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
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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