Legion branches cancel United We Roll events amid online backlash

Three United We Roll town halls scheduled for eastern Ontario legion branches have been cancelled after a public backlash.

Town hall organizers say they're being wrongly accused of condoning racist views

Jay Riedel and Patrick King have hosted 23 United We Roll town halls, but three eastern Ontario legion branches recently cancelled their meetings amid an online backlash and accusations of racism. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

Three United We Roll town halls scheduled for eastern Ontario legion branches have been cancelled after a public backlash.

Pamela Sweeny, provincial executive director of Ontario command of the Royal Canadian Legion, said many of the complaints about the "Rollin' with Pat & Jay" events occurred online. 

That led to the national legion office, dominion command, contacting her about the group.

"We were told, allegedly, that the group may be promoting bigotry and so on and so forth ... it doesn't align with the purposes and core values of the Royal Canadian Legion," said Sweeny.

Each legion branch is autonomous, Sweeny said, and each made the decision to cancel on their own.

The legion in Arnprior, Ont., cancelled its 'Rollin' with Pat & Jay' event, but it still took place at a hotel in the town. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

Duo deny racism accusations

When the United We Roll convoy pulled into Ottawa this winter, controversy over what they represented dogged the group. While some protestors focused on pipelines and carbon taxes, others were more interested in closing Canada's borders to illegal immigrants.

But Patrick King and Jay Riedel, the organizers of the town halls, told CBC News accusations they condone bigotry are completely false.

King said they're only interested in speaking about the message of the United We Roll convoy, to "educate some of the people on what actually happened and how successful we were."

"We don't condone [racism]. We are 100 per cent against racism or anything like that. We are trying to make Canada inclusive," Riedel said.

Their town halls began in Alberta and have made their way east, with recent meetings in Pembroke and Arnprior, west of Ottawa. 

The Arnprior event was scheduled for April 24 at the legion branch, but was relocated to a nearby hotel.

Other planned legion events in Cornwall and Finch were also cancelled. 

Arnprior residents John McLaughlan, Geoffrey White and Marc Bissonnette say the convoy's intended message has been 'polluted' by alleged ties to yellow vest protesters, who have been accused of harbouring racism. 1:18

Heated online debate

Geoffrey White, who lives in Arnprior, and said he first heard about "Rollin' with Pat & Jay" on a local Facebook group where a heated debate about the event unfolded. 

"I'm very happy with the legion changing their [decision to allow] these people to show up," White said.

"And it seems that Arnprior has triggered something across the rest of the legions as well, so that's wonderful to see."

He says he noticed King and Riedel have connections on social media to people who identify with the yellow vest movement, which has been accused of harbouring racism.

Geoffrey White applauded the Arnprior legion's decision to cancel the 'Rollin' with Pat & Jay' event. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

John McLaughlan, who also lives in Arnprior, was part of the online debate. He said he'd be happy to talk about pipelines and climate change, but doesn't condone other messages he has seen.

"I have to draw the line when we start talking about illegal immigrants flooding our country and things of that nature," McLaughlan said.

Another Arnprior resident, Marc Bissonnette, says he supports the oil and gas industry but said the message behind the United We Roll convoy has been "polluted." 

"My mother often had a great saying growing up," Bissonnette said. "You're often judged by the company you keep ... unfortunately for United We Roll, giving them the benefit of the doubt, they have attracted a lot of the extremes." 

Jay Riedel says the goal of the United We Roll convoy was to bring Canada together. 0:30

'False accusations'

When asked about their views on immigration, King replied: "It has nothing to do with anti-immigration. It has everything to do with illegal immigration."

"Canada is a country built on immigration. We are a multicultural nation, we do not deny that. What it is, is we need to put Canadians back to work first," said King, adding he lost his job in Alberta due to the decline in the oil and gas industry.

King and Riedel said despite the backlash in Arnprior, their event there was a success, attracting between 60 and 70 people. 

"Some haters, who are supposedly anti-hate, [are] trying to smear what Jay and I are doing, calling us racists, calling us xenophobes. And it's all false accusations," King said. 

They have already completed 23 town halls and are expected to host two more in Cornwall and Brockville next week.