s really the tip of the iceberg … we need to also consider how they’re using social media in the closed forums.”