thumb-2024-04-012-ottawa-food-book-expo This article is more than 1 month old

Angry Vendors Say They Were Deceived By Ottawa Book Festival Featuring Far-Right Convoy Speakers

Vendors say they lost thousands of dollars after a confusing and chaotic book festival was misrepresented to them

Vendors involved with the Ottawa International Food and Book Expo thought they were signing up for a weekend of gourmet food and international writers.

Instead, they got an event that looked more like a People’s Party of Canada bazaar.

Ryan Arecchi, who runs a local oyster catering bar called Off The Hook, thought he was renting space at an “upscale international food festival” featuring “good literature” and “the best restaurants in the city” — $500 for a stall sounded like a bargain given the organizer told him “10,000 people” were coming.

“It was definitely a shock, we went into this thinking one thing and it was something completely different,” Arecchi told PressProgress, adding he assumed it would be set-up like a farmer’s market or food show.

“I was not told this would be a shared space with a whole bunch of tiny events happening off to the side, I didn’t know about political debates or slow dating,” Arecchi said. He was also surprised to find “people selling stuffed animals and light fixtures” in neighbouring stalls.

Arecchi estimates he’s out $2,000 and $500 worth of oysters went to waste thanks to the confusing, chaotic and sparsely attended book festival.

Several other vendors at the book festival say they also wasted their time and money and feel duped — they had no idea they were getting involved in a festival that featured far-right speakers, new age spirituality gurus, conspiracy theorists, obscure cults or intergenerational dating events for “cougars.”

Maxime Bernier, True North’s Andrew Lawton and No More Lockdown’s Randy Hillier (Sources: Ottawa Star, YouTube; Randy Hillier, YouTube)

The event got off on the wrong foot after Community Solidarity Ottawa issued a community alert about the event promoting panels featuring several far-right speakers linked to the 2022 Freedom Convoy, including Randy Hillier, Tom Quiggin, Maxime Bernier and True North’s Andrew Lawton.

Things went from bad to worse after PressProgress reported some organizations listed as event sponsors denied being sponsors, some people listed as festival employees didn’t exist, plus the man behind the whole event, Ray Samuels, was a far-right People’s Party activist and a prolific UFO conspiracy theorist.

Before the end of the first day, Tourism Ottawa, the Embassy of Mexico, an upstate New York PBS affiliate and former Much Music VJ Bill Welychka – who was the emcee of the event – had all publicly cut ties with the festival.

The Ottawa International Writers Festival also issued a statement clarifying it has no connection with the Ottawa International Food and Book Expo after learning the latter purchased a website URL with the writers festival’s name.

Most vendors who spoke to PressProgress acknowledged they should have done more to research the festival before signing up, but many noted the event’s website featured logos of trusted organizations and also seemed to be sanctioned by the City of Ottawa.

The first red flag for some was when they showed up at the Horticulture Building at Lansdowne Park and found things completely disorganized with confused vendors and no staff on site.

“When we showed up in the morning, the only people we encountered were City of Ottawa employees,” one food vendor recalled. “The guy’s like ‘here’s a map of where the tables are’ but it was a blank map.”

Through the morning, the vendor said they recognized “no one in attendance save for Maxime Bernier.”

Multiple food vendors were later surprised when festival attendees approached their stalls with free food coupons, something the event organizer never informed them about. One vendor, who estimates they lost over a thousand dollars at the event, said an attendee came to their stall and showed them a QR code on their phone that entitled them to free food.

“He said he had bought the food voucher online,” the vendor told PressProgress. “He’s like, ‘I have this voucher for $15’ and I said, ‘well, I don’t have any way to charge that’.”

Arecchi, who only sold $16 worth of oysters all weekend, said the same thing happened to him: “I did look at Eventbrite after the fact and they were selling my food for more than I was even selling it.”

Scientology booth at Ottawa Food and Book Expo (Luke LeBrun, PressProgress)

Melisa Ruscsak, an American book publisher who drove eight hours from Ohio to attend what she thought was going to be the “second biggest book fair in the world,” said the whole thing was “just weird.”

“Nothing that they had going on there made any sense,” Ruscsak told PressProgress. “It was an event without an identity,”

“It’s like all the vendors were paying to have these political people do a debate and it was two days of that.”

One of those political panels spiralled out-of-control after an anti-lockdown activist heckled Senator Kim Pate, a local People’s Party candidate hijacked a microphone to promote her anti-vaccine book and Maxime Bernier physically restrained the moderator while shouting about “freedom of speech.”

Toronto dating coach Terran Shea, one of the experts on another panel discussion about dating in the 2020s, said she was “a bit horrified” by the festival and felt the organizers “misrepresented” the event to her.

“We had some people come by our booth with some pretty extreme views,” Shea told PressProgress. “I started to suspect something was off.”

“We also got complaints from singles while there about how poorly run the events were, and they felt like they wasted their money. A couple of them described it as ‘shady’.”

Aside from legitimate food vendors and others drawn to the event under misleading pretenses, some vendors distributed what could better be described as conspiratorial propaganda or religious pamphlets rather than “good literature.”

Those vendors included anti-vaxxers, new age spiritual gurus and cults. One vendor offered books from Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard along with a complimentary “stress test,” while another sold a self-published book detailing alternative health theories about cancer and other medical conditions.

