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Municipal Politics

Worries Rise that NPA Board Could Run Extremist Candidates in 2022

Recent appointees add to the number of party directors who’ve espoused far-right views.

Melanie Green 21 Jan 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Melanie Green is a Vancouver-based journalist who has worked as an associate producer for the CBC and a reporter for the Star Vancouver.

Photos taken in 2017 show Angelo Isidorou, now a director of the Non-Partisan Association municipal party in Vancouver, wearing a MAGA hat and using a symbol widely considered to mean “white power.”

The images obtained by The Tyee compound worries by political observers that next year’s municipal election could see an NPA slate with far-right extremist views.

The party has seen an exodus of high-profile members in the past year, with many saying they fear the board has moved too far right. Some are ringing alarms that the NPA is embroiled in a potential political power play by savvy extremists achieving a strong foothold on the board.

Extremist views espoused online by current members of the NPA board include statements that are sexist, anti-immigration, anti-LGBTQ2S(IA)+, against wearing masks despite public health officials’ urgings and questioning the legitimacy of the U.S. election, as reported by the Vancouver Sun’s Dan Fumano.

The Tyee has learned that it’s up to the NPA board who gets to run as a candidate for the party, and that decision may not be made until a few months before the next municipal election in fall of 2022, depending on how the board moves forward within its bylaws.

The NPA’s bylaws are not published or publicly available, but The Tyee has seen portions of them. They require any candidate to be approved in writing by the directors; the directors may appoint candidates, revoke approval of candidates and “in their discretion may fix the number of candidates running for office.”

Any director who wishes to be a candidate must resign three months before any meeting for the endorsement of candidates.

According to the bylaws, it is possible that any member of the current caucus could be effectively shut out and new candidates be approved. In addition, a section states that membership is approved by the directors, who determine the membership fees.

Coun. Rebecca Bligh was elected to council in October 2018 on the NPA slate but quit the party in December 2019 over concerns that one or more board members held anti-LGBTQ+ views. Now an independent, she said the photos of Isidorou flashing a white power symbol and supporting Trump further underscore her growing worry that there’s been a far-right “takeover” of the NPA that quietly continues.

She worries that voters have come to assume NPA candidates are moderate in their views, and could be fooled into voting for hard-right, socially conservative candidates if the party’s board drops them into the slate at the last minute.

“NPA voters need to know that it’s happening. And it’s a growing problem for that party and for the city,” Bligh said. “What’s happening with the board in the NPA poses a great risk to the party. And to Vancouver if NPA supporters do not engage sooner rather than later.”

The NPA has an “extremely reliable and loyal voter base” that is generally disengaged outside of the election year, Bligh said. The party was founded in 1937 to claim the centre-right and appeal to Vancouver’s business class under an ethos of fiscally-conservative, socially-progressive values.

“And what they know is that NPA voters will vote slate,” Bligh explained. “We could see a really difficult and toxic council form.”

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Vancouver Coun. Rebecca Bligh left the NPA over concerns about hard-right members of the party’s board and now sits as an independent. ‘We could see a really difficult and toxic council form,’ she says. Photo: Rebecca Bligh via Facebook.

The divide between the NPA board and its caucus — elected councillors and members of the park and school board — is deep and continues to widen.

Caucus members have distanced themselves from the board through public statements and created their own channels to communicate, as evidenced by their NPA caucus Twitter account and website. The first NPA caucus tweet denounced comments made by one board member and another one pushed back on anti-mask rhetoric, reported the Sun’s Fumano.

Bligh said the current caucus is in a “very difficult position.” Still, they need to be realistic about the intent of the board, she said. “It cannot be ignored. Silence is complicity for many issues.”

Isidorou was photographed wearing a Make America Great Again hat and showing the inflammatory gesture at a public protest against the opening of the Trump International Hotel and Tower Vancouver in February 2017. Trump’s sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, were at the nearby opening ceremony, which was boycotted by then-mayor Gregor Robertson and other politicians.

Trump had by then issued executive orders for a Muslim travel ban and for the construction of the wall at the Mexico-U.S. border.

The sign Isidorou flashes along with two other people whose faces are out of the frame is identical to a widely recognized white power signal. He forms a "w" with three fingers extended while the thumb and index finger form part of a "p." The uninitiated might mistake the gesture for the “OK” symbol, which white supremacists appropriated and display in the manner adopted by Isidorou.

The sign has become so identified with racist beliefs that it has been listed as a hate symbol by the Jewish Anti-Defamation League and was flashed by the suspected white supremacist who murdered 49 people at mosques in New Zealand when he appeared in court to face charges on March 15 of last year.

The Tyee asked Isidorou why he made the gesture and his reasons for wearing a MAGA hat at the 2017 event. He responded that he could not comment due to a non-disclosure agreement he signed when he was appointed to the NPA board late in 2020.

As the director of the University of British Columbia Free Speech Club, Isidorou came under fire for booking events featuring speakers espousing far-right, anti-immigration, anti-LGBTQ+ and, at times, openly racist views. He has described himself as a “socially liberal free speech activist.”

