For the second campaign in a row, third-party advertisers are making their presence felt in Ottawa's municipal election.
There are only two registered third-party advertisers this year: the Campaign Life Coalition, an anti-abortion movement which encourages its supporters to lobby their local government, and Horizon Ottawa, which advocates for more progressive voices at the council table.
But recently, there have been complaints that the latter group's activities might go beyond advertising.
Third-party advertisers are groups or individuals allowed to raise money and run ads for or against a candidate. They can receive donations from companies and unions, with a spending cap set at $25,000.
They've arisen in the wake of the 2018 municipal elections, when the former Liberal provincial government barred individual candidates from accepting those sorts of donations.
In Ottawa's campaign that year, a handful of companies were able to circumvent the ban by giving money to third-party advertisers instead.
Rules 'a bit of a grey zone'
The government has decided to allow third parties and regulate them because to some degree they were already advertising without any controls, said Stéphane Émard-Chabot, a former Ottawa city councillor and municipal lawyer.
But there is a "bit of a grey zone," he said, when it comes to the definition of what is considered advertising. Because third parties are relatively new, it could be tough to decide what crosses the line under the Municipal Elections Act, Émard-Chabot said.
"Placing an ad on TV or on the radio, obviously that's advertising. But doing something on Facebook or on TikTok…where would that cross the advertising line?"
Under the rules, candidates themselves are also not allowed to give to third-party advertisers.
Investigation already sought
Mayoral candidate Mark Sutcliffe's campaign has already called for an investigation into Horizon Ottawa as to whether it has accepted individual donations above the province's $1,200 limit, which would violate the act.
In a statement to CBC, Sutcliffe said in part that there "must be clear, enforced rules in place for third-party advertisers, just as there are for candidates seeking elected office."
Bob Chiarelli, another mayoral candidate, says he would also like more scrutiny of third parties during the campaign.
"Especially where spending limits are concerned, [we need more scrutiny] to ensure the rules are being followed, rather than an audit of their activities after the fact," he wrote in a statement to CBC.
Horizon Ottawa has endorsed 12 people running locally, including Catherine McKenney for mayor and incumbent Capital ward councillor Shawn Menard.
McKenney, who uses they/them pronouns, told CBC they have "have no control over third-party advertisers," nor did they "have any contact with those advertisers."
CBC reached out to Menard Sunday, but did not hear back from him in time for deadline.
Pushing for a more progressive majority
Sam Hersh, a board member with Horizon Ottawa, said their group's goal is to push for a more progressive majority on council.
He denies financially supporting or receiving any funds from any city councillor or mayoral candidate.
"As far as I know, we haven't gotten any donation from any incumbents or councillors," he told CBC Sunday. "As a registered corporation we can't donate to any campaign, so we follow the rules."
He said his organization is volunteer-driven, with around 700 local members.
"There's no secret here in terms of who funds us or who supports us. The people who fund us are grassroots, small grassroots donors," he said. "The average donation that we get is something like $30."
Last Thursday, Hersh said his group held a workshop in Blackburn Hamlet to "train volunteers, new and old, about door-to-door canvassing."
"Are we going [to] the door, saying, like, 'You should support X or Y person?' Some have, yeah," he said. "And that's totally within the rules. I mean, we didn't organize or collaborate with anyone ... so there's nothing, nothing wrong there."
Émard-Chabot isn't so sure.
"We've seen Horizon Ottawa has been offering to train volunteers or to train staff. if I were a candidate, I would be concerned that that could be a contribution — and third-party advertisers are not allowed to contribute to a campaign," he said.
"If I were the lawyer for candidates, I would be really concerned about receiving help, training or lists or whatever from a third party."
If a third party is suspected of having overspent or spent improperly, or taking contributions above the limits knowingly they could face a range of penalties.
Those include repayment, a suspension from being able to participate in the next municipal election, and imprisonment.