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Behind the bobbleheads: The groups responsible for this year's political attack ads

A collage of attack ads targeting federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Yahoo Canada News)
A collage of attack ads targeting federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Yahoo Canada News)

Anyone who watched the NBA Finals last month most likely witnessed another rivalry unfolding on their TV screens: a battle between supporters of Canada’s dominant political parties.

This is because prior to June 30, third-party spending on political advertising for the upcoming federal election was unregulated. Organizations were free to spend as much as they wanted on political ads without disclosing the amounts to Elections Canada. For some groups, like Unifor, Engage Canada and Shaping Canada’s Future, this meant filling costly NBA Finals ad spots with political attack ads.

Attack ads aren’t a new feature of Canada’s political landscape, but the knowledge of an impending new spending limit appears to have influenced third-party groups to make the most of the advertising free-for-all before the hammer dropped.

As of the start of the pre-writ period on June 30 and throughout the lead up to the election, new federal law dictates that third-party groups who spend more than $500 on election activities must register with Elections Canada. Those who spend more than $10,000 will need to file interim disclosure forms.

Until the election is called, registered national-scale third party entities will be allowed to spend just over $1 million on political ads. During the election period, they’ll be allowed to spend $500,000.

So while the advertising blitz of June that saw third-party groups purchasing prized NBA Finals ad spots without a care for spending limits may be over, Canadians can expect to see more advertising from our federal political parties and their third-party supporters over the coming months.

Since attack ads aren’t likely to go away any time soon, here is a guide to some of the ones you might have seen and the organizations behind them.

Justin Trudeau: Broken Promises

Paid for by: Shaping Canada’s Future

Shaping Canada’s future describes itself as a “free enterprise oriented” group. It is led by Calgary-based Douglas Nelson, who is also listed on Elections Canada as the contact for the provincial group Shaping Alberta’s Future.

Elections Alberta also named Nelson as the chief financial officer for Jason Kenny’s now-defunct political action committee The Victory Fund during the 2017 United Progressive Conservative leadership race.

According to CBC, Shaping Alberta’s Future received tens of thousands of dollars in funding from corporate sponsors including those in the oil and gas industry during Alberta’s most recent election.

Shaping Canada’s Future used the same format and almost the same dialogue for this ad that the Harper Conservatives used for a Trudeau attack ad in the 2015 federal election. They even hired the same actors.

Stand With Canada’s Workers

Paid for by: Unifor

Unifor is the largest private sector labour union in Canada.

Having formed in 2013 through a merger of the Canadian Auto Workers and Communications, Energy and Paperworkers unions, it consists of 310,000 workers and members from industries including media, manufacturing, forestry and fishing.

This isn’t the first time the union has used a high-profile ad spot to pressure employers or governments to support workers.

Unifor aired an ad during a Super Bowl broadcast in early 2019 that accused GM of leaving “Canadians out in the cold” after the auto manufacturer announced it would close its assembly plant in Oshawa, Ont.

While the latest ad doesn’t mention any political party or party leader, Unifor president Jerry Dias has spoken openly in opposition to Scheer and his Conservatives.

And Scheer has accused Unifor of attempting to sway journalists because it helped identify an expert to sit on a technical panel to define what constitutes quality journalism in Canada.

Scheer weakness

Paid for by: Engage Canada

Engage Canada describes itself as a non-partisan, independent project “with a mandate to increase democracy and democratic participation in the electoral system in Canada.” But it has also stated its intent is to make Andrew Scheer and his Conservatives unelectable.

The group was behind ads in the lead-up to the 2015 federal election that took aim at the Harper Conservatives.

While Engage Canada has not publicly disclosed information about the sources of its funding or the identities of the people who run it, CBC reported in 2015 that the group was headed at the time by former Liberal and NDP strategists and partially funded by unions.

Trudeau is Bananas

Paid for by: Canada Proud

Canada Proud is a national offshoot of the pro-conservative group Ontario Proud, which gained a following on Facebook during the 2018 Ontario election.

The group’s stated intent is to defeat Liberal parties and politicians at all levels across Canada.

Canada Proud consists of a five person board, three members of which also serve on the board for Ontario Proud. While not much is known about Canada Proud’s donors, multiple media outlets have reported that most of Ontario Proud’s funding came from corporate donors, and particularly from companies involved in the development and construction industries.

Both groups push their agendas in part by generating and sharing memes on Facebook and Twitter that feature unflattering images and depictions of Liberal politicians.

One of its most recent campaigns saw Canada Proud pay people to walk the streets of Ottawa and Toronto wearing banana costumes that proclaim Justin Trudeau is “bananas.”

Trudeau civil war billboard

Paid for by: The Prairie Freedom Movement

The Prairie Freedom Movement encompasses several provincial movements headed by Alberta resident Peter Downing that crusade for Alberta’s secession from the rest of Canada.

The movement evolved from Downing’s Alberta Fights Back group, a third-party political advertiser registered with Elections Alberta. According to group’s website, it aims to “end the economic and cultural domination of Alberta” by the federal Liberal Party, “foreign NGO’s, Quebecois industry, radical environmentalists, militant indigenous groups, judicial activists, and media-for-hire.”

The group proposes that to do so, Alberta must separate from the rest of Canada.

On Twitter, Downing has referred to federal Climate and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna as “Climate Barbie” as recently as April 2019 and has denied the existence of anthropogenic climate change.