Skeptics Harassed & Threatened with Violence @ Whole Life Expo for Alt Med by Organizers & Workers

November 29, 2010

On Sunday November 28 between 10:00 am and 1:00pm about 20 members of the Centre for Inquiry, the Skeptics North blog and the Association for Science and Reason attended the Whole Life Expo 2010, an Alternative Medicine fair, at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.  The following are the events that transpired. The photo of a Whole Life Expo worker who threatened violence against one of us is here.

Nearly as soon as Mitchell Gerskup, a Skeptics North blogger, entered the Expo, he was identified based on his photo having been seen on his blog by organizers of the Expo. An organizer of the event came over to warn him not to take photos because of a newly introduced policy that prohibited the use of recording equipment.  Mitchell complied.  In fact, Centre for Inquiry Multimedia Director Derek Pert, who had come with his video camera to record interviews, promptly left to return his equipment to his car.

Shortly after, an announcement was played warning the exhibitors that there were bloggers at the show from from the blog website “Skeptics North” all dressed in black.

Within 10 minutes I, Justin Trottier, had joined Mitchell.  We were then approached by Julia Woodford , the Expo Manager and a columnist with Vitality Magazine , to reiterate that we were not to take photos or slander anyone.  I asked her why it was necessary to threaten us again, when someone else had already done so. I explained that we were honouring their policy and this constituted intimidation. This led to a 45 minute exchange during which other Event organizers became embroiled.  It also led Woodford to pull on Mitchell’s jacket as she pointed out his camera (which was already visible without her touching him), to which I replied “Don’t touch him.”

At one point, one man, who would later end up making a violent threat against CFI member Michael Payton, came over to stand right in my face and ask me “who the hell I was.”  I handed him my business card but he didn’t take it, saying, oddly “I don’t care who you are” and walking off.  Much of our exchange with Woodford consisted of her accusations against our bloggers for slander and our responding that we were skeptics engaging in critical inquiry.

The rest of the morning proceeded relatively uneventfully, although for no apparent reason, a second announcement was later given over the PA system reminding exhibitors of the presence of skeptics and to “be diligent.”

Just before 1pm we decided to leave, so some of us exited the Expo and walked up to the second floor, which was outside the Expo grounds.  At this point, we believed that being outside the Expo grounds, the prohibition on taking photos was no longer enforceable, so we took a few shots.  Woodford saw this from below and told us to leave, calling the Metro Toronto Convention Centre security.

Before the security arrived and while we were packing up, the man who had asked me “who the hell I was” earlier, who had been handing out Expo literature at the door all morning and was carrying a walkie talkie, clearly identifying him as a worker with the event, approached CFI member Michael Payon.  During their conversation, the man asked Michael “Do you think it would be fucking funny if I punched you in the face?”  Upon hearing this remark, I asked him “Did you just threaten to punch him in the face?”  The man responded “I never said that.” and started walking off as the security approached.  The photo of this man is included on this page.

When security arrived, they asked us to leave. We responded that we would do so, but we would also ask that they follow up on the matter of the threat of violence.  The security was totally dismissive; we were told by security guards and the Metro Toronto Convention Centre Event Manager Sasha Saldanha “That’s your problem.” and “You deal with that.” and “We didn’t see anything”. During the conversation, security guards were mumbling under their breath, laughing at us and acting in a wholly unprofessional and demeaning manner.  They clearly didn’t take the threat of violence nearly as seriously as the concern with our taking photos, perhaps because the latter threatened the building’s future business relationship with the Whole Life Expo.  Since the Whole Life Expo worker in question had intimidated me earlier and had followed us to the second floor and outside the Expo grounds where he made his threat of violence against Michael Payton, we were legitimately worried he would follow us after we left the building, and feared for our safety.

The Event Manager of the Metro Convention Centre Sasha Saldanha finally indicated she would speak with the man who threatened violence and, although that seemed unlikely, we left.  One security guard followed us out of the Centre and along the overpass, leaving us only when we were about to enter the walkway directly connected to Union Station.  We then consulted with our legal advisers and immediately filed a police report. The police informed us they would open an investigation and see about charging the suspect.

It should be noted that members of Skeptics North attended the Whole Life Expo in 2009 and there were no such incidents, nor was there a policy against recording devices. In 2010 myself and Michael Payton attended a similar convention, the Total Health Show in March 2010, in the same venue. We engaged in interviews and conversations and published an editorial in the National Post. At no time were we at these past events, or at the Expo this weekend, attempting to to create trouble.  As the National Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry, an influential and respected educational charity, I seek to engage in reasoned and productive dialogue, as do the friends and colleagues who accompanied me to this event.  Yet we were immediately targets of intimidation, harassment and ultimately a threat of violence by Organizers and workers with the Whole Life Expo, simply for being skeptics.

