Now-removed billboards featuring a photo of People’s Party of Canada (PPC) Leader Maxime Bernier told voters to “Say NO to mass immigration.”
The recent controversy surrounding this series of ads promoting the PPC's anti-immigrant agenda highlights the potentially problematic role of third parties in election campaigns, both as vehicles for outside influence and as shields that help candidates evade accountability in the face of public criticism.
The billboards, which appeared in several Canadian cities, were met with swift backlash. Social media lit up with condemnation of the anti-immigrant messaging. And soon afterward, an online petition warned that the billboards reflected “Trump’s brand of hateful politics” creeping into Canada’s election campaign.
I never imagined it was possible to see this in a city as diverse as Toronto, in Canada – a country of immigrants. This is in my neighbourhood Leslieville where 43% of residents were born outside of Canada and I'm sure many more like me who are the child of penniless immigrants pic.twitter.com/BM7YGuyGSW— John Pasalis (@JohnPasalis) August 24, 2019
Disgusting & disturbing dog-whistle politics. This billboard is in the Toronto neighbourhood of Leslieville.— Lisa Kirbie (@lisakirbie) August 24, 2019
I’m a second-generation Canadian who’s family came to Canada - both sides - during a wave of immigration in the 1920s. #ShareYourImmigrationStory #cdnpoli pic.twitter.com/qrrgfEBUOI
The company that owns the billboards announced earlier this week that it was taking them down. By that point, more than 11,000 people had signed the petition. By Friday evening, it had almost 13,000 signatures.
The ongoing blame game surrounding the billboards highlights one of the major problems associated with third-party political activity in the lead-up to Canada’s federal election: the involvement of these outside actors creates a scenario in which accountability is often sorely lacking and hard to pin down.
According to Elections Canada, a group behind a partisan ad — which could be about a range of issues, including immigration — may be required to register as a third party.
The increased involvement of third-party groups in Canada's federal election campaign not only opens new doors for dark money and influence, but also for disseminating disinformation — often, with very few consequences. #cdnpoli
“If you’re posting ads — if you’re doing activities like that, it (could) be a partisan activity,” an Elections Canada official told National Observer.
Bernier and the PPC are denying any involvement in the billboard campaign. True North Strong & Free Advertising is claiming it didn’t design or approve of the messaging on the billboards. Meanwhile, Pattison Outdoor is denouncing the advertisements and calling on the other parties to own their role in the scandal.
“They need to be accountable” for the advertisement, Randy Otto, president of Pattison Outdoor, which owns the billboards where the ads were placed, said of True North Strong & Free Advertising Corp.
During a phone interview with National Observer, Otto also pushed back on Bernier’s characterization that he had “caved in to the leftist mob” by deciding to remove the billboards.
“Nobody was taking responsibility for the message,” he said, so Pattison Outdoor did what it felt was the right thing to do.
But with increased third-party activity, scenarios like this may become more common, as the outside groups provide an easy opportunity for candidates to test controversial messages while maintaining distance and plausible deniability. This may be particularly true for Bernier, who didn’t meet the requirements to participate in the federal leaders’ election debates.
“Bernier and his party are under increased pressure to get their message out,” said Lori Turnbull, director of the School of Public Administration and an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University. “Third parties might be an interesting venue to float ideas ... on someone else’s dime.”
Immigration as a partisan issue
Advertisements about issues like immigration and climate change have usually been considered issue ads, and in many cases they still are. But increasing partisanship among voters is now changing how political ads are regulated, with nearly every major issue marked by a clear partisan divide. That makes it hard to advocate for any given position without taking the side of a particular party or candidate.
On its website, Elections Canada states, “An activity is not a partisan activity if it promotes or opposes a political entity only by taking a position on an issue with which the political entity is associated.” However, just this month, Elections Canada said ads that promote climate change as an issue could be considered partisan, even if they don’t mention a specific candidate or party.
Explaining the rationale for taking this position, an Elections Canada official told CBC that since Bernier has publicly expressed skepticism about climate science and climate change, any advertisements that promote a particular stance on the issue could be classified as partisan — and thus the group behind the advertisement may be required to register as a third party.
In other words, an ad may be deemed to be partisan if it advocates a position that is associated with a particular party or candidate, even without making any reference to the party or candidate.
