08/20/2019 18:42 EDT | Updated 08/20/2019 21:30 EDT

Chief Electoral Officer Responds To ‘Confusion’ Over Partisan Ad Rules

Environmental groups said they were told climate change ads promoted during the election risk being labelled a "partisan" activity.

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Hundreds of Canadian children and youth took part in a massive protest march against climate change in Toronto on May 24, 2019.

OTTAWA — The head of Elections Canada responded Tuesday to an outcry over reports the agency warned environmental groups that discussing the dangers of climate change during the campaign could be interpreted as partisan activity.

Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perrault defended Elections Canada in a statement, saying there’s been “some confusion” over restrictions that have been in place for nearly 20 years. The federal elections law doesn’t “prevent individuals or groups from talking about issues or publishing information,” he said. 

Perrault’s intervention comes days after the Canadian Press reported that some environmental charities were concerned their advocacy work would be muzzled during the fall election.

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Chief Electoral Officer Stephane Perrault leaves after appearing at the House of Commons information, privacy and ethics committee in Ottawa, on Nov. 1, 2018.

The statement made no reference to Environmental Defence and Greenpeace Canada — groups that have flagged concerns in recent days about being warned that campaign-time messages, underlining the urgency of the need to address climate change, would risk being labelled “partisan” by Elections Canada.

Any sort of public messaging that “takes a position on an issue with which a candidate or registered party is associated, without identifying the candidate or party in any way” is considered to be “issue advertising.” 

Third-party organizations are allowed to conduct issue advertising during an election campaign, but their activities are regulated. If a third party spends more than $500 on election activities, it must register with Elections Canada and report its financial activities.

Perrault said federal election law “doesn’t speak to the substance of potential third-party issue advertising, nor does it make a distinction between facts and opinion.” He explained, without specifically mentioning climate change, that “it is not Elections Canada’s role to make that distinction, no matter how obvious it may appear.”

Elizabeth May calls environmental groups scrutiny ‘lunacy’

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters Monday that he respects Election Canada’s independence and responsibility to make sure the rules are being followed. He said it was “frustrating” that there are “conservative politicians in this country” still unwilling to accept climate change as real.  

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May was more pointed in her concerns, calling the scrutiny over environmental groups “lunacy.”

“Elections Canada is not a lunatic organization, so I trust they will clarify and eliminate this ruling,” May said Monday in Montreal. 

The independent elections agency warned environmental organizations in a training session this summer that People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier has expressed concerns that climate change-related advocacy could be partisan and adversely affect his campaign, the Canadian Press reported.

Bernier is the only federal leader, among parties represented in the House of Commons, who doesn’t believe that climate change is caused by human activity.

So far, 40 organizations that have registered as third parties to Elections Canada.

Familiar names from the 2015 election campaign include Fair Vote Canada, Leadnow Society, and Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. 

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has also added its name to the list, marking the first time the oil and gas lobby group has registered itself to be a third-party advertiser during the federal campaign.

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