German New Medicine alternative health booth at Ottawa Food and Book Expo (Luke LeBrun, PressProgress)

One table featured books pushing anti-vaccine propaganda and another book authored by a local People’s Party candidate accusing Dr. David Fisman, a former member of Ontario’s COVID-19 science table, of being a “fraud.”

Another vendor, the Geophilosophical Association of Anthropological and Cultural Studies, was founded by an obscure 1970s new age spiritual leader and displayed several books authored by its founder who has written extensively about “sexual alchemy” and has prophesied the end of the world.

Across the aisle, the Grail Message Foundation denied it is a religion and likened itself to a book club devoted to promoting the messianic writings of a man who refers to himself as “Servant of the Light.” They predict that a “great comet,” described as a second “Star of Bethlehem,” is coming to destroy human civilization and purify the planet, leading to an age of everlasting “spiritual enlightenment.”

Anti-vaccine activist booth at Ottawa Food and Book Expo (Luke LeBrun, PressProgress)

Vendors also became increasingly confused by the behaviour of the event organizer, Ray Samuels.

A group of “single vegans” who paid to attend a dating event facilitated by Samuels “basically stood around” in the back of the room, Shea recalled. “One of them told me he took them out for a walk or tour.”

Ruscsak said she observed Samuels in “four different altercations with different people.”

Other vendors recalled Samuels allowing people to enter without paying for tickets despite others having been charged $40. Another said he gave an attendee $15 out of his pocket after they complained it was not possible to redeem their free food coupon.

After vendors became aware of online criticism about the event, Samuels blamed a disgruntled volunteer for Community Solidarity Ottawa’s “alert,” falsely claiming the public warning was payback because he refused to pay them.

However, emails obtained by PressProgress show Samuels actually did offer people money in writing for their help. One email shows Samuel offering commissions of $50 per vendor or $250 per sponsor recruited to the event.

Many people who got roped into the event say they were just looking to promote a new business. One person involved behind the scenes, a woman from the South Asian community who works as a translator in Québec, alleges Samuels convinced her to recruit her contacts from local multicultural communities and provided an email showing he offered to compensate her for finding vendors and sponsors.

She alleges vendors, performers and children she recruited from multicultural communities pulled out after Samuels began promoting a “cannabis slow dating event” at the book festival that featured a photo of a woman hitting a bong.

“They advertised in lots of Facebook groups this cannabis dating event,” she said. “No parent will take their children to a cannabis event.”

Ottawa Food and Book Expo cannabis slow dating ad (John Stokes, Facebook)

Le Boudoir, a local francophone burlesque troupe, also cancelled a scheduled performance after learning of the presence of far-right speakers and discovering Samuels had used professional photos they sent him to help promote their book festival performance for unrelated singles dating events.

“I discovered that they had used my photos to promote dating events which seriously compromised our reputation,” said Miss Saphir, who also runs Le Boudoir as a dance school. “This unauthorized use of our images, particularly a very suggestive photo of us in our underwear, is humiliating and degrading.”

“We agreed to dance for a literary event, not to be exploited in inappropriate contexts.”

Le Boudoir shared emails with PressProgress showing they communicated with the book festival’s “volunteer coordinator” Peter Tremblay.

One email shows the confused burlesque performer asking whether she is speaking with Ray Samuels — “No, I’m Peter,” Tremblay responds.

Tremblay, who is one of three named employees listed on the Ottawa Food and Book Expo’s website, is listed as an author of several books about COVID-19 conspiracies, interdimensional extraterrestrials and the Canadian Football League advertised by Samuels’ book publishing company.

According to the blurb on Tremblay’s books, he is a “veteran investigative journalist” who has worked for former cabinet minister turned UFO activist Paul Hellyer.

No photos of the author exist publicly, however, a photo attached to Tremblay’s email account appears to be a stock photo image that also appears on blogs about studies on the facial traits of CEOs as well as an “average white male” meme generator.

Peter Tremblay (Gmail, ImageFlip, BLOG)

As PressProgress previously reported, the Ottawa Food and Book Expo’s head of sponsorships, John Stokes, also uses a stock photo from the website

Stokes’ name is listed as an author on a UFO blog run by Ray Samuels. One recent article authored by Stokes claimed that a Nazi-alien alliance was responsible for acts of arson at a Kellogg’s cereal factory.

Sources: LinkedIn, Facebook, Pexels

Neither Peter Tremblay nor John Stokes responded to questions from PressProgress as to why they use stock photos for business communications or if they are simply fake accounts operated by Ray Samuels.

In a statement to PressProgress, Samuels did not dispute any of the allegations or criticisms about the book festival raised by vendors or others but instead issued a variety of legal threats about the publication of this article.

Last month, Samuels gave a presentation to Charlottetown City Council as the head of a “consortium” looking to build a 25,000 seat football stadium to bring a CFL expansion team to Prince Edward Island, despite Samuels having no discernible connection to PEI.

Samuels’ plan was endorsed in principle by Charlottetown’s Chamber of Commerce. One city councillor has proposed a trial game to test support for Samuels’ idea.


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Luke LeBrun
Luke LeBrun is the Editor of PressProgress. His reporting focuses on the federal political scene, right-wing politics as well as issues in technology, media and culture.

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