If you should feel inclined to respond to this mater, Julia Woodford is a columnist with Vitality Magazine, which can be reached at (416) 964-0528.  Here is Vitality’s full contact info

Vitality Magazine
 356 Dupont Street
, Toronto, Ontario
 Canada M5R 1V9
To inquire further by phone, call (416) 964-0528.
For Classifieds, Service Directory, and Calendar of Events listings inquiries
For Display Advertising and Administrative inquiries
For Editorial inquiries 
For Circulation inquiries

We’ll be lodging a formal complaint with the building owners and if Security was negligent in their duties, consulting with our legal advisors to see what our options are.  Feel free to contact Metro Toronto Convention Centre Event Manager Sasha Saldanha to express your concern with how they handled the threat of violence in their building

Metro Toronto Convention Centre
255 Front St. W. Toronto, ON M5V 2W6
Event Manager:  Ms. Sasha Saldanha
Tel: 416-585-8313
Fax: 416-585-8224


#1 Dorothy Hays (Guest) on Monday November 29, 2010 at 5:56pm

That was terrible,  not to be able to stay at a public place and after being threatened for security to act in such an unprofessional way.  I would keep the audio in as it gives whoever is reading this a truer picture.  Unbelievable.


#2 C.W. (Guest) on Monday November 29, 2010 at 6:10pm

... Why would you continue to take pictures/audiotape after you were asked to stop? There was obviously blatant disrespect on both ends of the spectrum. Stop making it so one sided.

#3 Pierre Thibault (Guest) on Monday November 29, 2010 at 7:56pm

Well, it is good to know that CFI is big enough to have a legal adviser. Imagine if CFI was a very small organization, it would be intimidating to ask for justice. Do you think it could be related to the G20? In the G20 a lot of people were treated with violence and their rights were deny. My interpretation of this is that Canada, like other countries, is preparing to cut a lot of social services. Since this will generate protests a lot of anger in the population, they are prepare to react with violence. I think a lot more fascism is expressed by the state world wide and the first target is people expressing and thinking by themselves. Or may be, it has nothing to do with that.

#4 Esattezza (Guest) on Monday November 29, 2010 at 9:04pm

“there are people here who will ask real questions instead of just agreeing with anything you say - be diligent!”

#5 Justin B. Trottier on Monday November 29, 2010 at 9:50pm

We audio-taped after we had left the Expo when security approached and we wanted a record of our interaction with them, which it turns out was good thinking.  There was no policy with respect to taping in the Convention Centre outside the Expo.  Anyway, I think maybe things should be put into perspective. Even if both sides were guilty of some amount of disrespect (which I don’t feel is the case), we were harassed, followed outside the Expo and threatened to be punched.  Even if we had manipulated their policy on recording - which we didn’t - does that justify that kind of behaviour on their part?

#6 Dorothy Hays (Guest) on Monday November 29, 2010 at 10:10pm

Well, it seems funny that they would say no cameras when anyone can just use their cell phone and take pictures without anyone noticing.  What’s with not taking pictures anyway?  Are they afraid that someone will expose something about altmed?  If they have nothing to hide, what wld be the big deal about anyone taking pictures in the first place?  It’s not like they’re a military zone.


#7 Pierre Thibault (Guest) on Monday November 29, 2010 at 10:58pm

Well Dorothy, since September 11, some people are getting a bit crazy. Like in the school I was, it was to permitted to take pictures in school because these pictures can be used to plan a terrorist attack.

#8 Pierre Thibault (Guest) on Monday November 29, 2010 at 10:59pm

I mean not permitted to take pictures…

#9 Dorothy Hays (Guest) on Tuesday November 30, 2010 at 7:26am

I think we’re going too far with this terrorist attack fear.  I mean we have to be diligent but too much fear is not a good thing either.  The fact of this whole matter is the way in which it was carried out.  No need for being “potty mouth” about it and security should have been more professional.

#10 Stephen MacDougall (Guest) on Tuesday November 30, 2010 at 10:17am

Was it just CFI / Skeptic North bloggers who were not allowed to take photos and video, or was it for everyone in attendance? Did you see others freely taking pictures? Sounds like a discrimination issue if this is the case.

