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Misleading election robocalls lead to questions about funding for third-party advertisers

On election day, the CBC published the news that Elections Canada received reports of misleading robocalls made to voters suggesting voting was taking place on Tuesday – the day after election day.

“There have been some reports of people receiving misleading robocalls in Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick,” said Elections Canada spokesperson Nathalie de Montigny.

CBC News traced some of the calls to groups that are part of the Canada Strong and Proud network, a third-party group that opposes carbon taxes. New Brunswick Proud was also identified as a source of misleading phone calls.

When contacted by CBC News, a Canada Strong and Proud spokesperson said the robocalls were made in error by a contractor and that each person had been contacted again and was given the correct information. According to CTV News, the misinformation was also spread on Facebook “where a number of posts targeted supporters of the Liberal, Bloc, NDP and Green parties, telling them that voting had been moved to Tuesday and Wednesday.”

It is not clear how many people received misleading phone calls in different provinces. It is against Elections Canada law for anyone to “wilfully misdirect electors in order to prevent them from voting.”

While the groups are claiming these phone calls were unintentional errors – a claim that still merits further investigation – the actions raise questions about how these groups are funded and money that is funneled by third-party advertisers.

In October, the CBC revealed that the Manning Centre, a right-wing think tank headed by Preston Manning, paid more than $300,000 to “a network of related third-party advertising groups that operate on Facebook and Instagram.” The groups, which included Canada Strong and Proud, Quebec Fier, Newfoundland and Labrador Proud, Nova Scotia Proud and others, pumped out anti-Liberal Facebook ads and memes and provided pro-oil industry messages.

Documents filed with Elections Canada show the bulk of the money the Manning Centre doled out – more than $240,000 – went to Canada Strong and Proud.

The Corporate Mapping Project sheds some light on the Manning Centre’s financial structure. “Operating as a non-profit organization, the Manning Centre solicits donations from those interested in supporting its brand of conservatism. Its 2016 annual report states: ‘The Manning Centre can legally accept unlimited donations and use the funds to support free-market ideas, train like-minded activists and conduct research. With your help, we can start to compete with well-financed left-wing organizations in Canada!’”

There is no information available on the Manning Centre’s website regarding its funding sources.

In mid-October, the Globe and Mail reported that the funding source (or sources) of the Manning Centre’s donations to those groups will remain hidden from public view. The Calgary-based conservative think tank, which has not registered as a third party with Elections Canada, does not intend to disclose them – and isn’t required to.

Elections Canada says there is nothing in the law to prevent outside groups from raising money and then passing those donations along to third-party advertisers. However it does raise the question of whether or not Canadians should have a right to know who is behind election advertising, and what they are doing, including these new waves of robocalls and robotexts.

Not the first instance of robocalls

This was not the first instance of misleading robocalls in an election. In the leadup to the 2011 federal election, reports came in from across the country of voters receiving phone calls telling them their polling location had moved. The phone calls were targeted and blatantly misleading.

The Council of Canadians did not let this affront to democracy go unchallenged. In March 2012, the Council invited Canadians to share their experiences of dirty tricks during the election and to learn their legal rights. People responded with stories of fraud, harassment, and other voter suppression techniques in ridings across the country. This led to a historic court case in the Federal Court of Canada where these voter suppression techniques in ridings across the country were revealed.

The 2013 Federal Court ruling clearly states that “there was an orchestrated effort to suppress votes during the 2011 election campaign by a person with access to the [Conservative Party’s] CIMS database.”

Review needed

The Council of Canadians believes that the actions of third parties in Canadian elections – particularly actions that involve the delivery of misleading information and undocumented sources – must be reviewed.

Our democracy is at risk.