There was a robotic voice on the other end of the line.

The call came from someone using a 647 area code, identified on his cell phone screen as "Tell City Hall." The robot voice asked him to participate in a survey about Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

Canadians have been getting the mysterious robocalls about the Trans Mountain oil pipeline and tanker expansion project since July 1. Sources in the Greater Toronto Area say they were called last week #kindermorgan #abpoli #bcpoli #cdnpoli #TMX

"It was a weird call," said the man, a Toronto resident who wished to stay anonymous because he works with the municipal and federal governments.

He thought the call was asking for some feedback for his past participation in several civic engagement studies.

Canadians across the country have been getting calls like this since Canada Day.

Four residents in Toronto and Mississauga told National Observer they were contacted by the mysterious group last week. When the request is accepted, a link is sent in a text message from a Quebec number, stating “thank you for agreeing to share your opinions on issues important to all Ontarians,” before launching a series of questions about the Trans Mountains expansion.

"It was about something that has nothing to do with our city hall," said the resident.

Tell City Hal, Trans Mountain expansion, British Columbia, Alberta, advertising, pipelines

A source with a British Columbia phone number shared a screenshot of the text they received from Tell City Hall with National Observer

'Message-checking research' says Alberta official

National Observer has learned the survey is being conducted on behalf of the Government of Alberta. Tell City Hall is a public sector program of Advanis Inc., a Waterloo, Ont.-based Canadian market research company that has been in business for over 25 years, providing a service that is only made available to government and non-profits.

The "research opinion survey" began on July 1 and seeks 20,000 responses across the country. No one city or province is targeted more than the other, and the territories are not included.

“It’s message-checking research,” said David Sands, a spokesperson for the Government of Alberta. “What we are trying to do is find those people who have concerns about the project and find out what their concerns are and then offer them information and say, does that change your concern? Does it make it greater? Does it make it lesser?”

The survey was commissioned and designed by the Government of Alberta’s communications and public engagement team.

Sands said the campaign is “measuring how to be most effective with (Alberta’s) advocacy campaign,” and identify the areas that need to be targeted with such advertising. To do so, the survey aims to receive 20,000 “examples of concerns,” not just responses.

Liberal MP Adam Vaughan: 'Part of modern politics'

Experts told National Observer such phone surveys are a routine practice of governing authorities looking to best communicate their decisions and programs to the public.

Toronto Liberal MP Adam Vaughan said these surveys have become a “part of modern politics, a part of advocacy work, a part of the way in which political conversations are conducted nowadays.”

But some expressed concern about that the survey is reaching beyond Alberta and British Columbia, and into provinces that have no stake in the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

“What is unusual about this one is...this seems to be a survey designed to understand how people in Ontario are responding to an Alberta agenda, which mainly affects British Columbia,” said Angus McAllister, a pollster based in B.C.

"It's a very interesting name to use," said Evrim Delen, a Toronto political consultant who founded Evolution Consulting. "It was about the pipeline. Why not call it 'Tell the legislature,' or 'Tell the leg,' or something?"

Why opposition has a 'negative impact'

The cost of the phone survey falls within the pro-pipeline ad campaign Alberta Premier Rachel Notley announced in May.

Notley said the province would be spending $1.2 million on a pro-pipeline ad campaign in an effort to convince the public that the pipeline would benefit all Canadians. At the time, she said the primary focus of the advertising campaign that would result from this investment would primarily target British Columbians:

“Alberta is upping our efforts to give Canadians and particularly British Columbians the facts about the pipeline. It is a necessary investment in the battle for hearts and minds. Now is not the time to take the foot off the pedal,” Notley said in May.

Sands said both the campaign and the survey are about increasing awareness. “We feel that Canadians need to know how the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion boosts the economy nationally,” he said.

“They need to hear about the issues like market access and they need to know how it affects Canadians coast to coast, that it's not solely an Alberta thing. We need to explain why opposition (to the pipeline) has a negative impact on Canada.”

Sands said the survey is not intended to be a public advocacy tool, or to determine how many Canadians favour or oppose the pipeline projects, but to identify information gaps.

“We don’t want to be in, let’s say Eastern Canada, for example, talking about the safety measures for marine life, when the real concern there is carbon emissions,” Sands said.

A source confirmed, however, that the survey does ask whether the respondent is in favour of the project.

Rachel Notley, Kinder Morgan, Trans Mountain, Ottawa
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley speaks to the media in Ottawa on April 15, 2018. Photo by Alex Tétreault

'What is your familiarity with this project?'

Sands was unable to share the questions in the survey while it is still active. But two residents in Ontario who received and participated in the survey shared screenshots of it with National Observer.

It begins by asking the respondent's age and the city or town they live in, and whether their place of residence can be classified as urban or rural. The survey then introduces the issue of the pipeline:

“The National Energy Board has approved the twinning of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline that runs from Alberta through B.C. to the west coast of Canada, increasing its capacity from 300,000 barrels per day to 890,000 barrels per day. Construction of this expansion is underway," it states.

“What is your familiarity with this project?” it then asks. And then: “How do you feel about this project?”

The survey goes on to present “reasons people have given to support or oppose the project,” and asks the respondents to choose which ones they are skeptical of, do not believe or believe have been exaggerated; and which, if proven, would make them oppose (or support) or consider opposing (or supporting) the project, and which one is the respondent's “biggest concern.”

The same eight reasons are listed each time. According to two respondent's screenshots, these include:

  • Increases the risk of a leak or spill on land to an unsafe level

  • Federal investment in this project is a waste of public funds

  • Transports diluted bitumen, which is more hazardous than oil

  • Increases tanker traffic which present risk to orca whales and other maritime creatures

  • Opposed by Indigenous groups

  • Unnecessary in a world that is moving away from fossil fuels

  • Expands Canada’s CO2 production

  • Increases the risk of an ocean spill to an unsafe level

  • None of the above

The survey then lists six benefits mentioned by "supporters” of the pipeline, and asks respondents to pick which one explains their support of the energy project, which one they are skeptical of, or do not believe, or believe have been exaggerated, and which one is “the most important benefit” provided by the Trans Mountain pipeline project. Screenshots show these include:

  • Creates jobs during construction and operation

  • Grows the Canadian economy

  • Funds climate change efforts / is an important part of the national climate plan

  • Makes us less reliant on the United States, currently our only export market for oil

  • Attracts investment and signals Canada is open for investment

  • Provides billions in government revenue

The survey goes on to provide statements to address the respondent’s top concern about the Trans Mountain project and ask if the statement addresses the respondent's concern.

Residents in Toronto and Mississauga shared screenshots of the phone survey they received about the Trans Mountain pipeline in early July 2018.

One Toronto resident listed their biggest concern as “unnecessary in a world that is moving away from fossil fuels.”

In response, the survey presented two counter-arguments. The first said, “Canada’s current oil export infrastructure was built for one customer the United States, which has become a less reliable market. The growth of their own oil and gas industry means less demand for Canadian oil products. The second said the pipeline “also helps Canada deal with shifting demand and opens up access to world markets.”

A resident in Mississauga identified their biggest concern as “opposed by indigenous groups." She was presented with two statements, including, "Indigenous communities covering 95 per cent of the proposed pipeline route have signed Community Benefit Agreements with Trans Mountain," and "Of the 3,415 businesses across the country that have registered part of this project, 550 are Indigenous businesses."

Most of the First Nations considered by the government to be directly affected by the pipeline project have not given their permission for it to be built, but this is not in the survey.

The survey ends by asking respondents for: their gender and level of education; what type of home they live in and with whom; their household income and whether they own their home; how long they’ve been a resident in Canada and their ethnic identity; and the first three letters of their postal code.

Finding out 'what moves the needle'

Two polling experts told National Observer such surveys are used to help design advertising campaigns.

“It's a very common type of survey, and a very effective way of testing arguments,” Angus McAllister, the B.C. pollster, said. "They're basically testing what works and what doesn't work in terms of persuasion."

Surveys are one way governments are able to understand how best to "educate the public" about their programs and agendas.

"You're really interested in who's sitting on the fence and what moves your audience," McAllister said. The survey is typically done to test "what moves the needle."

Craig Worden, president of Pollara Strategic Insights, a public opinion and market research firm, said such surveys can be effective in issues "where public opinion isn't fully formed yet, or isn't entrenched on either side."

"Public opinion on issues that are fairly new will change over time," Worden said, "and I think it's totally fair for anyone who wants to try and influence that opinion to be out there trying to do so."

"The question becomes why would the sponsor of this survey be interested in influencing people in Ontario," McAllister said. "That's not self evident to me...why the government of Alberta would want to influence audiences in Ontario about British Columbia."

Survey lack of transparency questioned

Ontario residents who received the survey, while noting it was unexpected, said it was an insight into an issue they hadn't heard much about.

"It intrigued me," said the Toronto resident. "These surveys are part of the landscape...I would have no issue with the government of Nova Scotia running a poll about fisheries policy if people in Ontario were campaigning to stop eating fish," the resident said.

"We need to understand the regional impacts of central decisions."

Vaughan, the Liberal MP from Toronto, told National Observer that such surveys help governments create "a national framework."

"Politics is, as much about understanding where the public is as it is, is leading the public," he said. "It's as much about composing a conversation as it is about listening to a conversation. So this is just one of the modern ways we do that, where technology and politics collide."

Vaughan said he's encountered groups and data over his government career that tell him, if an issue is framed a certain way, it receives a certain kind of response from the public.

Toronto Liberal MP Adam Vaughan seen at Parliament Hill in Ottawa on November 8, 2017. Photo by Alex Tétreault

The risk of these surveys, he added, is that "when the results are oversimplified then they're used as a tool to try and push politicians around."

"It's not a question of pipeline, yes or no?" Vaughan said. "When you're making a complex decision, your job as government is to explain the complexity and explain the rationale behind the policy positions you take."

These surveys, he said, help with that.

Sands said the Government of Alberta has been doing public research for years to inform its public advocacy. Most campaigns have been about the energy sector and kept within the province of Alberta, he said, with a few exceptions.

"Export pipelines would be something we survey nationally," he said. Examples include the TransCanada Energy East pipeline proposal (now defunct), the U.S.-bound Keystone XL pipeline and the cancelled Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.

Each time, Sands said, the Government of Alberta wants to know, "what are the questions in what parts of Canada? Are the concerns different in eastern Canada and western Canada? What are the information gaps?"

But residents and experts argue this particular survey could have been more transparent in its intentions.

"The money and resources they're investing (in this survey) is a little scary," Delen said. "They're testing messaging and honing what they'll be saying to the public in the future."

"I wouldn't be hiding behind Tell City Hall," said the Toronto resident who spoke to National Observer about the survey. "I wish they had identified themselves."

Fatima Syed is an investigative reporter based in Toronto. Follow her work – when you use the promo code FATIMA today, you'll save 20% on your annual subscription.

Comments

I can understand asking general questions, but to ask non-experts for their opinion on specific impacts is troubling. It suggests that they will use it to sharpen their messages, like populists world-wide do so well.

The AB Govt's national pipeline survey boils down to one question:
Is Notley's propaganda campaign on behalf of Kinder Morgan working?
Notley doesn't have the facts on her side. No science supports her emissions-boosting oilsands-expansion agenda. Hence, the incessant barrage of half-truths, distortions, and lies.

AB Govt: "Funds climate change efforts / is an important part of the national climate plan"
In fact, Notley's climate change plan BOOSTS emissions and prevents Canada from meeting its targets for decades. It sets no targets or timelines. No scientist would approve it. Industry emissions are grossly under-reported.

AB Govt: "Makes us less reliant on the United States, currently our only export market for oil"
In fact, there is no evidence for an overseas market for AB dilbit. Just the opposite.
In recent years, 99% of Canada’s oil exports went to the U.S.
The oilsands industry identifies the U.S. West Coast as Trans Mtn's target market.
Kinder Morgan's reports to the NEB did not identify an Asian premium.
Who are these mythical Asian buyers? How much more will they pay for AB dilbit?
Notley's own budget documents acknowledge that the demand for AB's sour heavy crude is about to take a big hit due to the International Maritime Organization's restrictions on high-sulphur bunker fuel.

"Indigenous communities covering 95 per cent of the proposed pipeline route have signed Community Benefit Agreements with Trans Mountain"
In fact, 43 of 140 First Nation bands and Indigenous groups along the TM pipeline route signed agreements w KM. That's 30.7%.
Not all who signed support the project.

The AB Govt is lying to the public, pure and simple.

I'm curious about where the survey company gets phone numbers. As it happens, I got this robo-call as well and on my cell-phone (whose number I rarely give out). I live in Ottawa, Ontario, and didn't want to bother with a survey whose purpose seemed likely to be to help out pipeline advocates, so I hung up. My cell provider is Rogers, a federally licensed communications company. Do Rogers and similar cell-service providers sell off or give away blocks of numbers for "government-related" surveys? What is the quid pro quo, if they do?

According to the info on their website they generate numbers randomly based on the blocks they know exist. So in the GTA they know numbers begin mostly with 416 and 647 and then they just spam random combinations of the last 4 digits to see what sticks.

It's not what they ask, but what they don't ask. How about, "Increases fracking and consequent health and environmental degradation in the local area, as well as emission of methane, many times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2"? This kind of omission of important concerns is typical of Alberta these days, as well as the attempt to mess with people's heads.

Every time Rachel Notley does something like this, Jason Kenney and the dark Conservative Party forces loose a foothold. It's like the opposite of an angel getting it's wings. While this polling research move does have the appearance of being sincere effort to advance the interests of the people who would benefit from the pipeline being built, I sure won't be putting my money on the thing being built...ever.

We need Notley to do whatever is required to stop the rise of Conservatives in AB, and the best way she can do that is fight with all her might, using all the familiar tools to 'try' and get it built. In this I am absolutely behind her, including the expenditure for research polling, add campaigns, lawyers and law suits - whatever it takes. I'm not even against the construction if that's what it takes to win the NDP a second term in AB. What I am absolutely against, is the and the shipping of crude bitumen in that pipeline, filling ships and sending out on the water.

We...Canada can do so much better in the setting of policy and in meeting our international obligations on reducing CO2 emissions. We...Canada can do so much better in our abandoning of fossil fuels in favour of renewables. Notley's NDP are leading us in this effort. Unfortunately the dark, well financed power behind the Conservative Party works everyday to corrupt and undermine those efforts.

When Notley and Trudeau say that the pipeline is in the "national interest", I think they really mean that there are extraordinary measures that must be taken - measures that must sometimes seems antithetical to the battle to save our species and many other life forms from extinction - simply in order to counter the mind altering, 'good hearts' twisting propaganda and dumbing down pressures being visited upon so many of our otherwise good people of this great country...of Turtle Island.

While we must fight them, Notley is not our enemy, and Trudeau is not our enemy. Neo-conservative politics, the corrupting effect it has on our democracy, and the dark industrialist forces...that is our enemy. The people whose agendas and interests Conservative politicians lie, cheat and steal to advance...these people are our enemy. Yet there is a game to play, and when we are told to rail against a machine that has Rachel or Justin at the controls...well, we must rail.

There is no Kinder Morgan pipeline twinned today, there is only a government and industry supported campaign to build it. Market forces will stop it because of the poor economics; aboriginal peoples on the coast will stop it in these territories; British Columbians will stop it; Site C being built will stop it; and international pressure will stop it. The logic and argument for building it is so flawed, the motivation for building it so political...it must and will be stopped, and ya...it's going to cost us a pretty penny.

Welcome to life in the anthropocene. Saving our species from extinction is going to cost us.

Blake MacLeod wrote: "Notley is not our enemy, and Trudeau is not our enemy. Neo-conservative politics, the corrupting effect it has on our democracy, and the dark industrialist forces...that is our enemy."

With respect, I disagree.
The conservatives across the aisle are the opposition, not the enemy. The AB NDP are blowing up progressive principles, with progressive voters' endorsement.
Bad progressive govt is worse than bad conservative govt. Bad conservative govt gives conservatism a bad name. The UCP cannot damage the progressive brand in AB. Only the NDP can do that.

The AB NDP are rewriting what it means to be progressive in Alberta. Not the UCP. If anything, the UCP gives a shine to progressive values by contrast.
It's not the UCP eliminating the progressive option in AB.
It's not the UCP abandoning progressive principles.
The UCP inspire progressives to fight for their values. Notley has alienated many progressives and greens.

