The Saint John Region Chamber of Commerce has cancelled a scheduled Friday speech by People's Party Leader Maxime Bernier.
But the chamber says it's not because of the populist politician's controversial views on vaccines and climate change.
Chamber CEO David Duplisea said Bernier's people got in touch to say "that he had a schedule change, that he wasn't coming to Saint John and he wished to cancel."
The chamber was widely criticized on social media for giving Bernier a platform.
"He's a very controversial person due to his far-right views on vaccines and a lot of the policies in his party," said Lynaya Astephen, a Saint John climate activist who voiced her approval of the cancellation on Twitter on Monday night.
"He's kind of like the Trump of Canada."
Bernier said earlier this month that he would not get vaccinated against COVID-19 because he was unlikely to get sick.
He has criticized what he calls "draconian lockdowns" imposed to slow to spread of the virus, and in June he was charged with violating Manitoba's mandatory self-isolation rules when he arrived in the province.
Bernier was due to appear in court Tuesday in Manitoba on that charge, but his online schedule shows he was planning to campaign in Quebec.
He also questions whether climate change is caused by human behaviour, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that it is.
A spokesperson for Bernier confirmed the Zoom-based speech was cancelled because of scheduling conflicts, but said Bernier will be campaigning in New Brunswick in the coming days.
Bernier plans to campaign in Fundy Royal, Saint John-Rothesay, New Brunswick Southwest, Tobique-Mactaquac, Miramichi-Grand Lake, Beauséjour and Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe from Friday to Sunday.
Chamber is '100 per cent non-partisan,' CEO says
Duplisea said the chamber invites representatives of all parties to speak in the lead-up to an election and it would be wrong to pick and choose based on their views.
"What you're doing, I think, is you're applying judgment calls. If you don't agree with his opinion, he still has every right to his opinion. We're 100 per cent non-partisan and as long as he's not preaching anything illegal or violent, we can't say no."
Duplisea said the chamber and its predecessor, the Saint John Board of Trade, learned over two centuries to not favour one political view over another.
"Over the years there would have been communism, fascism, all the issues that would have arisen over the 200 years. And we've learned this has to be 100 per cent non-partisan," he said.
"We may not like him, we may not agree with everything he says, we may passionately disagree. But it's very easy to fight for democracy on the easy stuff, [and] not so easy when it gets a little bit grey and muddy."
Astephen says she's glad Bernier's event has been cancelled, but she suspects the real reason is the blowback.
"I think they decided to cancel it because of that."
She also questions Duplisea's assertion that the chamber has to give everyone a platform, noting there are 20 registered political parties in Canada.
"Are they going to have all leaders from all of those parties? I would say no."
The independent commission organizing the federal leaders' debates decided this week to exclude Bernier.
The commission's criteria for inclusion is that a party must have at least one elected MP, must have won at least four per cent of the popular vote in the last election, and must have been polling at four per cent five days after the election call.
The Saint John Region chamber discussed using those criteria to decide which parties to invite to speak, Duplisea said.
But he said the numbers were "very fluid" and Bernier's party was polling around 3.8 to 3.9 per cent when he was invited. The chamber hadn't been aware that he was excluded from the commission debates either, Duplisea said.
The chamber is scheduling other party representatives for speeches, but hasn't heard from the People's Party about whether Bernier will look for another date.
"I assume he's got a lot of things going on on the ground and that's up to his people," Duplisea said.