Controversy has flared up after a federal election panel discussion was cancelled at the University of Guelph over the presence of the contentious People’s Party, sparking a fiery debate in the community over freedom of speech and how to best regulate it.
As is common on post-secondary campuses across the country, the panel was put together in an effort to engage and inform students ahead of the Oct. 21 federal election. Students will be part of the largest voter block on voting day, according to political analysts.
Organizers of the panel, the Central Student Association and CUPE 1334, did not initially invite the People’s Party candidate. However, on Sept. 27, a faculty or staff at the university let Mark Paralovos know there was an upcoming panel that did not include the PPC candidate.
Paralovos told The Avro Post that at this time he contacted the CSA requesting to join in. He received a response from the student union, who apologized for the oversight in not inviting him and said that he could attend as a federal candidate in the Guelph riding.
After the People’s Party candidate was confirmed for the debate on Friday, there was backlash in the community and several individuals, including some known left-wing activists, started placing pressure on the Central Student Association and CUPE to uninvit Paralovos to the debate, encouraging those interested to email the unions to complain.
On Monday, Paralovos was informed by the organizers of the panel that his invitation was rescinded. He responded inquiring why, but there was no response from the CSA or the workers’ union, who were silent until releasing a public letter on Tuesday evening cancelling the event entirely.
Organizers said that because of the provincially mandated freedom of speech rules for post-secondary campuses, they would be obligated to include the People’s Party candidate in the panel or risk consequences such as the province cutting funding to the university.
There were rumours posted on social media on Monday that the University of Guelph was placing pressure on the unions to include Paralovos in the debate but both Paralovos and a CUPE spokesperson said the rumours were not factual, a development not previously reported.
CUPE spokesperson Jensen Williams told The Avro Post in an interview early on Wednesday afternoon that there was a second reason the debate was cancelled: the university had received threats from Paralovos that he would hold “a rally” and they were concerned it could turn violent.
Paralovos vehemently denied ever making such a threat. In a follow up later on Wednesday, Jensen said that the claim that the candidate was making such such a threat was incorrect.
Instead, she said, it was the university administration that assumed Paralovos and his supporters would protest the panel should he not be invited. The candidate denied that he would have protested, preferring instead to spend the time canvassing the residents of Guelph.
While the threat of protest claim was unfounded, there is precedent for protests involving the People’s Party to turn violent. A PPC event with leader Maxime Bernier at Mohawk College on Sunday drew over 100 demonstrators.
Some were supporters of Bernier but many were protesting his presence on campus, according to local reporting. Hamilton police ended up arresting four people, two each from the opposing sides of the confrontation.
Bernier was accepted in September to attend two official debates by the federal commission.
The debates with other party leaders will be broadcasted nationally and was seen as a major win for the PPC after Bernier, a former Conservative cabinet minister, appealed a decision blocking him from the debates due to initially not meeting certain polling criteria.
The decision was unrelated to party policy.
‘Mandate for hatred’
The Central Student Association and the Canadian Union of Public Employees division at the University of Guelph laid out why the People’s Party of Canada would not be allowed under their respective mandates in an open letter on Tuesday evening.
In the joint statement, the unions said that they “operate under an anti-oppressive mandate and commitment to upholding equality and protecting marginalized groups from hate and violence on campus” and that their members needed to be protected from PPC ideals.
The decision was made not to invite the PPC candidate because the policies included in the platform of the party “discriminate against people in the University of Guelph community, particularly marginalized groups, and therefore contradict the work of the CSA and CUPE 1334 to make an inclusive campus for all students and workers,” the release said.
CUPE spokesperson Jensen Williams outlined several of the specific platform planks the organizers felt was a threat to those the unions represent, calling the party’s ideals a “mandate for hatred”. She said because of this, organizers were within their right to cancel the panel.
The PPC’s immigration policy states that immigration policy can only benefit Canadians “only if we welcome the right kind of immigrants”, saying it “should not be used to forcibly change the cultural character and social fabric of our country.”
In its “Canadian identity” platform plank, the party calls for an “end to official multiculturalism” and aims to repeal the Multiculturalism Act while cutting immigration by over half and up to over two-thirds.
When it comes to refugees, the People’s Party would, if elected, significantly cut refugee acceptance while clamping down on border security. The party would also declare the entire Canadian border an official port of entry to clamp down on illegal entry from the United States.
These and other PPC policies are directly in contradiction with the unions and their own mandate to eradicate hate and discrimination while upholding equity and equality”, Jensen explained to The Post on Wednesday.
“Our decision was based on [the] principles of our organization but it is also to set an example that hate should not be given a platform,” she added.
Mark Paralovos is looking into his legal options. He told the Guelph Mercury Tribune that he finds the statement released Tuesday “libellous” and would be “investigating his legal options”.
Organizers of the now-cancelled debate have directed students to head to the 100 Debate on the Environment on Thursday at Centennial CVI, or the Guelph Chamber of Commerce debate next Wednesday at Guelph City Hall — both debates will feature Paralovos.
“The organizers of this event stand by the decision not to let the PPC candidate speak on campus,” the Tuesday statement from organizers concluded, adding that “we do not want to compromise the safety of students or workers by bringing this candidate and their supporters to campus.”
With files from Guelph
Politico and TAP.