For most Canadians, organized electoral fraud seemed to emerge with the 2011 election with the robocall scandal.

But that was actually the second election in which these tactics were employed. The successful test-drive took place three years earlier.

Here’s the story of what happened in the Saanich-Gulf Islands (SGI) riding in 2008, based on a stunning new documentary by veteran journalist and filmmaker Peter Smoczynski.

Called “Election Day in Canada: the rise of voter suppression,” the documentary — currently in its final stages of production — lays out the entire sordid episode, and its better-known aftermath, in painfully clear detail.

Where it all began, on Canada’s West Coast

Return with me to September, 2008.

Stephen Harper’s minority government – the smallest minority in Canadian history, with 40.6 of seats, is under the gun. It has already hung in longer than any Conservative minority government in Canada’s history. But as public opposition to its tactics grew, it becomes clear to party strategists that they had best not wait for the scheduled election in 2009, even though the Conservatives themselves have passed the law that put that date in place.

September polls show that there has just been a small burst of support for the Conservative Party, and Harper senses that the new Liberal Leader, Stephane Dion, will be vulnerable in a hard-hitting campaign.

So on September 7, the Prime Minister goes to the Governor-General, Michaëlle Jean, and tells her he wants to dissolve Parliament. She acquiesces, precipitating a short, 5 ½ week election campaign.

Saanich-Gulf Islands is a laid-back riding, located on (and around) Vancouver Island, with the oldest median age in the country. It’s about as far away from Ottawa as one can get without falling into the Pacific. But digitally, it’s right next door.

The Conservative candidate in Saanich-Gulf Islands (SGI) is Gary Lunn, a former Reform Party incumbent who has been the riding MP since 1997, always with a comfortable absolute margin of nine to 12 per cent of votes. A lawyer and then-Minister of Natural Resources in the Harper cabinet, he has been a zealous advocate of the oil sands, pipelines and nuclear reactors.

He is also a high-profile political figure, who has fired the head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission after she drew attention to failing safety provisions.

A new challenger and an unexpected twist

But as controversy swirls around his questionable campaign funding, Lunn is challenged by an unusually strong Liberal candidate – Briony Penn, a university professor, award-winning writer and popular media personality with a long and impressive history of environmental advocacy. She also has deep local roots, being a 5th generation Vancouver Islander.

Briony Penn, Liberal candidate SGI 2008 - Georgia Straight
Briony Penn, Liberal candidate

On September 23, barely two weeks into the election campaign, the NDP candidate, Julian West, up till then a strong contender as well, suddenly drops out over disclosures of questionable personal behaviour 12 years earlier.

The NDP riding association sends a letter to all it supporters, telling them that because Julian West dropped out just after the deadline for registering a new candidate, the NDP will not be running a candidate at all. They release all supporters to vote for whoever they wish.

There were several other candidates, but they are unlikely to come close to winning. The election campaign is now a de facto two-way race, with Briony Penn moving up steadily on the incumbent Gary Lunn and, as the campaign draws to an end, even surpassing him in some polls. Julian West, though absent, is still pulling in a few die-hard (or uninformed) votes, but at less than one per cent.

Environmental organizations, dissatisfied with the Harper government’s weak record on environmental protection, sense a potential victory. They broach strategic voting ideas, suggesting that non-Conservative voters transfer their ballots to the party most likely to defeat the selected Harper candidate.

The boys from Ottawa come to town

As tensions mount in the riding, a new development takes place— unobtrusive to most at the time, but one that would have dramatic effects.

The “suits” move in.

A team of organizers from Ottawa install themselves in Gary Lunn’s office, and the sometimes inept actions and pronouncements from their candidate vanish. The tone of the Conservative campaign becomes tough, polished and professional.

As Briony Penn describes it in the film, the chill they bring is “like… we were the hobbits and suddenly the orcs had invaded... a mood came down over this sleepy little tidewater…[as] Ottawa suddenly realized that there was a threat… it was phenomenal.”

Remember this important detail. The name of the dropped-out NDP candidate, Julian West, remains (by law) on the ballot, even though he is no longer running.

Canada’s first (but not last) robocall crime unfolds

On the evening before the election, it happens: Canada’s first modern, deliberate act of voter suppression.

Thousands of machine-dialed calls flood into the homes of NDP supporters, and some others, featuring a young woman’s voice saying:

“Stephen Harper is the wrong kind of strong — wrong on the economy, wrong on healthcare, and wrong on the environment. Stéphane Dion has been his best friend over the last year and now wants to impose a second carbon tax on British Columbia. Jack Layton and the NDP won't let that happen but will put the priorities of the kitchen table first. Tomorrow, vote Julian West…”

With ruthless precision, the misleading message shove apparently disenfranchised voters back onto the now non-existent NDP bandwagon.