#11 Dianne Sousa (Guest) on Tuesday November 30, 2010 at 11:41am

I was one of the skeptics that attended the Whole Life Expo. The ad hoc signage that was present at the entrance to the exposition hall (and not in the lower main entrance area where tickets were purchased) did not specifically name anyone as being the target of the policy. However, as soon as we entered, some of us were recognized and staff physically brought the signage over to ensure that it was aknowledged. Given that the policy was not in place last year, and photgraphic evidence was produced from last year that contradicted statements made by Julia Woodford this year, it is reasonable to suggest that they wanted to prevent such occurences in the future.

Anyone interested in the context can read the comment thread here:

#12 TA (Guest) on Tuesday November 30, 2010 at 6:03pm

It seems to me CFI is running off the rails, instead of applying effort to fundraising, large sensational media and going after important issues like religion in government or census representation that affect everyone, we are taking on hippies and flakes at the whole life show, pretty pathetic really, immature is another word that comes to mind, after seeing the altercation and the ensuing over blogging of it I wonder what CFI really stands for…..

The 10.00 per hour, uneducated security guard was wrong to utter a threat of violence however “life being in danger”, pretty sad. If you really wanted to take on hippies and new agers, you should have organized yourselves, gotten permission to film and filmed something interesting instead of wasting your time arguing with the hired help…got you no where but boy the egg on your face…you just set atheists back 10 year with that silly BS!

#13 AG (Guest) on Wednesday December 01, 2010 at 11:59am

TA do their actions set atheists back 10 years?  What does atheism have to do with a bunch of skeptics going to a woo expo to see what is being peddled?

What is sad is that the people running the expo don’t have enough confidence in the stuff they promote to allow a little debate.  If they truly believed it would stand up to scrutiny, they would have had no issue with anyone taking pictures at the expo.

#14 Dorothy Hays (Guest) on Wednesday December 01, 2010 at 3:04pm

Right on.  Atheism had nothing to do with it.  It did not set Atheism back 10 years at all.  It was Skeptics and if alt med were legit they wld welcome debate.  They know it is BS therefore they become very defensive…something like the religious.

#15 TA (Guest) on Wednesday December 01, 2010 at 3:10pm

AG, okay maybe skeptics then not atheists however Justin runs CFI and is also representing the atheist movement we expect a more professional approach from him.

The whole story does not add up, I heard the audio from the visit, it was like listening to children in a school yard. I don’t think the Whole Life Expo has issue with a little scrutiny, it was the approach that caused the blowout.

Right from the start Justin was hostile towards the promoter, there was no prior request for media passes and then outrage on the part of the skeptics that they were not allowed to film….it is common knowledge that you cannot just show up at a public venue like this and start filming.

If you are all truly skeptics then you should find out the other side of the story and present both sides…from what I heard it was very one sided and also very arrogant. Skepticism does not require bullying. This stunt makes the skeptic movement look like a bunch of petulant children.

#16 TA (Guest) on Wednesday December 01, 2010 at 3:17pm

One more thing, I notice the audio of the altercation which was initially listed twice on this blog has now been removed…why is the skeptic have something to hide?

#17 Dorothy Hays (Guest) on Wednesday December 01, 2010 at 4:09pm

Talk about things getting childish.  I know Justin and he is a very professional and caring person.  He keeps his cool, whether being interviewed by a religious person or any person and I say that he was very polite during this whole episode.  He never even raised his voice. I have often wondered when watching him on TV and being taunted by an interviewer how he can remain so calm and give such detailed and clear answers.  He is truly a great person for CFI and he has taken this organization to great heights.  No one else would ever likely devote so much time and energy to it.

#18 Rebekah (Guest) on Wednesday December 01, 2010 at 5:44pm

The audio of the event can be found here:

#19 Rebekah on Wednesday December 01, 2010 at 5:48pm

Try this again:

#20 pf (Guest) on Wednesday December 01, 2010 at 7:46pm

Dorothy - you obviously don’t spend much time at CFI.

#21 Renshia (Guest) on Wednesday December 01, 2010 at 9:10pm

I agree. It does sound like there was a lot of provoking on the part of the victims. What is this running to a lawyer thing all about? You would almost think this is yanky land acting that way. So the guy used a little intimidation, you were obviously being a pain in the ass. He didn’t actually hit you did he? By the sounds of it he just didn’t want you harassing his vendors. or making a mockery of it. Can you really blaim the guys for protecting their woo? Blowing things out of proportion only makes us looks like asses. I hope cfi donations are not being spent on crap like this. It will end my membership.

#22 pf (Guest) on Saturday December 04, 2010 at 8:50am

Maybe CFI has a lot of money and doesn’t care about looking unprofessional- won’t be getting my money.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.