(Reuters) - Anti-immigrant ads on billboards across Canada are being taken down after a public outcry and multiple petitions against them, the company that owns the billboards said.
The ads were launched in support of Maxime Bernier, leader of the small right-wing anti-immigration People's Party of Canada, and called for a halt on mass immigration to Canada. They started appearing in several Canadian cities last week and were bought by True North Strong and Free Advertising Corp (TNSFAC).
Bernier, 56, has focused on limiting immigration and protecting so-called Canadian values in contrast with more moderate Conservatives, prompting some pundits to refer to him as Canada's Donald Trump.
Canada will have a federal election on Oct. 21 and immigration has broad support, some polls show. A Pew Research Center report published Aug. 9 found that Canadians have among the highest support in the world for immigration.
Although the People's Party of Canada was not responsible for the ad, Bernier was upset that it was taken down.
"The message on the billboard is not 'controversial' for two thirds of Canadians who agree with it, and for those who disagree but support free speech and an open discussion," Bernier said on Twitter on Monday.
Pattison Outdoor, which owns and manages outdoor advertising space across Canada, had originally declined to remove the advertisements, but reversed the decision on Sunday.
"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," Pattison Outdoor President Randy Otto said in a statement, adding that he regretted the decision to run the ads.
TNSFAC registered as a third party with Elections Canada on Aug. 16, just days before the billboards first garnered attention on Aug. 23. If an entity runs an advertising campaign worth over $500 that is considered political in nature and it must register as a third party, according to the Canada Elections Act.
TNSFAC owner Frank Smeenk, who is also chief executive of mining exploration firm KWG Resources, did not respond to requests for comment.
Creators of petitions in Calgary, Alberta, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, celebrated Pattison's actions.
"Grateful to see Pattison Advertising demonstrate leadership and take down these billboards," Jordan Stein, a Liberal Party candidate in Calgary who started one of the petitions, said in a Facebook post shared on her candidacy page.
John Grant, founder of the Urban Halifax group which started a petition to remove the ads in Halifax, said the billboards' message hit a raw nerve for Nova Scotians in particular. The province's economy is starting to grow after years of stagnation, which Grant attributes to the record-high numbers of immigrants Nova Scotia has received in the last couple of years.
"The economy's getting better and ... things are actually starting to go well, so a lot of people are pissed off that this giant billboard was erected," Grant said. "It's not a great 'Welcome to Halifax' sign as we're trying to get more people."
The Liberal premier of Nova Scotia, Stephen McNeil, also condemned the ads.
"Our population is at an all-time high, unemployment is at a record low and our economy is growing, in large part thanks to immigration," McNeil said on Twitter. "That’s fact, not opinion."
(Reporting by Moira Warburton; Editing by Denny Thomas and Tom Brown)
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