The calls are later confirmed to have originated in the U.S.

The telephone number linked to the calls – later shown to be false or “spoofed” – is that of Bill Graham, head of the local NDP riding association, lending the automated message extra credibility.

When he hears about what is happening, Briony Penn’s campaign manager Kit Spence is stunned:

“I couldn't react. I just didn't know what to do. There was just no time to do anything and to react.”

But voters do react: they vote, in instantly inflated numbers, for non-existent candidate Julian West.

From less than one per cent of voter support in the days before the election – and despite a written notice telling its supporters that there is no NDP candidate — bamboozled voters flock back to the NDP banner.

On election day -- the following day -- they give the fictitious candidate 3,667 votes, or nearly six per cent of votes cast.

The margin between Gary Lunn, the declared winner, and Briony Penn the runner-up is 2,631 votes -- barely four per cent of votes.

In other words, the ballots cast for the now-fictitious candidate Julian West, which have mushroomed overnight, exceed the margin of Gary Lunn’s narrow victory by over a thousand votes.

Gary Lunn is swept back into Parliament.

Elections Canada and the RCMP open the door to future voter suppression

Though petitioned repeatedly by various groups and individuals to investigate this fraudulent (and in fact illegal) first use of misleading robocalls for the purpose of voter suppression, federal Elections Canada and the RCMP both refused to pursue the source of these calls across the border to their American source.

In the film “Election Day in Canada: the rise of voter suppression,” Green Party leader Elizabeth May, who trounced Gary Lunn in 2011 with her massive grassroots on-the-ground campaign, noted wryly:

“…Whoever was playing with robocalls in Saanich Gulf Islands in 2008 was finding out a couple of important things – it could be done, and the RCMP and Elections Canada would drop the ball and never find out who did it.”

Dramatic and revealing interviews

When I saw the Saanich-Gulf Islands segment of this documentary, it took my breath away.

While it's unclear who was behind the calls, the tactic directly favoured the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper. And the film shows clear similarities between this and the later robocall scandal.

By the way, it's no accident that the U.S. electoral scene plays an important role in this story.

With the privatization of voting counts, and the advent of electronic vote count systems, the USA has become the go-to country for organized electronic voter fraud.

Previously local, small-scale, and likely to leave a relatively clear trail, voter suppression has been massively expanded by digital technology to potentially involve thousands or even millions of votes. Obscured by the anonymity of digital processes, it leaves no personal traces behind – something that a paper-based system always generates.

American electronic voting systems, furthermore, are controlled by a small number of enterprises, to the point of near-monopoly ownership. Its key figures are closely linked to right-wing political figures. Over the last decade, any voting outcome anomalies have overwhelmingly favoured right-wing or even far-right candidates.

The documentary film

“Election Day" is the result of several years of back-breaking work by filmmaker Peter Smoczynski.

Nearly complete, it contains an abundance of dramatic and revealing interviews with MPs, party leaders, journalists, scholars, court challenge litigants, and experts on the Fair Elections Act. Among those interviewed are:

  • Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Chief Electoral Officer for Elections Canada for 17 years
  • Tom Mulcair, federal NDP leader
  • Elizabeth May (current incumbent in Saanich-Gulf Islands)
  • MPs Irwin Cotler, Brent Rathgeber, Inky Mark, Craig Scott and Frank Valeriote (from Guelph, where robocalls played out in 2011)
  • Authors Michael Harris (Party of One) and Lawrence Martin (Harperland)
  • Journalists Stephen Maher (National Post) and Glen McGregor (Ottawa Citizen) who broke the 2011 robogate story
  • Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch
  • Michael Sona, the young Conservative operative who went to jail for his part in the 2011 robocall scandal

It also details the startling experiences of ordinary voters on the receiving end of direct voter suppression.

Viewing and sharing this documentary may be the single best way for ordinary Canadian citizens to insulate themselves against the likely use of voter suppression techniques during the days leading to the election on October 19, because it shows, in stark detail, how the “black ops” have been used, and how they are likely to be used once more.

How to support the film

Funding for this video, which challenges questionable practices directly linked to the federal government, has been hard to come by. No one can watch this film without feeling moved to do something to change things for the better.

So I am going to end with an appeal.

If you are concerned about the future of Canadian democracy, and don’t want our election process to be subverted by U.S.-style voter suppression, I urge you to help crowd-fund the last stages of preparation of this film for public release – before October 19.

Here is the link to the Gofundme campaign.

And please don’t forget to vote.

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