Politics

Bernier files complaint to elections watchdog over 'secret' campaign to smear his party

People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier has filed a complaint to the Commissioner of Canada Elections to get to the bottom of what he called a "secret" smear campaign waged against him.

Warren Kinsella says work targeting People's Party of Canada 'ended months ago' and was not inappropriate

People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier has filed a complaint about what he calls a professional 'smear campaign' waged against his party. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier has filed a complaint to the Commissioner of Canada Elections to get to the bottom of what he called a "secret" smear campaign waged against him.

During a news conference Saturday, Bernier said the party will retain legal advice and will use all tools at its disposal to get answers on the Conservative Party of Canada's potential role in that campaign. He also wants answers on who was behind the entry of a Rhinoceros Party candidate in his Beauce, Que., riding who has the same name as him.

Bernier said that was a deliberate attempt to confuse voters.

CBC News reported Friday that Warren Kinsella's Daisy Group consulting firm was behind a social media campaign to put the People's Party of Canada (PPC) on the defensive and keep Bernier out of the federal leaders' debates, according to documents provided to CBC News.

The documents outline the work done by several employees of Daisy on behalf of an unnamed client. A source with knowledge of the project told CBC News that client was the Conservative Party of Canada. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer today refused to comment on whether his party was involved, saying "As a rule, we never make comments on vendors that we may or may not have engaged with."

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is repeatedly asked if his party contracted a firm to negatively target the People's Party of Canada. 1:46

The plan was first reported Friday night by the Globe and Mail.

According to the source, who spoke to CBC News on condition they not be named, the objective of the plan, dubbed "Project Cactus," was to make the Conservative Party look more attractive to voters by highlighting PPC candidates' and supporters' xenophobic statements on social media.

The source added that Daisy employed four full-time staffers on Project Cactus at one time.

Kinsella is a lawyer, anti-racism activist and former Liberal strategist who has been a vocal critic of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

On Friday, he told CBC News in an email he wouldn't discuss client matters but was proud to combat racism and intolerance.

But on Saturday he posted a longer statement to his website, saying "the work we were doing ended many months ago."

"It was always going to be disclosed, by law. It was in no way inappropriate or wrong," the post read.

Kinsella said he was proud to oppose bigots.

"And the client who wanted to expose and oppose bigotry? They deserve credit, not criticism," the post said. 

He did not confirm who the client was, saying "lawyers are not permitted to simply break vows of confidentiality. Only the client can let you do that. The client, here, hasn't."

In the statement Kinsella said he holds no party membership and that his firm has worked for "every single political party or candidates running under the banner of every single political party. Every one except Bernier's."

Kinsella, who is also a columnist with the Toronto Sun, said he had deactivated his Twitter and Facebook accounts, and was "pulling back from other media as well." His Twitter and Facebook accounts appeared to be deactivated on Saturday.

'Deeply shocked' by reports

Bernier said he's "deeply shocked" by the reported plan.

"This secret campaign is an attack on the integrity of our democratic process," he said during a news conference Saturday. 

"I can assure you we will take every means at our disposal to get to the bottom of this story."

Bernier was critical that Scheer would not confirm or deny his party's involvement.

"Like Justin Trudeau during the SNC scandal, Mr. Scheer invents reasons for refusing to answer questions and tell the truth," he said. "This story shows how corrupt our old parties are. This is the kind of politics that fuels Canadians' cynicism about politics."

People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier accuses Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer of being dishonest while also taking a shot at Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. 1:18

A spokesperson for the Commissioner of Canada Elections confirmed the complaint had been received, but said she couldn't discuss how the commissioner would proceed, or not, due to confidentiality provisions of the Canada Elections Act.

Michelle Laliberté added that, as in all cases, if the complaint resulted in any compliance or enforcement action it would be made public.

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