The blame game
The advertisements were paid for by a third-party group called True North Strong & Free Advertising Corp., which is owned by mining executive Frank Smeenk. He is also the CEO of several mining and mineral companies, including Toronto-based KWG Resources, which hosted a fundraiser for Bernier in June 2018 centred on their shared “vision” for development and mining in northern Ontario.
Smeenk has tried to distance himself and his advertising company from the inflammatory billboards, telling The Canadian Press that he didn’t get to review the ads before they went up, and that he “disavow(s)” the messaging.
Although True North Strong & Free Advertising Corp. is the only registered third party associated with the ads, Smeenk said the company was merely a “vehicle” to help other third parties express themselves.
"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," he said, adding that the billboards reflect the “views expressed by donors who paid for and selected the content of their advertising.”
Only one donor is listed on the financial documents that True North Strong & Free Advertising Corp. filed with Elections Canada. That company — Bassett & Walker International, which specializes in the international trade of meat and protein products — donated $60,000 to Smeenk’s advertising corporation just a few weeks before the billboard campaign kicked off.
National Observer reached out to Bassett & Walker to ask whether it was involved in the selection, design or review of the billboard content, but has yet to receive a response.
It’s unclear exactly what third party Smeenk was referring to when he said his company served as a “vehicle” for other voices, and National Observer has been unable to reach him for clarification.
True North Strong & Free Advertising Corp. is registered as a third party, and Smeenk is the only person listed on the forms, so if the company is acting as a conduit for others, it would mean introducing a “fourth party” — something that doesn’t exist, according to Elections Canada.
Although Smeenk has avoided taking responsibility for the content of the ads, an Elections Canada official told National Observer that from their perspective, the person listed on federal filings is considered to have authorized the advertisements.
Otto said he was skeptical of Smeenk’s claims of being uninvolved and unaware of the advertising content. In a phone call with National Observer, Otto said his company’s contract was not with any other third parties.
“The contract was signed by True North (Strong & Free Advertising Corp), and it said the brand was PPC,” Otto told National Observer.
“We asked that the advertiser clearly identify themselves on the billboard, including contact information,” Otto said. “The name on the billboard is True North. The number is theirs.”
Are third parties becoming Canada’s version of super PACs?
Passed in December 2018, Canada’s Elections Modernization Act lays out new rules aimed at, among other things, increasing transparency and levelling the playing field for political actors by defining the length of federal election campaigns, imposing new spending limits in the period right before an election and implementing new regulations governing third-party activity.
However, the new rules regarding third-party activity only apply during the pre-writ period (which began on June 30). Before that period, third parties are virtually unregulated, both in terms of how much money they can raise and how much can be spent, Turnbull said.
“One of the major discrepancies is that third parties do not face meaningful spending limits” outside of the short pre-writ period, she said. “After a person or entity hits their spending limit for donations to political parties, they can still donate to third parties.”
Big spenders who want to support a candidate or party can max out their donations, then find third-party groups to dump more cash into. Although third parties are prohibited from officially co-ordinating with parties and candidates, they can still bankroll attack ads against opposing candidates and pour money into organizing on behalf of a party, candidate or issue.
Even with the new election laws, Canada is still dealing with an uneven playing field that is tilted in favor of those with deep pockets. “The big money can just jump to third parties,” Turnbull said.
That’s similar to what’s happening in the U.S., where super political action committees (PACs) and dark money groups often outspend the candidates’ own campaigns. These trends appear to be continuing into 2020, as the largest super PACs are increasingly keeping their funding sources secret by soliciting donations through non-profit arms.
Like in Canada, political candidates in the U.S. are limited in how much money they can raise from any single donor. However, super PACs and dark money groups can solicit and accept unlimited donations.
Heading into the federal election, third-party activity is dominating political discourse and stirring up controversy on both sides of the aisle. The increased involvement of third parties not only opens new doors for dark money and influence, but also for disseminating disinformation. And as in the case of the billboards, holding those actors accountable for their activity isn’t always easy, in large part because those actors are often hard to track.
“Politicians and leaders and candidates and political parties are highly recognizable,” Turnbull said. “Third parties usually aren’t.”