POLITICS

One Ontario woman's story about getting a robocall on Election Day

03/12/2012 04:43 EDT | Updated 05/12/2012 05:12 EDT
OTTAWA - Jacqueline Beckles knows her riding.

The 60-year-old insurance saleswoman is a marathon runner and has a pretty good idea of how the Greater Toronto Area riding of Brampton West is laid out. She's also lived in her home for 28 years, now sharing it with her elderly mother.

So when she got a telephone message last May 2 from a voice purporting to represent Elections Canada saying her polling station had suddenly changed, Beckles was baffled by the location.

She searched on the Internet for the address, and even called the city for help. She finally called the number left on the voice mail, a 905 number, but got only an answering message.

"I don't know who was calling, but they said they were Elections Canada," Beckles says. "I was irritated, and I thought, this is stupid. You're going to call me and I'm on my way to vote?"

Undeterred but feeling the pressure as the evening wore on, Beckles decided to go out to vote.

"Finally I said to my mother, let's just go and vote, and find out from the polling station (at the local school) where we are supposed to go, and of course they didn't know what I was talking about."

Beckles experience is just one story out of many emerging over the last two weeks of Canadians who received misleading information around last May's federal election.

Elections Canada has said it has logged 31,000 contacts from Canadian about the so-called robocall controversy. Spokesman John Enright said Monday the majority were transmitted through online forms and form letters offered online.

What Beckles didn't know is that Elections Canada does not call voters — it doesn't have their phone numbers. Any phone numbers Elections Canada operated to help the public were 1-800 numbers, Enright says.

In Brampton West, where Conservative MP Kyle Seeback beat incumbent Liberal Andrew Kania, there were no polling station changes last election.

Beckles said she had not told anybody how she intended to vote.

In recent years, she has been called to take out a Conservative membership and turned the callers down.

Born in Guyana, Beckles says she was a longtime Liberal supporter like many first-generation immigrants of the time, but more recently has cast her vote in different elections for the NDP. She is not a card-carrying member of the NDP or directly involved in the party.

The local NDP candidate, Jagtar Shergill, says he's heard of others receiving calls in his riding. He describes last year's campaign as very aggressive between the Liberals and Conservatives, where he says many fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist Sikhs divided into camps.

"There was quite a big drama going on between (the Liberals and Conservatives)," Shergill says.

"The Punjabi community is very aggressive in political circumstances. They are running the show. They're putting in the money and it was very nasty in Brampton."

Neither Seeback nor Kania responded immediately to requests for comment.

While there have been many reports of Canadians receiving misleading calls or even correspondence, Elections Canada has alleged wrongdoing only in one Guelph, Ont., riding. An individual with the fake name "Pierre Poutine" allegedly placed calls to voters in Guelph, misdirecting them to polling stations, according to court documents.

The calls were made with a disposable cellphone and using the firm RackNine, which has done communications work for the Conservatives. RackNine has said it knew nothing about the incidents, and will work with Elections Canada to get to the bottom of it.

The Conservatives have since revealed that the Liberals were also placing automated calls in Guelph, attacking the Conservative candidate without identifying who they represented. The Tories pounced on the Liberals during question period Monday.

"Liberals used a bogus number, a fictitious character," said Dean Del Mastro, parliamentary secretary to the prime minister.

The Conservatives and the opposition parties unanimously passed a non-binding NDP motion later on Monday that will give the chief electoral officer the power to compel parties to give him documentary evidence, such as receipts. The motion makes the new powers for Elections Canada retroactive to previous campaigns.