OTTAWA — Elections commissioner Yves Cote says his office investigated some 400 complaints about false statements allegedly made during the 2019 federal election campaign.
He says all but two or three have been resolved and none have been prosecuted.
While 400 may seem like a large number, Cote says the complaints were clustered around roughly a half-dozen allegedly false statements — with many of them using identical language, suggesting an organized campaign.
To the best of his recollection, Cote says the complaints all involved misinformation targeting white males.
Cote offered those details Wednesday during testimony before a Senate committee that is conducting a pre-study of the federal government's budget implementation bill.
The massive omnibus bill includes an amendment to the Canada Elections Act to bring it into compliance with a recent Ontario Superior Court ruling that struck down a provision intended to curb misinformation during elections.
The provision was added to the election law in 2018 as part of the Liberal government's broader reform of election rules.
It made it an offence for any person or entity to make a false statement about the citizenship, place of birth, education, professional qualifications, criminal record or membership in a group of any candidate, would-be candidate, party leader or public figure associated with a party.
Largely because the provision did not specify that a person must "knowingly" make a false statement, it was struck down by the Ontario court as a violation of freedom of speech.
The amendment now being proposed adds the word "knowingly" to the provision.
Cote told the Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee that he always interpreted the provision as applying only to knowingly peddled misinformation and instructed his office to investigate only those complaints that met that standard.
That led some senators to question the value of the provision since it resulted in no prosecutions.
But Sen. Paula Simons, a former journalist who now sits in the Independent Senators Group, questioned the potential chilling effect on individuals who might constrain their opinions during an election for fear of being prosecuted.
Joanna Barron, executive director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation which launched the court challenge, said she believes the provision, even with the proposed amendment, remains a threat to free speech.
"Canadians should not have to fear prosecution for communicating information that the state deems to be false or for sharing ideas that politicians deem unworthy of dissemination," she told the committee.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc argued that the amended version strikes a fine balance between free speech and disinformation that can be used to manipulate election outcomes. He suggested that the victims of misinformation are most frequently women and racialized individuals.
However, Cote said the complaints received about the 2019 campaign involved false statements allegedly made about men, none of whom, to the best of his recollection, were racialized.
Both Cote and chief electoral officer Stephane Perrault told the committee that they support the amendment.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 12, 2021.
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press