So far, the firewall senior Conservative party operatives have erected around the 2011 federal election robocalls scandal has protected every high-profile party functionary who concocted , assisted in or helped conceal one of the biggest political crimes in Canadian history.
Make no mistake. These people are very smart and very determined. And no one should be surprised if they intend to do it, or something like it, all over again in 2015 – only this time with a bigger net and a wider sweep.
The likelihood of more – and more egregious – dirty tricks designed to derail the basic right of every Canadian citizen to cast his or her ballot freely and fairly in 2015 is continuing to grow as the Conservatives’ drive for a fourth term – and a second majority government – moves closer.
Why else would we have the Orwellian Fair Elections Act with almost every clause rewritten to advantage the Conservatives in 2015 in much the same way the U.S. Republicans advantaged themselves with hanging chads in Florida in 2000 and the suppression of more than 350,000 Democratic voters in Ohio in 2004?
The Crown’s star witness in the Guelph robocalls trial in June was former Guelph Conservative campaign worker Andrew Prescott. On June 4 this year, Prescott read a statement to the court he wrote in July, 2013 that blew the whistle on the national robocalls scheme.
He did so at the request of Norm Boxall, the lawyer for Michael Sona. Sona was the eager young party worker – and so far, the sole actor to be charged – in the illicit scheme that apparently had tentacles reaching deep into the Conservative re-election machine.
“It’s now crystal clear to all but the most rabid partisans that something amiss occurred during the 2011 election,” Prescott wrote. “It’s also patently obvious that what went on across the country was definitely not the work of any ‘lone staffer’ on a single campaign as we have heard repeatedly from Conservative spokespersons.
“This scheme was clearly wide-spread, national and well-organized. It required access, and ultimately complicity from someone higher up in the campaign in order to accomplish.
“While I don’t for a moment believe such actions were condoned by the national campaign, it’s painfully clear to all now that the party is seeking to misdirect Canadians by accusing ‘local staffers’ of what was a national crime…”
Prescott made the Nixon-Watergate comparison. “It’s not the break-in that will get them in the end. It’s the cover-up.”
“Every time you hear the ‘lone staffer’ talking point, they’re lying to Canadians,” Prescott continued in court. “Whoever came up with that ridiculous line should be fired immediately, as they have lost all credibility with the media and Canadians. We, Canadians and Conservative party members, want nothing but the truth.”
As its defence, the Conservative Party is using a national robocall investigation conducted by Elections Canada in April that found no evidence of a conspiracy outside Guelph – a claim that has been met with widespread disbelief. Indirectly, that meant yet another credibility blow was delivered to the beleaguered Crown agency the Harper Conservatives appear to love to hate.
Like so many political foot soldiers labouring in the trenches of campaigns down through history, the young and eager Sona was obviously set up to take the fall for his party.
Here is a portion of last spring’s ruling delivered by Ontario Supreme Court Judge Richard Mosley who presided over the robocalls fraud case launched by the Council of Canadians and eight voters following the 2011 election:
“The…evidence confirms that there was a deliberate attempt at voter suppression during the 2011 election…I am satisfied that [it] has been established that misleading calls about the locations of polling stations were made to electors in ridings across the country, including the subject ridings, and that the purpose of those calls was to suppress the votes of electors who had indicated their voting preference in response to earlier identification calls…
“This form of ‘voter suppression’ was, until the 41st General Election, largely unknown in this country,” the judge continued. “I find that the threshold to establish that fraud occurred has been met.”
A lot more people a lot higher up than Michael Sona were required to deliver that act of political subversion.
In fact, of course, Elections Canada research shows that widespread fraud did occur. The eight citizens who stepped forward in the Council of Canadians’ vote suppression case were all able to vote without harassment or trouble. But their lawyer, Stephen Schrybman, argued in court that a survey conducted by the polling firm EKOS Research into live and pre-recorded robocalls uncovered election tampering not just in Guelph and the seven identified ridings, but also in as many as 200 more constituencies.
Gary Neil, the executive director of the Council of Canadians, says his organization is in conversations with other progressive social action groups to create a broadly-based social action network to be called Common Causes. The idea is to bring “a lot of progressive organizations together. We’re in the process of developing a strategy for 2015.”
The first item on the Common Cause agenda is to challenge the new Fair Elections Act in court.
Elections Canada sought the power to compel and challenge witnesses under the new Fair Elections Act, but was turned down by the government, Neil continued in an interview.
“That’s definitely a weakness. In fact, quite the contrary, they moved the office of the Elections Commissioner out of Elections Canada and now has it reporting through the political arm of the government too. That wasn’t there before. The commissioner reported up through the Chief Electoral Officer and reported to parliament rather than to the government.”
The Elections Commissioner is the prosecutorial arm of Elections Canada, the office charged with receiving, investigating and reporting electoral fraud in all its myriad forms. Until this year and the massive rewrite of Canada’s election laws that renamed and suborned the Canada Elections Act, the Commissioner, like other parliamentary officers, reported, not to the government of the day, but directly to Parliament, thereby maintaining the office’s integrity and independence vital to its credibility in the eyes of voters.
But this is a government unlike any of its predecessors. It is fiercely determined to control and advance every issue to its partisan advantage right up to – and frequently far beyond – every previously accepted democratic norm in Canadian politics and behaviour.
Frances Russell was born in Winnipeg and graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and political science. A journalist since 1962, she has covered and commented on politics in Manitoba, Ontario, B.C. and Ottawa, working for The Winnipeg Tribune, United Press International, The Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Sun and The Winnipeg Free Press as well as freelanced for The Toronto Star, The Edmonton Journal, CBC Radio and TV and Time Magazine.
She is the author of two award-winning books on Manitoba history: Mistehay Sakahegan – The Great Lake: The Beauty and the Treachery of Lake Winnipeg and The Canadian Crucible – Manitoba’s Role in Canada’s Great Divide. Both won the Manitoba Historical Society Award for popular history.
She is married with one son and two grandsons and lives in Winnipeg.