WARNING: This story includes offensive language.
People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier once discounted NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh's chances of winning a seat in the House of Commons by saying he'd "never get elected with that rag on his head," according to an affidavit filed recently in an Ottawa court case.
In a separate affidavit, however, Bernier says that he's not a racist and that the affidavit is the only eyewitness account of him "supposedly saying something racist" filed by the lawyer for political strategist Warren Kinsella.
Bernier said Kinsella was hired to paint him and the People's Party of Canada as racist to draw support away from his fledgling party during the last election.
The allegations and counter-allegations are part of hundreds of pages of affidavits and exhibits filed recently in Ontario Superior Court in an acrimonious defamation suit that pits Bernier against Kinsella.
In October 2019, it was reported that Kinsella's Daisy Group had been hired in the months prior to the 2019 federal election to mount Project Cactus, a campaign to draw attention to xenophobic or racist comments made by People's Party of Canada (PPC) candidates or their supporters.
At the time, a source said that Daisy Group had been hired by the Conservative Party of Canada. In a recent affidavit, however, Kinsella said the client was a lawyer who was a member of the Conservative Party — not the party itself.
In February 2020, Bernier sued Kinsella and Daisy Group for defamation, alleging that the campaign damaged his reputation.
In an affidavit filed by Kinsella's lawyer dated April 15, former Conservative communications adviser Matthew Conway describes what he said was an incident involving Bernier in February 2018, when Bernier was still a Conservative Party critic.
Conway said he was standing with Bernier in the House of Commons' foyer, waiting for him to go on television to comment on the budget, when Singh walked by.
"When Mr. Singh entered the foyer, Mr. Bernier said, referring to Mr. Singh, 'Il ne se fera jamais élire avec ce torchon sur sa tête,'" wrote Conway. He translated the phrase into English as, "He'll never get elected with that rag on his head."
The affidavit claims that, a few minutes later, Bernier asked what Singh was "doing with that knife," referring to Singh's kirpan — the sacred ceremonial dagger that observant Sikhs are supposed to wear at all times.
"Both of these comments made me nervous," Conway wrote in his affidavit. "Not only did I consider them to be offensive and racist, but I was concerned, in my role as a communications adviser, that members of the press who were nearby may have overheard the comments."
In an affidavit dated May 3, Bernier calls into question Conway's account.
"This is the only eyewitness account of me supposedly saying something racist ever offered by Mr. Kinsella, and it comes from someone connected to the party that paid Kinsella for 'Project Cactus' and stands to benefit if Mr. Kinsella is vindicated," Bernier wrote. "It is the only eyewitness claim of me making a racist statement that Kinsella has included in his motion material."
The statements made by both sides in the dispute have not yet been tested in a court of law.
While Bernier went on to lose his seat in the Quebec riding of Beauce in the 2019 election, Singh won the British Columbia riding of Burnaby South.
Bernier's lawyer Andre Marin declined to comment when reached by CBC News.
The documents filed recently in court are the latest twist in a tale that began in October 2019 when a source told media outlets about Project Cactus.
At the time, a source told CBC News that the campaign was funded by the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) — something that then-Conservative leader Andrew Scheer refused to confirm or deny.
In his affidavit dated April 15, however, Kinsella said that "Daisy was not hired by the CPC."
"Rather, for a six-week period ending June 29, 2019, a lawyer who was a member of the CPC paid Daisy to supplement work Daisy was already doing about the PPC," Kinsella wrote. "Daisy did not take direction from the lawyer or submit any work for his review or comment."
By wrapping up the work by June 29 — the date after which pre-election spending would have to be declared — the money spent to hire Daisy Group did not have to be reported to Elections Canada.
In a recording of a Daisy Group meeting — which was leaked to CBC News in November 2019 by a source who attended the meeting and asked not to be named — Kinsella said "Hamish and Walsh" would start to ask what Daisy Group was delivering if they don't start "spilling some blood."
Hamish Marshall, who was the Conservatives' 2019 federal election campaign manager, has a background in marketing. John Walsh, a former president of the Conservative Party who was co-chair of the 2019 election campaign, is a lawyer.
At the time, Walsh refused to comment on Daisy Group's work on Project Cactus. Walsh did not return a phone call from CBC News this week.
Bernier's defamation suit is seeking $325,000 in damages. In his affidavit, he encourages the court to "curb dirty political tricks."
"My reputation suffered serious harm," Bernier wrote, adding he needed a chance to clear his name in court so that voters will know he has "been a target of paid defamation and dirty tricks."
Kinsella has applied to have Bernier's defamation lawsuit thrown out, arguing it is a "strategic lawsuit against public participation" (SLAPP) suit. SLAPP suits are those used to intimidate or silence critics.
The motion to dismiss the case is scheduled to be heard by the court in June.
Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.