He worked as an organizer with the People’s Party of Canada led by anti-immigration hardliner Maxime Bernier, but in 2019 publicly denounced the populist party for moving, he said, too far right on social issues. The PPC was attracting people with “a racist bent” in B.C., he said upon quitting. Isidorou then rejoined the federal Conservatives.

Isidorou is a writer for the Post Millennial, an online publication geared to conservatives with a large amount of opinion content, much of it written by political operatives. He has been active almost daily on the site over the last three months.

Isidorou also hosts Post Millennial’s weekly podcast “Cancel This.”

Isidorou publicly denounced Trump in a tweet on Jan. 6, 2021, the day pro-Trump supporters, whipped up by baseless claims of a rigged election and many of them white supremacists, stormed the U.S. Capitol, hunting and threatening to capture and harm members of Congress.

Other current NPA board members are president David Mawhinney, treasurer Phyllis Tang, and directors Maxwell Manley, Robert Boyd, Federico Fuoco, Wesley Mussio, David Pasin, Ryan Warawa, Christopher Wilson and Wei Jie (Grant) Zhang, according to the NPA website.

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NPA director Christopher Wilson, when with Rebel Media, shared his hard-right views in videos, including one complaining of ‘white shaming’ on campus and one defending Trump’s response to the Charlottesville, Va. white nationalist rally, entitled ‘Why he’s right and the media is wrong.’

NPA board member Christopher Wilson is the former B.C. bureau chief for the right-wing outlet Rebel Media. He first made national headlines in late 2017, after calling then-federal environment minister Catherine McKenna the misogynistic nickname “Climate Barbie.”

During his time at Rebel, Wilson made YouTube videos stoking fears of possible “race wars” in South Africa, complaining about “white shaming” on university campuses and disparaging the left’s “hypocritical defence of Islam.” Wilson defended U.S. president Donald’s Trump's response to the Charlottesville, Va. white nationalist rally in a video entitled “Why he’s right and the media is wrong.”

Most recently, Wilson was mired in scandal after using his personal Facebook account to denigrate the city’s homeless and drug-using population, commenting “start harassing these low-lifes.” Wilson is listed as the head of the NPA’s fundraising committee, according to a release on its website.

Following the exchange with McKenna, Wilson deactivated his Twitter account. Following his comments on Vancouver’s homeless, Wilson scrubbed and deleted his Facebook account. The screenshots were shared by Scout Magazine contributor Sean Orr.

NPA councillors subsequently released a statement on Twitter which read, “We categorically denounce statements made by Mr. Wilson. They do not reflect the values of the NPA caucus.”

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NPA director David Pasin tweeted his support for the idea the US election may have been rigged as Trump and his followers made the claim.

On Nov. 7, four days after Americans went to the polls, NPA board member David Pasin echoed Trump by tweeting the election was rigged, suggesting votes “mysteriously appear.” It has since been deleted.

NPA treasurer Phyllis Tang, when she ran in 2018 for city councillor under the banner of the conservative municipal party Yes Vancouver, was endorsed by Let’s Vote Association, which states it is a pro-life, pro-family socially conservative organization, according to the Sun’s Fumano. Let’s Vote also endorsed Chilliwack trustee Barry Neufeld, whose comments slamming the province’s sexual orientation and gender identity school policies resulted in a human-rights complaint being filed against him by the BC Teachers’ Federation.

NPA board member Wes Mussio is an outspoken supporter of Trump, who has reportedly cheered on Vancouver’s anti-mask protesters and criticized B.C. health officials and politicians for their handling of the pandemic online. He was on the NPA board before joining the new, right-leaning party Coalition Vancouver in 2018. Now he’s back on the NPA board.

Mussio is also the lawyer representing a group of Vancouver voters seeking a court order to remove Green Coun. Michael Wiebe from office.

After Trump supporters invaded the Capitol and Twitter dumped Trump along with many extremists spreading baseless claims about election rigging, Mussio urged people to join Parler, an alternative to Twitter. Parler had become an online refuge for right-wing extremists because of its lax regulating of what could be said on the platform.

The Tyee asked Mussio whether he persisted in his support for Trump after the president’s lies about being robbed of an election win and his incitement of the Capitol insurrection, and why he was against wearing masks during the pandemic, which has been shown to slow spread of infection and save lives.

Mussio responded by email, saying that he does not speak for the party.

He said his endorsement of Parler after Jan. 6 was because he advocated for freedom of speech and small businesses who get suppressed by “Big Tech.”

“Up until it became known to me that Twitter was trying to wipe out its main competition in guise of some national emergency in the United States, I didn’t even know Parler existed,” he said, adding his tweet had nothing to do with Trump.

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NPA director Wes Mussio tweeting his urging that people switch to Parler, a platform favoured by the far right.

