Jordan: Of course elections are influenced by money, but only by a certain amount of money or at least that’s how it is supposed to work in this country. But where there are rules and regulations around elections, there are loopholes or wiggle room at least within them or ways to push against the boundaries which brings me to the.
News Clip: We are Canada proud. We’re a Grassroots group of Canadians organizing to defeat Justin Trudeau in 2019. Last year. The Liberals bought the mainstream media with their 600 million dollar bailout package. And that’s why more than ever. We can’t rely on the mainstream media to hold Trudeau accountable to be very clear.
Jordan: There is nothing illegal about Canada proud. They take great care to stay within those rules and regulations, but this is a story about the long history of money in Canadian politics how it gets there and what it’s used for and in this election. It is impossible to talk about that without talking about Canada proud or Ontario proud actually if we want to go all the way back to where this came from. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is the big story Greg McArthur is an investigative reporter at the Globe and Mail along with his colleague Robyn Doolittle. He traced the roots of Canada proud back to Ontario. Hi Greg.
Jordan: Why don’t you start by getting into where Ontario Proud came from and who is Jeff Ballingall in all this?
Greg: So Ontario proud started as a essentially just a Facebook page and was in its infancy what Jeff Ballingall called describes as something that was just fun for him to do. So Jeff, Jeff Ballingall is like sort of a cut from the cloth lifelong conservative political operative and he has all of the trademarks of like, you know, your classic sort of. Dyed-in-the-wool idea log from a certain party like volunteer for local candidate when he was a kid got involved with the PC youth group, you know knows all of the people who have kind of walked in these circles as they got older and got more involved in real government and he’s a True Believer in terms of like, you know, the basic core. Principles as it comes to like economic freedoms and smaller government that most conservatives ascribe to and he continued on that path after working for conservative defence minister and after working for a right-leaning city councillor, and he briefly worked at Sun News. He ended up at Navigator which most people in media circles have definitely heard of it’s probably the premier crisis Communications firm Navigator is has been a home to many. Conservative strategist that have come out of government and are looking to apply their skills elsewhere in the private sector like like many other before many others before in Bengal ended up at Navigator and hated it. He was really bored and he’s not to say he didn’t learn some things but he wasn’t necessarily for him. And so while he was at Navigator and he said he’d been kicking this idea around for a long time. And it’s been a Bugaboo for a lot of conservatives is the idea that there was no real third-party Advertiser in Canada or in Ontario that could take on the Working Families Coalition.
Jordan: Tell me what exactly was Ontario proud when he made it. What was it like?
Greg: So so it started it started out as this Facebook page and essentially. This is simplifying things somewhat, but it was basically just like a meme Factory like he would produce photos superimpose with with text and or videos that went really really hard at Premier Kathleen Wynne, then Premier Kathleen Wynne, and it was unlike like a lot of mainstream television ads. You see that are attacks against certain politicians. It was like kind of no-holds-barred. The language is was pretty crass. And there was like an someone say juvenile to like like a name-calling type things an example. If I add mind. I’m in can think of a few like calling Kathleen Wynne a scumbag referring to her as a clown on multiple different April Fool’s on on April first dates for inter posting a picture of her and calling her a fool now, that’s not to say that. That’s it was that’s all it was because he he would attack specific policies and in particular where he got a lot of traction was around Hydra. Everyone will can recall a couple years ago. They didn’t certain more rural parts of the province Hydro bills were shooting through the roof, but sight seemed inexplicable and Ballingall and were Ontario Proud pointed the finger. Straight at the liberal government for this problem and it was during that time that the website became very very popular and his content is video. This is memes began to be shared very widely. The conclusion was a big following for the Facebook page. So what’d he do with that? He did a couple things one here. He’s very Savvy digital marketer and he recognized that whenever you share something on. Or engage with content in a way other than just passively sort of reading it that produces all sorts of data that can be used to understand your audience better that allows him to tailor his messages. It allows him to collect email addresses for people that might be possible supporters both of Ontario proud and where the or certain political ideas so he has built up. I like I don’t make it sound like I’ve seen this because I haven’t its proprietary he would be on his computer but he’s built up probably a really excellent snapshot of a certain segment of the population that is like-minded with Ontario proud. And and what what they like digitally what they don’t like digitally who they’re connected to he’s done a couple other things though with that audience one is that he has recognized in this goes back to him kicking around the idea of there not being. Really effective third-party Advertiser in the province. He has filled that void and he has turned to a lot of Corporations and individuals who would typically support the conservative party and has sought their support financially and and they have supported him. He has raised a lot of money. We only have a really small snapshot. Public filings of what has been donated to Ontario proud because they are required as a third-party Advertiser. They were required by law provincially to report all of the money that was given to them within six months of the Writ being issued for the last provincial election and and whatever money they raised after the Writ was issued during during the actual campaign itself and. During that time Ontario Pride receive donations totalling $489,000. Now there were many individuals that gave with the terms of the vast bulk of that money came from a construction companies and developers who have obviously like a keen interest in getting certain government policies push through provincially, but what our investigation our research showed is that. There are there were many other donations that were given to Ontario proud outside of that reporting period that the public the media and Regulators have no insight into whatsoever because in this is It’s perfectly legal Ontario proud is not obliged to tell anyone who’s funding outside of that risk that pre-ripped period And The Campaign period. maybe now.
