Minister accused of trying to use new law to ‘silence’ residents
An Ontario cabinet minister used a controversial new election advertising law to try to handcuff at least three grassroots organizations — including two in his riding that are fighting the province’s decision to build a new prison.
Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark filed a complaint with Elections Ontario last month, targeting two small community organizations in Kemptville, alleging they were “conducting unregistered third-party political advertising” by sending out mailers and putting up lawn signs to bring attention to a proposed prison planned for the eastern Ontario community of 4,000, the Star has learned.
The two groups — Coalition Against the Proposed Prison (CAPP) and the Jail Opposition Group (JOG) — have been vocal about the lack of consultation on the province’s plans to build a maximum-security 235-bed facility in a community with no social services, shelters, court or public transit.
“We are a small group, most of us retired. We have no money.” COLLEEN LYNAS OPPONENT OF PROPOSED PRISON IN KEMPTVILLE
Colleen Lynas, head of CAPP, a non-partisan group made up of mostly retirees, said she was “stunned” when she was informed by Elections Ontario that a complaint had been filed by Clark alleging they were “breaking the law.”
“We were initially shocked that Minister Clark would use election financing laws to try to silence his own constituents who are simply speaking out publicly on behalf of their community,” said Lynas.
“We are a small group, most of us retired. We have no money — we are simply a group of people who believe in the importance of engaging in the public square. Why would he think there was merit to it and why would he take the time to personally submit a complaint?”
In its letter to Lynas, obtained by the Star, Elections Ontario said there was no merit to the complaint against the two groups in Kemptville, which is about 60 kilometres south of Ottawa.
This summer, the Doug Ford government faced criticism when it forced through legislation invoking the rarely used Charter of Rights and Freedoms “notwithstanding clause” to enact spending limits on third-party advertising, capping it at $600,000 up to 12 months before an election. Any organization spending more than $500 on political advertising must now also register as a third party.
Zoe Knowles, Clark’s director of communications, said the minister “has heard from several concerned constituents about increased political activity from third-party organizations in the riding.”
But critics say the definition of what constitutes political advertising remains unclear. While the government argued that changes to the legislation are a necessary tool to protect elections from outside influence, others believe it to be a way to silence opposition.
“The real problem is that the definition of political advertising is so vague and ambiguous that it could apply to situations which have absolutely nothing to do with the election — this is a good example of that,” said Paul Cavalluzzo, the lawyer for the Working Families union coalition who has launched a constitutional challenge of the law.
“This has to do with a government policy — they are talking about whether to put a prison in a particular location — and the neighbourhood group is, in effect, advertising that as a matter of political speech,” he also said.
But given the unclear definition of political advertising, the law “can be used by the government to attack you … if you take a position on an issue which can be regarded as associated with a political party, then that’s political advertising — regardless of the fact that you don’t name the party on the sign, you don’t name a candidate or you don’t name the party leader, you don’t use the party colours — but that’s what’s happening and that’s the problem.”
He said complaints like this force community groups to hire legal help, which they can’t afford, and that also has a “chilling” effect on free speech.
“They are going to be discouraged in the future from exercising their freedom of speech and that was probably the point of the complaint — to shut them up, to muzzle their political speech, which is awful,” he said.
And coming from a cabinet minister, the complaint “would certainly get the attention of Elections Ontario,” Cavalluzzo added, calling such a move against a community group “pretty unconscionable.”
Knowles said that in addition to the two Kemptville groups, the minister filed a complaint against the Peaceful Parks Coalition, a group that on its website calls itself a volunteer citizens coalition with a mandate to encourage the public to protect Ontario’s wildlife and wild spaces.
“Elections Ontario reviewed the organizations’ activity and advised Peaceful Parks Coalition (PPC) that they are not in compliance with Elections Finances Act and that they must register as a third party. As a result, we understand this organization has now initiated the steps to complete this registration process,” said Knowles.
AnnaMaria Valastro, with PPC, said they were “surprised” by the complaint and that the “threshold for third party advertising was so low beginning at $500.”
“That tells me that Doug Ford is worried about those ‘kitchen table moms’ handing out flyers in their neighbourhood,” she said.
Knowles defended Clark’s decision to file the complaints, saying the “mandate of Elections Ontario is to maintain the integrity, security, and transparency of the electoral process, which includes educating political organizations of their legislated requirements and responsibilities.”
Kirk Albert, the founder of the Jail Opposition Group, said the complaint from Clark seemed “anti-democratic and an “attempt to silence dissent to the proposed prison plan,” he said.
“All we are really doing is trying to inform our residents in Kemptville about the imposed prison,” he said.
“We are trying to provide a service, mostly because the information has been so difficult to get from the Ministry of the Solicitor General or Steve Clark about this project.”
“This is not what we expect from our elected officials,” he said. “This is not something that is going to slow our efforts.”
A spokesperson for Elections Ontario would not confirm if any complaints about election advertising had been received, adding that the number and type of cases are contained in annual reports, and it “does not comment on whether it has received complaints.”
Clark, as municipal affairs and housing minister, has come under fire for his government’s frequent use of ministerial zoning orders, or MZOs, which override any local or regional council planning decisions and cannot be appealed. An investigation by Torstar detailed how the orders are being used by the Ford government to benefit a select group of land developers.