Elections Canada is targeting a pro-life group for recruiting volunteers

By Jonathon Van maren

Elections Canada has opened an investigation into the political pro-life organization Right Now, the National Post reported last week. Run by my friends Scott Hayward and Alissa Golob, Right Now works on recruiting volunteers for pro-life candidates, and last February they received  letter from the Commissioner of Canada Elections “ordering it to submit to documentation and agree to interviews with investigators over allegations it recruited, trained, and co-ordinated volunteers for ‘up to 50 federal campaigns,’ which the letter alleges is contrary to the Canada Elections Act.”

Everything Right Now does is up front and in the open, making this move by Elections Canada seem less about investigation a potential violation of law and more about intimidating a specific organization seeking to operate within the democratic system toward ends that some find undesirable. If you head over to Right Now’s website, for example, the description listed under “Our Mission” lays out exactly what they seek to do:

RightNow exists to nominate and elect pro-life politicians by mobilizing Canadians on the ground level to vote at local nomination meetings, and provide training to volunteers across the country to create effective campaign teams in every riding across Canada. It is only when we have a majority of pro-life politicians in our legislatures, that we’ll see pro-life legislation passed in our country.

In short, Right Now does what precisely what dozens of other groups do: Elect politicians that share their views on a specific issue. But as the National Post reported, it appears that Elections Canada thinks it more important to target a pro-life group with two staff members than the massive unions who were brazenly fire-hosing money into the election cycle in an attempt to defeat Scheer’s Conservatives:

The group’s lawyer, Albertos Polizogopoulos, said RightNow intends to co-operate with the investigation, but won’t submit documents or attend interviews without specifics of the case it faces. He said the election commissioner’s office has rebuffed such requests.

A senior communications officer for the commission would not confirm to National Post that an investigation is underway, however, the letter to RightNow from the commissioner’s director of investigations, Mylène Gigou, confirmed the inquiry began in February. Gigou’s letter also said the “strict” confidentiality provisions of the commission’s enabling legislation prevent disclosure of where, when or how breaches of the Canada Elections Act allegedly occurred.

Polizogopoulos has since launched formal complaints on RightNow’s behalf against six major labour unions, alleging that they also provided volunteers to 2019 campaigns. It demands that the federal election commissioner also investigate Unifor, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and the United Steel Workers for assisting Liberal or NDP candidates to help defeat Conservative candidates. “If investigations (into the unions) aren’t opened, we’ll be demanding to know why,” Polizogopoulos said.

And then there’s the fact that it is difficult for many organizations to even know what the law is:

There also appears to be uncertainty around how organizations can participate using volunteers. A letter to RightNow from the Commissioner cites a subsection of the Elections Act governing commercial value of non-monetary contributions to campaigns “other than volunteer labour,” which is precisely what RightNow says it provided.

Myriam Croussette, senior communications officer for the commission, said that while volunteering is exempt, providing recruiting, training and direction of volunteers, even on a voluntary basis, might be considered a campaign contribution violation.

“The commercial value of those ‘services’ may amount to the third party making a non-monetary contribution to candidates or registered parties. Further, any expense incurred in the recruitment, training, or coordination of the volunteers can be used to approximate the value of the non-monetary contribution,” Croussette said in an e-mail. Hayward is adamant volunteers were specifically told not to identify themselves during campaign as acting on RightNow’s behalf or to raise pro-life issues while meeting constituents.

“We told (volunteers) that each campaign will have their own script, they’ll know what issues are important in their ridings, so just follow their script,” he said. He said RightNow received no remuneration for matching volunteers and candidates. It did file a third-party registration form with Elections Canada showing costs of about $8,000 for payroll remittance.

In a scathing column published yesterday, Chris Selley blasted Elections Canada’s move, pointing out that while unions are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on elections, Right Now spent less than ten grand, making the idea that the commissioner is concerned about big money in politics a transparent farce. If it was the influence of money they were concerned about, after all, there are far bigger fish fry. Instead, Selley pointed out sarcastically, “the Commissioner of Elections Canada seems oddly fixated on small game.” And the idea that Right Now’s activities were illegal, Selley added, is a joke:

This is, of course, preposterous. On what principle would we allow members or supporters of third parties to volunteer in election campaigns — as any healthy democracy ought to — while prohibiting spending so much as a dime to recruit said volunteers? “Training” or “coordinating” could be defined as narrowly as telling people what sorts of things to say on people’s doorsteps and what sorts of things not to. You don’t just turn people loose with your campaign materials, like sheep on a grassy meadow, and hope for the best.

Scott Hayward answered a few of my questions regarding how this situation unfolded:

When did you find out about the Elections Canada investigation?

We received a letter from Elections Canada dated February 18, 2020 that an unnamed source made an allegation (which has yet to be revealed to us) that we were in contravention of the Canada Elections Act.

What are they investigating you for?

Elections Canada will be investigating RightNow for being in contravention of subsection 368(1) of the Act by circumventing the prohibition under subsection 363(1) of the Canada Elections Act. Subsection 363(1) of the Act states that: “No person or entity other than an individual who is a Canadian citizen or is a permanent resident as defined in subsection 2(1) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act shall make a contribution to a registered party, a registered association, a nomination contestant, a candidate or a leadership contestant”. The allegation is that we contravened this subsection by providing a non-monetary contribution in the form of recruiting and distributing pro-life volunteers to their local winnable pro-life candidates.

Do you believe this is politically motivated? 

If Elections Canada refuses to investigate unions (as requested by RightNow) who seemingly went above and beyond RightNow’s activities in supporting specific political parties in the 43rd general federal election, then that would suggest that the investigation against RightNow is politically and/or ideologically motivated.

How is Right Now responding to this investigation? 

Our legal counsel responded to Elections Canada on March 13, 2020 stating that we are happy to co-operate with any investigation from Elections Canada provided they reveal the specific allegation, the basis for the allegation, and the source of the allegation. We also inquired if Elections Canada would be investigating five different unions who provided volunteer support to specific candidates in the 43rd general federal election. We received a second letter from Elections Canada dated April 22, 2020 that essentially stated the same position as the initial letter dated February 18, 2020. Our legal counsel responded on April 23, 2020 reiterating that our co-operation for any investigation is dependant upon Elections Canada revealing the specific allegation, the basis for the allegation, and the source of the allegation. We also requested that Elections Canada investigate the five unions mentioned in the letter dated March 13, 2020 on the same basis as RightNow has been alleged to have been in contravention of the Canada Elections Act. 

We’ll see how this plays out. Hopefully, Elections Canada realizes that they’ve made a mistake and backs down. If not, this will turn into a significantly larger battle. But despite what I regard as the Commissioner’s obvious bias in this instant, as Chris Selley noted, at the end of the day it is up to Parliament to fix this:

 It’s idiotic and offensive on any number of levels: Why the h*** should anyone have to change the way they talk or advertise just because someone in Ottawa called an election? But Elections Canada didn’t author it. It’s up to Parliament to change it. And now it’s up to Parliament to clarify that not only is there nothing wrong with advocacy groups training and co-ordinating volunteers to advance their cause, it’s precisely what a healthy politics should want. Politicians and their parties enjoy utterly outrageous public subsidies, via the 75-per-cent rebate on donations up to $400, and are free to use as much as they want of that money turning volunteers into brain-dead partisan drones. A $100 donation to RightNow or any other grassroots organization that isn’t a registered charity gets you precisely bupkis back. Our election laws have no business whatsoever interfering with their activities.

Exactly.

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