The report, which was produced by several individuals with ties to the opposition Conservative Party, including a former Tory member of Parliament who lost her seat in the 2015 election, basically accuses the American left of funding Canadian proxies to secure a Trudeau victory. Though the study itself has not been made public, reporting on it portrays wealthy American activists funneling money to left-wing groups in Canada, which then aggressively campaigned against Trudeau’s Conservative opponents — thereby undermining Canada’s “democratic sovereignty,” in the words of the country’s former finance minister.
The San Francisco-based Tides Foundation is said to receive the bulk of the blame for providing funding to at least half a dozen Canadian groups that participated in the 2015 federal election, including several that employed targeted campaigns to unseat Tory MPs.
These are hardly charges without precedent in Canadian politics, and the standard response of accused groups is to emphasize their compliance with all applicable laws or minimize the proportion of foreign funding as a share of their overall budget. Many have been equally quick to emphasize the role foreign money plays in propping up Conservative-aligned groups, and the influence wielded by foreign corporations in Canada, in an effort to put their actions in a pragmatic context.
Nevertheless, the latest allegations have been credulously received even in non-conservative circles, and there have been hints the Trudeau administration may revisit relevant laws in response. Their spectrum of options is fairly narrow, however.
At the federal level, Canada’s campaign finance rules are already chokingly tight — no corporate or union donations at all, individual donations capped at $1,500 per person, spending caps on parties and politicians, and, of course, no foreign donors. Ideologically inclined activist groups don’t exactly inhabit the Wild West, either — they must register as “third parties” with the federal government if they wish to engage in political activity during an election. Such activities are quite expansively defined (they include “taking a position on an issue” with which a politician is “particularly associated”), and no more than $150,000 can be spent doing them.
Foreigners can donate money to these “third parties,” but their money cannot be spent on “election advertising purposes,” though critics, such as Conservative Senator Linda Frum, have argued that legal ambiguities and logistical difficulties have made this particular rule impossible to police in practice. Frum, who has made this issue a personal crusade, is proposing to tighten the leash even more, with a bill that would ban groups that receive foreign funding from being able to legally agitate during Canadian elections, period.
Others will argue that even this doesn’t go far enough, and assert that foreign-funded activist groups are an affront to Canadian democracy even if they sit on the sidelines during election time. We know this because there exists an increasingly loud chorus of voices who find political activist groups problematic by their mere existence.
Prior to the last election, for instance, the Globe and Mail ran an editorial harrumphing that too much political activity is occurring among activist groups prior to the legally defined start of Canada’s five-week election period, thereby subjecting the country to a “world of quasi-permanent campaigns” of organized citizens sharing their opinions.
Trudeau has echoed this worry, citing the need for “measures to ensure that spending between elections is subject to reasonable limits,” on presumably the same grounds.
Regulating political activity has traditionally been a left-wing obsession in Canada — indeed, former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, in his previous career, once went all the way to the Supreme Court arguing “third party” regulations passed by the Liberal Party were unconstitutional. (He lost). Yet with Trudeau’s political fate increasingly intertwined with the agenda of the American left, and concerns rising about the political savvy of Chinese, Russian and Saudi investors, Canadian Conservatives are now finding their own ways to worry.
The danger is where this confluence of interests could lead. It’s unpopular to defend the role of money in politics, and people snicker at the notion that cash equals “speech.” Yet Canada’s capacity to sustain a robust political debate featuring voices beyond the traditional players — political parties and the mainstream press — requires a legal regime capable of tolerating strong and well-funded political action groups on both right and left.
American money could indeed be the thin edge of a broader phenomenon of global interests seeking to manipulate Canadian politics for their own purposes, be they strategic or ideological. Yet against the backdrop of this very particular anxiety, some are clearly sniffing an opportunity to indulge a much more conventional desire to limit, as George F. Will is fond of saying, the “quantity, content and timing” of political speech. The cause of free expression deserves advocates, too.