NDP legislator calls for probe of newspaper ads criticizing teachers' unions

TORONTO — Ontario's elections watchdog must determine whether a series of weekend newspaper ads criticizing teachers' unions broke the law, the province's official opposition said Monday as it called for a formal investigation.

New Democrat ethics critic Taras Natyshak alleged in a letter to Elections Ontario on Monday that the full-page advertisements violate the province's election spending rules because they come at a time when two byelections are underway in Ottawa-area ridings.

The advertisements, from a group calling itself Vaughan Working Families, accuses teachers' union leaders of using children as "pawns" in tense ongoing contract talks that have led to rotating strikes. 

Natyshak said the advertisements mimic government speaking points and alleged supporters of the Progressive Conservative government may have purchased them, but provided no evidence to support that claim.

"They were bought by what appears to be an anonymous, shady, shell group," he said. "This is something that's very serious. It hits at the heart of our democracy."

A spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce's office said Monday it had no involvement in the advertisements.

"The government was not aware of the advertisements and is not familiar with the group Vaughan Working Families," Alexandra Adamo said in a statement. 

According to Elections Ontario, any person or entity spending $500 or more on political advertising during a byelection campaign period must register with Elections Ontario. The maximum a third party can spend is $4,000 during the same period.

Natyshak said the full-page ads would have cost thousands of dollars, which would put the group in direct violation of the law.

The advertisements come at a time when all four major teachers' unions have been engaged in escalating job actions as bargaining with the government appears to have made little progress.

Natyshak said the group has even incorporated the name of the community that Education Minister Stephen Lecce represents, calling that detail "deeply concerning."

"There may be a connection between the minister's partisan supporters and these advertisements," he alleged in the letter.

A spokeswoman for Elections Ontario said the agency does not comment on whether or not it is investigating a matter.

Lisa Camps said in a statement that third-party advertising is defined as any broadcast, print, electronic or other medium with the purpose of promoting or opposing a political party, its leader or a candidate.

"Political advertising also includes advertising with respect to an issue of public policy during an election," she said.

By Monday afternoon, Vaughan Working Families was not listed as a third-party advertiser on Elections Ontario's website.

The Toronto Star, one of the three papers that ran the ad, issued a short statement Monday saying only that "this matter has been brought to our attention." The Globe and Mail and Postmedia, which owns the National Post, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A trustee from the Toronto District Catholic School Board said Monday he was so angered by the "misleading" nature of the advertisement that he filed a complaint with Ad Standards, a national advertising self-regulatory body.

Norm Di Pasquale said he believes the ad violates the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards and hopes it is investigated.

"When you read Vaughan Working Families, you think this is coalition of Vaughan parents who have come together to do this ad," he said. "There's no way to verify that ... the newspapers should stop taking money from these shadowy organizations."

In previous provincial elections, a group known as the Working Families Coalition became known for influential anti-Tory ads.

That coalition, however, is a registered third-party advertiser with Elections Ontario, some of whose largest contributors have been education-sector unions.

Patrick Dillon with the Working Families Coalition called the series of newspaper advertisements "trash" and said there are no connections between the two groups. This new group should immediately reveal who they are, he said.

"We have been very upfront with who contributes and who we are," he said of the Working Families Coalition. "Anybody that's advertising in any news outlet in this country ought to have to declare who they are. I don't care what the message is."

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner also raised concerns about the advertisements and their close alignment with government talking points.

"How can a group that appears to have been created out of thin air afford full-page ad space in Canada's most-read newspapers?" he said in a statement. "All signs point to something disingenuous at play."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2020.

--- Toronto Star parent company Torstar holds an investment in The Canadian Press as part of a joint agreement with subsidiaries of the Globe and Mail and Montreal's La Presse.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press