Police were forced to intervene as chanting protesters delayed the start of a Toronto debate featuring Steve Bannon, the former strategist who helped Donald Trump win the White House.
Video posted on social media showed officers outside the downtown venue using batons to hold back the crowd, and police tweeted that there had been “a number of arrests.”
Debate organizers explained the roughly half-hour delay by saying they anticipated protests and wanted to ensure everyone is safe.
Bannon has now been introduced as he defends political populism against conservative commentator David Frum.
Critics, who accuse Bannon of being a white supremacist, wanted the debate scrapped.
While the 90-minute event at a downtown auditorium was sold out, the theatre was barely half full at the scheduled start time.
To ensure the debate went ahead, albeit late, members of the public were seated even after it began.
Protesters, some holding signs deploring racism, yelled “Shame on you!” and “Nazi!” as people tried to get in, reducing one woman on her way into the debate to tears.
“We are going to work diligently as a group to make sure this is a safe evening,” said Rudyard Griffiths, the chairman and moderator of the debate. “That is going to require us to wait a little bit.”
The debate was slated to play out just ahead of the fiercely contested midterm congressional elections in the United States on Nov. 6. Organizers said about 2,700 people paid to attend, while several thousand more watched via livestream.
The proposition the two men were set to debate, with Bannon in favour and Frum opposed, was: “The future of western politics is populist, not liberal.”
Bannon, 64, former executive chairman of right-wing Breitbart News, helped Trump win the 2016 presidential election and was White House chief strategist for eight months until August 2017. The relationship soured after the president suggested Bannon had “lost his mind” for reportedly branding Trump’s son “treasonous” and “unpatriotic.” Bannon later walked back his comments but left his post at Breitbart in January.
Some critics have branded him as a racist and anti-Semite, epithets he has rejected.
Friday’s event — part of the decade-old Munk Debates — was announced just days after Bannon was dropped from the speakers list at this month’s New Yorker Festival after an intense backlash and threats of a boycott by other guests. Critics in Canada also opposed allowing him to air his views on the grounds that he fuels hatred against disadvantaged groups.
Despite the blow-back, Griffiths stressed what he called the importance of allowing vigorous discussion of hot topics to allow the public to make up its own mind.
“Civil and substantive public debate of the big issues of our time helps all of us better understand the challenges we face as a society and what, if anything, can be done to resolve them,” Griffiths said.
Frum, 58, a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine, is a former speechwriter for ex-U.S. president George W. Bush. The Canadian-American is also the author of the recent book “Trumpocracy,” which sharply criticizes the current American president as a threat to democracy itself.
“We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered,” Frum wrote.
Organizers said audience members each paid up to $100 to attend the debate although some resellers were asking several times the value on Friday. Aurea, the charitable foundation behind the event, says it supports public-policy organizations that, among other concepts, advance free markets and the protection of democratic values.
Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press