Jordan: Give us a little context about what third party advertisers are in Canada and the history of them in Ontario.
Greg: So it is an interesting designation this whole idea of being a third-party Advertiser and it’s it’s in keeping the reason why they are designated that way as it’s in keeping with sort of the this core principle we have as a democracy that we don’t want to Level Playing Field when it comes to elections, and that means not. Just because someone is well resource has the financial means or the organizational means to really sway public opinion that that should not they should not have a leg up and and that goes for both political parties and it goes just for individuals who want to propagate a message. So as a result, we’ve created this designation in law called a third party political advertising and. It’s a group with specific partisan messages usually designed to like attack a certain party that’s running and there are specific examples that The Regulators give out about activity that’s covered by by this regulation and if they’re engaging in that sort of partisan activity, they are required to to register with elections Ontario, or if the case of a federal election the required to register with elections Canada, and if they raise a certain amount of money and they spend a certain amount of money. They’re required to get an audit done by an independent firm. They have to disclose how they were funded what they spent who received the funds. Although it’s not totally uncommon in Canada. It’s much more prevalent in like the United States right where you see a lot of and and because of certain legal Court decisions citizens united is the most famous one. It’s a complete. It’s a bit of a free-for-all and. You’ve seen the rise of these things called super Pacs.
Jordan: Yeah, and they call it dark money.
Greg: Some people call it their money what like it depends on what side of the what side of the spectrum once it’s you know other people
Jordan: I didn’t realize that was a loaded term.
Greg: Well, I think I think it well then there’s a book called Dark money right by Jane Mayer I think like if you were to ask someone on the right, you know, they see this as. An expression of Liberty, right? This is like I have like like like I have the money I should be able to say when I want to be able to spend as much as I want. I’m getting my message out
Jordan: one of the reasons I found and I think a lot of people found your investigation. So fascinating is because I did not realize that this was happening in Canada Beyond, you know some memes and Facebook groups, which is all I assumed Ontario proud was the first time I saw.
Greg: Yeah, it’s like that was one of the most interesting quotes that ballon girl gave in all of our in all of our discussions. We have one main interview with him, but it really resonated for me and I’m going to paraphrase because I don’t have the code in front of me, but he said that when he was working at Navigator, one of the things he recognized was that audiences are pretty cynical when they’re being given a message or some kind of messaging straight from an organization or corporation that seeks to benefit from that message. And the more effective way to get your messaging out his circuitous and that’s really how Ontario proud operates like it’s not use Kathleen Wynne’s words. We didn’t quote or other but she’s but she said this in an interview with her when she first saw Ontario proud site. She felt tricked because in some instances you pull up the page and you you’re on a superficial level. The page is about something else entirely then what it is actually about. So for example, they pose. A ton of content that’s really designed to tap into sentimentality about small town Ontario or people’s memories of childhood pictures of The Big Nickel in Sudbury or whatever exactly famous on Terry ins that everyone can like relate to because they grew up watching John Candy movies trips up north to Cottage Country. The one we talked about in our peace was a very popular photo. She posted about Weber’s the burger. North of a really which you know anyone who’s ever been to a cottage north of the city has either seen Weber’s or had a burger there or they haven’t passed a gigantic lineup. Yeah Drew. Yeah and on its face its kind of quaint right? It’s like oh, yeah, I know but I know Weber’s I like Webber’s like of all share this I’ll share this thing, but that’s not really what Ontario Pratt is about like it is it is a partisan machine and it’s using using Weber’s. Or whatever it is that floats your boat Nostalgia perspective to get you engaged with their content and then you get the partisan advertised and the more I thought about it too after doing this interview, you know, a lot of the internet is that’s what it’s about. Yeah, it’s a lot of internet marketing is that way he gets you going in One Direction and where you know, you’re going to kind of like empathize with the thing that you’re looking at next thing. You know, you’re getting messaging about something else.
