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Anti-immigration billboard to be removed in Toronto after uproar

A larger-than-life advertisement encouraging people to "say NO to mass immigration" is being pulled from billboard sites across Canada this week following an intense wave of public criticism.

First spotted in Toronto late last week near Lake Shore Boulevard and Carlaw Avenue, the controversial ad features a photo of conservative politician Maxime Bernier, whose People's Party of Canada maintains about 4 per cent voter support heading into October's federal election.

Locals expressed their disapproval of its anti-immigration message almost immediately after the billboard was erected, both in Toronto and elsewhere across the country.

"Bernier and the PPC are trying to bring Trump’s brand of hateful politics to our election," reads a petition created last week in response to what critics described as "far-right, hate-filled billboards that discriminate against migrant communities."

"If we don't nip this in the bud now, the extreme-right could turn this election into a hotbed of xenophobia," the petition text continues. "But with your help we can shut them down."

More than 11,800 people had signed the petition, addressed to the advertising company Pattison Outdoor, as of Monday morning.

Pattison, which owns more than half of the billboard ad space in Canada, responded to the mounting criticism on Sunday — first, to say that it would not take down the ads, as they were technically compliant with the Ad Standards of Canada code.

"Should advertising elicit a public debate, we encourage Canadians to voice their opinions directly to the advertiser who placed the message as it is our policy that their contact information must be a legible part of the ad," read the company's initial statement.

Later that same day, however, Pattison reversed course, citing "overwhelming" criticism from the public, press and social media users.

"It was never my or Pattison Outdoor's intention to offend, alienate or in any way insult the public by allowing this ad to be run," wrote the company's president, Randy Otto, in a secondary statement posted to Twitter around 4:30 p.m. on Sunday.

"I regret that the decision we made to allow the ads has been construed to suggest that I or anyone at Pattison Outdoor endorses the message of the advertiser. That is not the case."

Otto said that his company would take the ads down after speaking to the advertiser in question — who, as it turns out, was not the People's Party of Canada, but a third-party group run by Toronto-based mining executive Frank Smeenk called True North Strong & Free Advertising Corp.

Bernier himself was careful to mention that "a third-party group with no link to the PPC" had purchased the ads when news of their existence first started circulating.

He was displeased, nonetheless, when Pattison announced they'd be taking the billboards down.

"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," wrote the candidate in response to Pattison's latter statement on Twitter.

"The authoritarian Left want to censor and silence anyone who disagrees with them. They will fail."

The People's Party of Canada is seeking to repeal Canada's Multiculturalism Act as part of its 2019 electoral platform, as well as substantially reduce the number of immigrants and refugees accepted into Canada each year (from 350,000 to as little as 100,000.)

"Right now, only 26 per cent of all the immigrants and refugees who come to Canada every year are directly chosen because they have the right qualifications and work experience to fulfill our economic needs," reads a portion of the PPC platform dedicated to reducing overall immigration levels.

"The rest are dependents (spouses and children), come through the family reunification program or as refugees, do not work, or do not have the skills that we need even if they find work."

The party proposes accepting fewer resettled refugees, making birth tourism illegal, limiting the number of immigrants accepted under Canada's family reunification program, and disallowing immigrants to sponsor their parents and grandparents entirely.

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