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A worker removes a billboard featuring the portrait of People’s Party of Canada (PPC) leader Maxime Bernier in Toronto, on Aug.. 26, 2019.

MOE DOIRON/Reuters

The owner of the billboards that featured ads promoting Maxime Bernier and his stance on immigration said they would have stayed up had the third-party group that paid for them not left his company twisting in the wind.

Randy Otto, the president of Pattison Outdoor Advertising, said his company agreed to run the ads on the condition that True North Strong & Free Advertising Corp. identify itself and let people viewing the billboards know how to get in touch.

Otto said his company felt the group, which is registered with Elections Canada as a third-party advertiser in the 2019 campaign, was entitled to promote the views on immigration held by Bernier and the People’s Party of Canada – as long as it was prepared to deal with any fallout.

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The billboards, which feature pre-election advertising with Bernier’s face, the logo of his People’s Party of Canada and a slogan advocating against “mass immigration,” started appearing in different spots across the country late last week.

They quickly sparked criticism, including from Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil, for promoting anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Otto said he did not like having been left alone to defend the ads or appreciate Bernier’s accusing him of caving to a “totalitarian leftist mob” when he decided to take the ads off Pattison billboards.

“I think probably for me, the biggest concern I have is people’s impression of the company and that we are trying to restrict free speech,” Otto said in an interview Tuesday.

“More than that, has been the very strong vocal, sometimes venomous, calls to my staff across the country, where people are expressing their opinions about the decision to either put the ads up or take them down,” he said. “And so people who had nothing to do with this decision and are simply answering the phone are getting extremely vicious calls from members of the public and that’s very unfortunate.”

Otto said he was “overwhelmed” and “appalled” to see Frank Smeenk, the head of the third-party group, tell The Canadian Press he disavowed the ad and that he mistakenly did not get the chance to sign off on the controversial campaign.

Otto said his company received the finished ad directly from True North Strong & Free Advertising Corp.

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“This was not a large campaign,” Otto said. “For him to say that he had no idea of the message, I find quite surprising.”

Smeenk, chief executive of a Toronto-based mining company, has not responded to follow-up questions.

Elections Canada requires all third-party partisan advertising to include a clearly visible tagline identifying the group behind it and indicating that the group has authorized the ad. Photos of the billboards show this tagline was included.

According to financial returns the group has filed with Elections Canada, True North Strong & Free Advertising spent $59,890 on billboards to be mounted in “select cities in Canada.”

It also received $60,000 from Bassett & Walker International Inc., a company that specializes in the international trade of protein products.

Messages left at Bassett & Walker have not yet been returned.

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The People’s Party of Canada did not place the ads, but Bernier has said he agreed with their message.

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