OTTAWA -- The third-party advertising group behind billboards promoting Maxime Bernier and his stance on immigration is now distancing itself from the message, saying it never signed off on the controversial campaign.

"We completely disavow any sympathy with or support for the views expressed by donors who paid for and selected the content of their advertising, which we were mistakenly not afforded an opportunity to first approve," Frank Smeenk, the head of True North Strong & Free Advertising Corp., wrote in an email to The Canadian Press on Monday.

The billboards, which feature pre-election advertising with Bernier's face, the logo of his People's Party of Canada and a slogan advocating against "mass immigration," started appearing in different spots across the country late last week.

They quickly sparked an outpouring of criticism, including from Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and federal Tourism Minister Melanie Joly, for promoting anti-immigrant rhetoric.

On Sunday, Pattison Outdoor Advertising, which owns the billboards, said the ads would come down in response to the criticism.

"It was never my or Pattison Outdoor's intention to offend, alienate or in any way insult the public by allowing this ad to run," president Randy Otto wrote, adding the company would review its advocacy guidelines.

Earlier that day, the company had said that if anyone took issue with the content, they should contact the third-party group running them.

But now Smeenk is saying he also takes issue with the content, and that his company was meant to just be the messenger.

"The True North Strong & Free Advertising Corp. was created as a vehicle to help third-party activists promote their views prior to the upcoming election with the intention that this would be welcomed as an innovative way to participate in our democratic process," wrote Smeenk.

Elections Canada does not ask registered third parties to declare their political leanings or otherwise explain their reason for being.

But Elections Canada does require all third-party partisan advertising to include a clearly visible tagline identifying the group behind it and indicating that group has authorized the ad. Photos of the billboards show this tagline was included.

According to interim financial returns the group filed with Elections Canada, True North Strong & Free Advertising spent $59,890 on billboards to be mounted in "select cities in Canada."

It also received $60,000 from Toronto-based Bassett & Walker International Inc., a company that specializes in the international trade of protein products.

Bassett & Walker, which also has offices in the United States, Australia, China and Chile, has not responded to requests for comment.

Smeenk, chief executive of a Toronto-based mining exploration company, did not respond to follow-up questions Monday.

The People's Party of Canada did not place the ads, but Bernier said at his national campaign launch Sunday that he agrees with the message.

On Monday, the Quebec MP said the decision to take the billboards down amounted to censorship.

"The message on the billboard is not 'controversial' for two-thirds of Canadians who agree with it, and for those who disagree but support free speech and an open discussion," Bernier wrote on Twitter.

"It's only controversial for the totalitarian leftist mob who want to censor it."

Johanne Mennie, the party's executive director, said Bernier already said what he had to say in the tweets.

Bernier has said the 350,000 immigrants Canada accepts every year is too high a number.

His party platform says it inflates housing prices and that other political parties to use "mass immigration" as a tool to buy votes from immigrant communities.

-- With files from Christian Paas-Lang