Jordan: Listen, that’s every brand’s Twitter account.. Basically,
Greg: Basically that so it’s not like he’s doing he’s not an evil genius right? He’s not doing anything else that something that no one else is doing he’s just doing it effectively about about political ideas.
Jordan: You mentioned that this was kind of a conservative answer to the Working Families. Is that the same thing? Where did that come from? It exists on the left I’m assuming
Greg: Yes the like the Working Families Coalition has been the boogeyman for a lot of conservatives in Ontario for a long time. We explored a little bit of the history of the Working Families Coalition. It’s a collection. It’s a pooled fund of from a lot of different labor groups that have very effectively attacked the conservatives in a number of provincial elections Progressive conservatives in a number of provincial. Dating back to 2003 which is when Mike Harris is government wasn’t my character is no longer there. But when the progressive conservatives lost power and right Dalton McGuinty in the Liberals came to form government. That was a really interesting like a little piece of History. So what happened was in the 90s Mike Harris was became Ontario’s Premier and he came to power with a platform that they called the concern of the progressive conservatives called common sense. And it was very much like a no-nonsense. We are going to take on unions silly red tape and all of these regulations that are that are interfering with productivity and the Providence and individual small businesses from prospering. We’re going to get back to very basic and small government very much a small government type. And part of Harris’s appeal to voters and and one of his approaches was to kind of create enemies, right and what’s often referred to as a wedge politics and and one of the enemies he tried to create were unions and union bosses and he’d really tried to propagate the message that a lot of the things that are wrong with. Your life or the reason why you have less money in your pocket book is because we’ve give ceded control to these unions that are charging so much for public services and that apply to Teachers Health Care Providers and labourers and in some cases. So in 1998, I believe there was in advance of the 1999 provincial election. There was a annual general meeting of the Building Trades Council, which is an umbrella organization of a bunch of. Different labor trade labor groups in Kingston and they passed a resolution at their AGM that they had had enough and they were tired of being a pinata to help Harris get elected in foam and anger and they said they were going to fight back and if you wanted to make them look like a bad guy then I’m going to make him look good. And so in that first campaign, they did a little bit of messaging around this but they didn’t really professionalize in the words of one of the founders a very high-ranking Union official named Patrick Dillon, but they kind of learn from their mistakes and in advance of the 2003 election. They interviewed a lot of professionals and hired two very well-known liberal strategists. One of the strategist they hired was going to Marcel we. Who is a very clever Liberal Liberal operative and very much involved in a lot of campaigns and messaging and designing strategy and the other person they hired was Don guy who was heavily involved with the liberal party, but on but also ran his own polling firm called Polara and this became a huge point of contention is conservative. Because Polara continued to be involved with the Working Families Coalition and pulling and helping them craft their message at the same time that guy was heavily involved with the Liberals and their campaigns and conservative saw this as a huge violation of the anti-collision provisions in elections Law And when I say antique illusion Provisions Regulators have. Been very much attuned to the idea that we have very strict. As I said before we have strict rules about how much people can donate and how much influence they can have over certain political parties and they do not want these third-party advertisers to serve as an end run around those rules. So. Imagine a scenario where some billionaire tight Tycoon once again certain policy pass but you can only donate $1,600 to the a certain party. He would then say well I’ll just I’ll fund this this third-party Advertiser and they’ll be a wink and a nod with the with the political party that I’m really helping them by giving this money and hunting their message and help them help them help them get elected. So the idea. The dawn guy and Polara had a had a role with both working families and with the Liberals sort of flew in the face and a lot of lives of conservatives of that policy or that sort of that prohibition. And so the party the conservative party Progressive conservative party tried to first ask for an investigation by elections, Ontario and elections Ontario did an investigation and they retain Tories like they took it seriously. They got a. High-profile Law Firm to come in and and and scrutinize the relationships are the exact words that they used in the report was that there were quote grounds for concern but they couldn’t ultimately prove that working family is was a tool of the liberal party and or being directly controlled by the liberal party and therefore they were not in violation of the anti-collusion rules.
Jordan: So after Ontario Proud explodes during the run-up to the last provincial election and the conservatives. When a sizable majority what comes next for them and how big have they gotten since and will they be involved in the federal election? Are they already?
