OTTAWA—Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is calling on Elections Canada to “clarify” its warning to environmental groups that advertising about climate change could be deemed partisan activity ahead of the federal election.
In an interview with the Star on Tuesday, McKenna called Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party a “flat earth” political movement that shouldn’t be allowed to restrict the discourse on climate change because its leader expressed doubt about the scientific consensus that human activity is a major contributor to global warming.
“It is really important that Elections Canada clarifies this,” said McKenna, cautioning that the agency could deter environmental charities from speaking out about climate change during the election.
“Just because we have one party” denying human-caused climate change “doesn’t mean that saying what the science is should be seen as partisan,” the minister said.
The elections agency is sticking to its stance. Earlier this week, The Canadian Press reported officials from Elections Canada cautioned environmental groups this summer that spending more than $500 on an advertisement stating climate change is real could be deemed partisan activity because Bernier — as the leader of a registered political party — has made that position an election issue.
The statement stems from the agency’s interpretation of the Canada Elections Act, which includes provisions to regulate how third-party groups try to influence voters during a federal election.
Alongside the environment minister’s call for clarity, the position sparked expressions of bafflement from Green Leader Elizabeth May, who called it “lunacy,” while NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said one “climate denier” shouldn’t be given the same weight as “a worldwide scientific consensus.”
Bernier himself said Elections Canada’s position is “absurd,” posting on social media that the “law should only regulate real partisan advertising, which is when there is mention of a candidate or party by name.”
In a public statement Tuesday, Elections Canada CEO Stéphane Perrault said the law doesn’t stop people from talking about issues or publishing information online, giving media interviews in favour of certain policies, or canvassing door-to-door. Perrault said it only means that groups paying more than $500 for “issue advertising” during the election period need to register with Elections Canada as third parties.
This has been the case for every federal election in the past 20 years under the Canada Elections Act, he said.
“The act doesn’t speak to the substance of potential third party issue advertising, nor does it make a distinction between facts and opinion,” Perrault said. “It is not Elections Canada’s role to make that distinction, no matter how obvious it may appear.”
Ghislain Desjardins, a spokesperson for Elections Canada, said in an interview Tuesday that partisan activity could include advertising on “any issue associated with a party or a candidate.” That would include ads stating that climate change is real or not, because that position is now associated with a Bernier’s political party, he said.
But this principle could apply to any political position, he added. When asked if it would apply if a political party said human beings came from Mars or Venus, Desjardins said yes: if someone paid more than $500 on ads stating humans actually evolved on Earth, that would be a partisan statement, and they would need to register as a third party.
“The way the act is written doesn’t speak to the accuracy or the validity of the issue,” Desjardins said.
“Anything could be an issue. It’s really not for Elections Canada to decide.”
Tim Gray, executive director of the charity Environmental Defence, said he is concerned the “literalist” interpretation of Canada’s election rules could have a “chilling effect” on groups that advocate for neutral public interest initiatives and don’t want the added scrutiny that comes with registering as a third party. He said this includes submitting reports of an organization’s activity, as well as information about donors, to Elections Canada.
Gray said his organization will steer clear of advertising that in any way contradicts a position of a political party during this year’s election season.
“Public interest, fact-based communication and pushing a particular policy agenda that favours a private interest are very different,” he said. “The rules need to be looked at from that perspective.”
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Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga