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.
"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.
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
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.
'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.
'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.
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.
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.