Mussio said that he supports peaceful protests and not the Capitol Building violence. “If it is true that Donald Trump caused or supported the actions of the illegal rioters, a matter for debate if one looks at all the evidence, I do not support that action.”

Mussio said his position on the board has nothing to do with his federal or provincial political views, adding that the NPA bylaws state the party attracts a range of members.

Mussio denied being an anti-masker and said he is in favour of the freedoms set out in the Charter. “While the media may like to paint this NPA board swing-to-the-right story, it is actually false and misleading. It is definitely untrue about me,” he said.

Some of the current makeup of NPA directors traces to the 2019 NPA annual general meeting, which saw a mostly new board elected. Six of the 10 directors then are no longer on the board. There was no 2020 meeting, and some current directors were appointed after other directors departed. Isidorou was among recent appointees. Mussio is also a recent addition.

Other high-profile NPA members who have left the party include longtime member and donor Peter Armstrong and former mayoral candidate Ken Sim, who narrowly lost to Mayor Kennedy Stewart in 2018. During that election, the NPA board blocked Hector Bremner, who won his seat on council during a byelection in 2017, from running for mayor for the party.

Sim plans to run for mayor in 2022 and is building a coalition of support, he said in a statement to The Tyee. “We need a new way forward, where sensible policies focused on making life better for everyone in this city can be discussed.”

Though there was a potential for new directors to be elected in the 2020 AGM, the meeting was said to be cancelled due to the pandemic, Bligh said. The board did not respond to requests for comment.

The province is allowing societies to seek an extension of their 2020 AGM to November 2021. It is unclear whether the next AGM is scheduled and if the board has communicated with NPA members.

Multiple requests to the NPA councillors, park board commissioners, school board trustees and president of the board David Mawhinney were met with no response.

Gordon Price is a former six-term councillor with the NPA and the first openly gay member of council, who served under then-mayor Gordon Campbell. He said there was a time when the NPA expected its board members to be bland and avoid controversy. Directors were there to raise money, pull in volunteers and keep things on simmer until the next election.

Price said he joined the NPA because of its core value of creating a tent in which the centre-left and the party’s right-leaning base could coalesce. Now, observing from the outside, Price said it seems the board might be “playing chess.”

He’ll be keeping a close eye out for next year’s election, to see how the right may split, who the mayoral candidate is, and what the incumbent councillors decide to do.

Former NPA mayor Sam Sullivan expressed little concern about extremist views espoused by the party’s board members.

The NPA comprises centre-left to right voters, he said. Historically, any extremes on either side have “cancelled each other out.” And right-wing board members have always nominated “very moderate to left-wing candidates.”

He claimed that Isidorou, now 24, was 19 when he made the white power symbol and wore the MAGA hat. “I don’t necessarily hold anything against people and the things they did when they were teenagers,” Sullivan said. In fact, according to the NPA, Isidorou was 20 at the time.*

He further noted that Isidorou had brought in a left-wing speaker in his role at Free Speech Club. “He’s an equal opportunist.”

Sullivan, who failed to be re-elected as a BC Liberal MLA in Vancouver-False Creek during the 2020 provincial election, fell under public scrutiny for promoting a group called Safer Vancouver, which lambasts harm reduction and has been criticized for demonizing homeless people.

Isidorou was seen in a photo with Sullivan on the campaign trail days before the provincial election. Sullivan said he only recalled Isidorou being at that specific event. It is unclear if Isidorou had any relationship with the campaign.

As for the future of the NPA, “Who cares who is on the board? That actually doesn’t matter,” Sullivan said of the party that was his home for 15 years as councillor and then mayor. “I’ve never seen any far-right candidates actually be put forward and they would immediately kill the NPA if that ever happened.”

But Mario Canseco, president of the polling firm Research Co., says Bligh and others are not wrong to raise concerns that a hard-right element within the power structure of Vancouver’s longest running municipal party could harness more moderate voters to their aims.

Voters in the municipal elections tend to be older and vote for slates, Canseco said, suggesting a lack of media coverage contributes to that behaviour given there is little name recognition.

He noted that through the city evolving, demographics may shift more influence to younger, centre-left voters. B.C.’s largest urban areas aren’t electing Conservatives at the federal level, and there is only one BC Liberal MLA in Victoria. This leaves a vacuum that could be occupied by a new brand of conservative, Canseco said.

“It’s a situation that is very similar to what we saw when Trump ran for president,” he explained about the NPA’s identity crisis. “As it started to snowball, it became more of a situation where the Republican Party became effectively Trump’s party.”

Canseco said it’s apparent that Republicans who were perhaps uncomfortable with Trump’s appeal to white supremacists nevertheless were not willing to vote Democrat.

In Vancouver’s next election, he said, there is a real possibility for people to say, “I’m just going to vote for the NPA without even realizing the past or present of the people who you’re voting for.”

* Story updated on Jan. 27 to reflect that, according to the NPA, Isidorou was 20 years old when the picture in question was taken.  [Tyee]

Read more: Municipal Politics

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