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Close-quarters protest and gay pop anthems greet attendees of controversial conference

We Unify spokesperson Karla Treadway denied allegations that the conference is spreading misinformation and said that it is focused on telling the “full story” of issues that aren’t being fully discussed, such as the economy, health and “unbridled immigration.”

A noisy protest greeted Reclaiming Canada conference-goers on Saturday after a failed attempt to get the event booted from a city-owned facility.

About 80 protesters with 1 Million Voices for Inclusion, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, showed up with flags and signs in support of queer rights and a loudspeaker blaring gay pop anthems in front of the Victoria Conference Centre on Douglas Street.

As attendees were checked in by security at the side doors, some protesters moved onto the property to heckle those in line.

Police were on site to maintain order and asked protesters to return to Douglas Street after about 25 minutes of close-­quarters protest.

1 Million Voices for Inclusion spokesperson Monique May said there should be no room for hatred in Victoria. The group had said that several conference speakers “have a history of spouting hateful rhetoric that dehumanizes transgender people” and asked the city-owned conference centre to not host the event.

The Reclaiming Canada, organized by We Unify, is featuring speakers such as Freedom Convoy organizers Tamara Lich and Chris Barber, reality television’s Dr. Drew Pinsky, and former Newfoundland and Labrador premier Brian Peckford, who sued the ­federal government over its COVID-19 vaccine requirement for air travel.

We Unify spokesperson Karla Treadway denied allegations that the conference is spreading misinformation and said that it is focused on telling the “full story” of issues that aren’t being fully discussed, such as the economy, health and “unbridled immigration.”

“What’s funny is that nobody is talking about gender,” she said, but added that it’s not guaranteed that the topic won’t come up.

Everyone is welcome at the non-partisan event, which about 500 people are attending, she said. “We don’t have any politicians this year speaking.”

Tickets start at $45, going to $100 for single-day access and up to $690 for “Full VIP Access.”

B.C. Conservative Leader John Rustad was a speaker at last year’s Reclaiming Canada conference, which also featured as speakers Anna Kindy, the B.C. Conservative candidate for North Island, and Stephen Malthouse, who was recently dropped as the Ladysmith-Oceanside B.C. Conservative candidate.

The Conservatives say they no longer participate in the conference, which has drawn criticism from rival parties and LGBT groups.

B.C. Conservative executive director Angelo Isidorou was blunt on the party’s connections to Reclaiming Canada in response to questions from the Times Colonist.

“Our leader and party are not participating in this event and have nothing to do with it,” he said in an email.

However, John Koury, B.C. Conservative candidate for the Cowichan Valley and former two-time North Cowichan councillor, was spotted in the Reclaiming Canada conference’s VIP lunch room filling up a plate of salad on Saturday afternoon. Koury, who confirmed his identity to the Times Colonist, declined to speak about his attendance.

Isidorou did not immediately respond to a follow-up question about Koury’s attendance.

NDP Victoria-Beacon Hill MLA Grace Lore said Koury’s attendance indicates that the B.C. Conservatives have chosen candidates “interested in divisive politics.”

Lore, who attended the protest, said it was important to show up because “people in my community deserve to be who they are.”

“By [Koury] being present today at this conference, they’re showing us that what matters to them is being present with folks who are spreading disinformation, who are anti-vaxx, who are anti-LGTBQ+,” she said.

Conference speaker and Victoria lawyer Umar Sheikh said while the past two conferences heavily featured discussions around COVID-19, this year’s topics focus more on censorship and free speech. He said he’s not sure why there’s a one-sided “narrative of hate” around the conference. “I don’t expect any of that to go on. I don’t expect discrimination against any group,” he said, though Sheikh added that he wasn’t familiar with all 22 speakers.

Most of Saturday’s pre-lunch speakers were focused on health and science. Pinsky levied criticisms against the media and public health.

Others questioned the usefulness of vaccines.

Dr. Peter McCullough — called one of the best-known faces of COVID-19 misinformation by McGill University’s Office for Science and Society — encouraged attendees to raise their concerns to nurses and doctors.

Conference speaker Bryce Wade, who spoke on how he thinks an upcoming federal law addressing online harms will criminalize free speech, told the Times Colonist unprompted that he is against sexual orientation and gender identity, or SOGI, discussions in schools. “In any context other than this one, it is highly discouraged that any adult talks to kids about sex, ever,” he said. “When I’m supposed to be learning math and how to talk to people and figuring out stuff, why is sexuality part of the conversation at all?”

Wade said the implementation of the legal marijuana industry in Canada was “literal Communism” because the government has a monopoly on buying and reselling product between producers and dispensaries.

B.C. United Kamloops-North Thompson MLA Peter Milobar said while conference organizers have a right to host the event — “as objectionable as I might find their opinions” — it’s important for voters to know what events their political parties are endorsing.

Rustad should provide a clear answer to his stance on a conference with speakers who have previously expressed racist, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, and antisemitic views, he said. “Where exactly does the Conservative party stand if they have candidates at this, let alone a VIP event?”

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