Greg: Well, they already are heavily. They’ve they have I want to make sure I don’t get anything wrong here because it’s a little complicated but there are a number of affiliate or sister or proud organizations in every province. Some of them connected to Ontario proud and others not there appears. There’s some kind of splintering that is taken place among certain provinces that didn’t have disclaimers on their sites saying we have nothing to do with Ontario proud. They’re more flavour than other group called Canada strong and proud that but there are there are a few that Jeff
Jordan: but they’re following the blueprint.
Greg: They’re following The Brute blueprint and the end and there are a few that Jeff Ballingall. Is still directly connected to and that is BC proud Ontario proud and Canada Brad. I think those are the only three that he is still as still directly in charge of or a has some kind of official Rule and Canada proud is unsurprisingly taking like direct aim at Justin Trudeau, and it’s very similar. Tactics that we saw with the premier like they have tried arguably unsuccessfully to to make a saying go viral, but true to Trudeau’s bananas or Trudeau is bananas at where they’ve posted like montages of, you know, like you take enough pictures of someone you can find some embarrassing photos of them doing so far things. And relying heavily on the now famous trip to India. All right. Yeah, they did some stunts in Ottawa. I think there was a giant inflatable. Banana banana costumes were
Jordan: But very meme-able shareable Etc.
Greg: Yes, and and that’s not to say that it’s all just like again these like, you know petty sort of insult hurling type attacks. They do they had to focus on specific policies. Right, like for instance and one of the one of the issues that they’ve highlighted highlighted or underscored is the SNC-Lavalin matter. So it’s not like it’s these these memes are completely without substance, but some of them are more on the personal side, but I will say this like history shows us and from their experience in the last provincial election that they have. There’s an apparatus behind this this movement behind Ontario Proud. They’re not it’s not just Jeff Ballingall making memes knocking making memes knocking on doors like to see if people will donate like they had I’m one of the revelations in. Our story was that they engaged the services of a private fundraising company called rev Jen professional fundraising and the principles of rev Jen are two like professional fundraisers. Like they’re involved in in philanthropy one’s name is Sharon flash Verdun. The other is a Marianna to Reza and previous to forming rev Jen. They were in house fundraisers for the Ontario Progressive conservative. So I know the same people. Yeah, so then in this is in this world, I mean that it’s all about relationships and cultivating relationships and I don’t profess to be an expert in it. But I know from from this and from past stories that like it’s a long process right these professional fundraisers. Like they start prospecting potential donors like years and decades in advance of getting a big donation. So that is how they roll, right? They Forge these relationships strategically with a view to getting money in the future. And so having spent time fundraising for the progressive conservatives. You would expect that. They would be attracting money from people who would typically donate to the party
Jordan: when you talk to people who look at the health of our elections in our electoral process. Where did they see this going and are they concerned about it?
Greg: I mean it’s hard to generalize however one view of things but I but I would I would bring it back to answer that question. I would bring it back to a census comments to the the chief electoral officer is comments to the legislature. He said there is there’s a reason there’s cause for concern like that one really interesting anecdote that he provided was the he’s going to butcher the name of the acronym but he’s part of a group that was formed post-watergate. That’s not when he joined the group but it was its Origins is in some sort of like the Watergate financing Scandal that mandate is to like it’s basically Association of accountability officers and people concerned with ethics and democracy and he meets he was at a meeting with them or he was Consulting with some of his colleagues on this committee and its International. The people from around the world on it and he was pointing out that like in some respects. Like people are very envious of Canada and and our provinces and how our elections do tend to they’re not as bad as United States in terms of the big money is spent trying to take people out and issue certain attacks, but when he describes some of the holes in the system to his counterparts they kind of. Express concern that like, you know, these can be exploited and that we perhaps not feel so smug and comfortable about how we fight our elections because in many ways he didn’t he didn’t predict Ontario proud, but he predicted he certainly predicted the rise of third-party influence and it and if the one that’s standing question is how effective Ontario proud has been like everyone’s kind of heard of it, but it’s still unclear to me whether or not how many minds they’re changing as opposed to just. Working up the base, right? But if they are changing minds and people believe they’re changing Minds then I’m sure I think that you can expect to see a lot more of this kind of thing across the political Spectrum.
Jordan: Thanks Greg.
Greg: You’re welcome. Greg MacArthur one half of the Globe and Mail’s dynamic investigative duo that broke the story and that was the big story for more from us head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. You’ve got it all they’re searchable etc you talk to us on Twitter at @thebigstoryfpn. Let us know what you think and please do let us know what you think in your favourite podcast app. If you would let us know in the form of a five-star review. It would be very kind of you. We are on Apple and Google and Stitcher and Spotify and pod catcher. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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