When Harper and Kenney fail on climate, that still leaves us a progressive voice and a progressive option.
When Trudeau and Notley fail on climate, that eliminates the progressive option.

Notley is worse for climate than Kenney, because NDP policy eliminates the progressive option — our last option — and all hope for real climate action in AB.
Notley won a mandate for climate action (i.e., cutting emissions) in 2015. A mandate, a responsibility, and an obligation. Which she rejected.
Playing on her undeserved climate credibility, Notley is far more likely to get her pipeline built. As a far more sympathetic figure to Canadians, Notley is far more likely to advance the oilsands expansion agenda. Kenney will be impotent and isolated.

Notley's oilsands expansion policy is irrevocable.
Big infrastructure projects take decades to recoup their costs. There is NO path from massive oilsands development to lower emissions or Canada's climate targets.
Trudeau and Notley are betting that Canada's and global efforts to reduce climate change will fail.

It's bad enough when right-wing govts betray the public interest. When self-styled progressive govts do so, it's even worse! The progressive option for voters is gone.
Suppose a victorious UCP govt follows through on its campaign promises. Pretty dire, right? But democracy — the will of the people — is preserved.
Now compare a NDP govt that breaks its campaign promises and ignores its platform. Election mandate set aside. The will of the people ignored. Democracy eroded.

Notley was always a one-term premier. The only issue is whether progressives continue to support a losing cause — and a politician and party that betrayed them. Do we hold politicians accountable or don't we?
Democracy doesn't work unless voters hold politicians to account. A vote for the AB NDP in 2019 is a vote for Big Oil, petro-politics, democratic erosion, bad policy, and betrayal.
Rewarding politicians who break key campaign promises erodes democracy. If we vote for platform x, and the party/candidate are free to reverse their positions, what do our votes mean?
If you want to encourage politicians to ignore their mandates and break their campaign promises, by all means, vote for Notley in 2019.
If you want to break them of the habit, park your vote elsewhere or stay home.

When "progressive" politicians break their promises and betray their principles, don't endorse them with your vote. That's just asking for more abuse.
AB progressives can either vote for Big Oil, further entrenching petro-politics in AB, or stand up for what we believe in.
If you want a truly progressive AB NDP tomorrow, don't endorse the Notley version today.
We get the NDP party we vote for. Endorse Notley, and you get the NDP party you deserve.
Send the AB NDP a strong message in 2019 they won't forget.
To vote against our children's future is irresponsible.

The spin from NDP apologists is that Premier Notley truly wants to do the right thing on climate change, but we need to give her time. You can't expect her to solve decades of PC inaction on this file in a single term.
This appeal is very seductive, but it's doesn't square with the facts.
How much time? How many more elections does Notley need under her belt before she feels it is politically safe to act rationally and prudently on climate change?
The lies we tell ourselves to avoid cognitive dissonance know no end. We desperately want the NDP to be the good guys. We desperately want the NDP to win.
In reality, Notley will never take the measures dictated by science to reduce emissions, because that means first and foremost taking on the oil men, and the conservative rage machine, and planning a managed decline of the oilsands industry.
A challenge Notley will NEVER take up. Pipelines and oilsands projects are not something we can walk back. Either we build them and boost emissions, or we don't.
Either we heed the science, or we don't. Either we embrace Notley's vision, or we don't.
Choose one.

Well, this is the height of hubris and ridiculousness. Put a poll full of "night shade" question so you can skewer the results and say you have more consent.. Bad enough that the questions posed were full of half truths and utter balderdash. This is reprehensible and shows that the NDP are captive to the welfare oil mafia. ..oh, and by the way, the damned bitumen is NOT going to CHINA!!

Notley said the province would be spending $1.2 million on a pro-pipeline ad campaign in an effort to convince the public that the pipeline would benefit all Canadians. I will guess the $1.2 million comes from the Alberta Taxpayers, unless she's convinced the Federal Finance Minister, Bill Morneau to finance another project on the backs of all Canadians, which doesn't benefit all Canadians - Liberals where elected on less than 40% of the vote, so where does this "Royal we" come from? - a jibe at someone who is too assured of his own power.

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