Who's behind mass text messages asking Canadians about the carbon tax?
You may have received text messages asking whether you support the federal carbon tax.
If you were one of the many Canadians to receive text messages from “Sue,” “Mark,” or “Nicolas” asking about the federal carbon tax, you may have been left wondering who’s behind these texts and how they got your phone number.
Members of Canada Strong and Proud, a coalition of third-party advertising groups newly incorporated under a federal banner, are behind many of the automated messages, with members already having orchestrated anti-carbon tax text campaigns in Alberta, Quebec and, as evidence suggests, in Ontario.
“Canada Strong and Proud is a new organization actively seeking ways to engage with Canadians about national issues and participate in the federal election,” the organization said in a written statement to CTV News, adding that one of the group’s goals is to “scrap job-killing carbon taxes.”
Canada Strong and Proud registered as a not-for-profit corporation on June 19, 2019. A day later, on June 20, the Ontario Strong website officially launched, corporate documents and online records show.
As early as June 22, Ontarians received automated text messages from “Sue,” asking them whether or not they support scrapping the federal carbon tax.
Canada Strong and Proud’s directors have declined to say whether or not they are behind the text messages sent across Ontario, even after repeated inquiries.
All of the group’s directors are directly linked to groups in other provinces that are strikingly similar to Ontario Strong and have used text message campaigns prior to major elections.
Chris Russell lives in St. John’s and is a director of Canada Strong and Proud. He is also the director of NS Strong & NL Proud, two groups used automated calls and social media ads to promote Conservative leaders and attack the Liberal Party during recent elections in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.
Nicolas Gagnon is the director of Québec Fier, (Quebec Proud, in English) a group that began promoting the oil and gas industry as early as January 2018 and continues to through text message campaigns.
Canada Strong and Proud director Kenneth W. Hayden, otherwise known as Bill Hayden, is also the Calgary-based director of Alberta Proud, a group that used automated calls and texts to ask voters about environmental policies ahead of the Alberta provincial election.
Canada Strong and Proud’s founding purpose is “to promote fiscally responsible policies” and “resource development,” similar to the guiding principles of the other Strong and Proud groups, corporate documents show.
The websites for Ontario Strong, Quebec Fier, Alberta Proud, Nova Scotia Proud, and NL Strong are almost identical, save for two province-specific features. The same domain-building software was used for all of the websites.
Alberta Proud and Quebec Fier also sent out text messages nearly identical to the ones “Sue” sent out to Ontarians over the past week, with “Mark” and “Nicolas” as the senders, respectively.
Some of the text messages sent by Québec Fier, Alberta Proud and Ontario Strong include:
“Hi, it’s Mark from Alberta Proud. We are reaching out to ask, do you support the Carbon Tax?
Authorized by Alberta Proud 1-800-896-5928”
"Hi this is Sue from Ontario Strong.
Do you agree that we must scrap the Carbon Tax?
“Pretty clearly this is a group that is being built up from these provincial third party groups,”said Erin Crandall, assistant professor at Acadia University who specializes in third-party election advertising, on the federal Canada Strong and Proud group.
"It seems very clear that there's a connection between the provincial ‘strong’ and ‘proud’ groups and ‘Canada Strong and Proud,’” she said after looking over the information contained in each group’s incorporation documents.
Russel said in a written statement that the provincial organizations are connected to the federal group but are more focused on provincial affairs.
Canada Strong and Proud shouldn’t be confused with Ontario Proud or Canada Proud, separate third-party advertising groups known for creating anti-Trudeau digital content.
“It seems these guys are more focused on calling and we're more focused on producing social media content,” Jeff Ballingall, founder of Canada Proud and Ontario Proud, told CTV News in an interview.
But while Ballingall said he is not directly affiliated with Canada Strong and Proud, he did say he advised groups affiliated with the organization, such as Alberta Proud and NS Strong, on content strategy in the past.
How Canada Strong and Proud is funding any current or future voter outreach efforts remains unclear.
Any money spent by the group on unregulated activities before June 30 does not need to be disclosed. Neither would any “donations” Canada Strong and Proud may have received from one of its provincial counterparts.
Alberta Proud, for example, received over $157,000 in donations as of April 18, 2019, contribution reports show. Some of the largest donors hail from the province’s energy industry.
There is nothing in Canadian law prohibiting the provincial groups from sharing funds or voter to the federally-registered Canada Strong and Proud.
But even in the official pre-election period, with third-party advertising rules firmly in place, there are some grey areas when it comes to disclosing the financing of text message campaigns.
Under Canada's current election advertising framework text messages do not fall under the pre-election or election period regulations.
A text message survey focused on a particular policy issue, like the carbon tax, with no political entity mentioned is also not regulated during the pre-election or election period, Elections Canada spokesperson Natasha Gauthier confirmed.
This type of voter outreach is not deemed to be advertising or partisan activity by Elections Canada.
In other words, Canada Strong and Proud does not need to disclose the financing behind its text message campaigns.
How much money was spent on a policy-focused text message campaign would only need to be disclosed if the third-party group uses the collected information for partisan purposes.
Collecting emails and phone numbers of voters doesn't count, said Gauthier.
Even if the data is used for partisan purposes, like specifically advertising a political party in an area where an anti-carbon tax text message campaign showed strong opposition to the environmental policy, there's a chance it could fly under the radar.
It would take a citizen filing a complaint, an Elections Canada auditor noticing the issue, or the third party group checking in with Elections Canada to see whether or not it is partaking in a partisan activity before actually doing it.
Elections Canada wouldn't be able to know until after the third party group carried out the activity, the spokesperson said.
Canada Proud and Strong did say it intends “to be fully compliant with all relevant election laws” in its statement to CTV News.