A few hours before the polls closed, Bill Winegard received a frantic call from the federal Liberal team in Guelph, asking him to come to the party’s headquarters. Automated phone messages had fanned the Southern Ontario city earlier in the day, erroneously telling residents their polling station had changed. Hundreds of voters fell for the hoax, and Frank Valeriote, the Liberal contender, worried the chaos had cost him the election.
He pleaded with the Greens and the NDP to encourage their voters to back him and he turned to Mr. Winegard – a cabinet minister in the Mulroney government – for guidance.
The former University of Guelph president was the last Tory to win the swing riding (then called Guelph-Wellington) in 1988. He became a political free agent after the Progressive Conservatives and Canadian Alliance merged nearly a decade ago, supporting whoever he thought was the best candidate. In 2011, he picked Tory Michael Chong in Wellington-Halton Hills and Mr. Valeriote in Guelph.
Mr. Winegard didn’t know what to make of the deceptive robo-calls. This was a new phenomenon for Canadian elections and he was outraged.
“I don’t know what happened in this last election, but the whole atmosphere soured,” Mr. Winegard, 87, said this week during an interview in his apartment overlooking Guelph’s Speed River.
“They were trying to take away people’s votes,” added the onetime naval officer in the Second World War. “A lot of us have spent a lot of our lives making sure that we could vote.”
The scale of the voter-suppression scheme alleged in Guelph has never been seen before in Canada. News of the Elections Canada probe in this riding has sparked a national wave of related complaints, with tens of thousands of grievances streaming in from dozens of constituencies coast to coast.
The source of the calls remains under investigation, but elections investigator Allan Mathews is focusing on Guelph Tory candidate Marty Burke’s campaign. Elections Canada alleges in court documents that a political operative with the alias “Pierre Poutine” engineered a scheme using automated calls and a disposable cellphone to discourage rival voters from casting ballots in the riding last May.
Guelph, about an hour’s drive west of Toronto, was a key election battleground. The Liberals had held the riding since 1993 and the Conservatives wanted it back, pouring extra manpower into the race. Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Guelph shortly before the election began and again during the campaign. Top Conservatives, such as Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, also dropped by to lend their support to Mr. Burke.
Even before the robo-calls on May 2, the Guelph campaign was a nasty one. The two main rivals exchanged accusations of harassment and voter intimidation. Mr. Burke complained to police about people pounding on his door at 3 a.m. and scaring his wife. Mr. Winegard, an Order of Canada recipient, was called a traitor for supporting the Liberal incumbent. And a special ballot at the university was disrupted when, according to several students, the Conservative contender’s communications director, Michael Sona, burst in and attempted to grab the ballot box, claiming the vote was illegal. Elections Canada ruled otherwise.
“It was a very hard-fought and very bitter campaign,” said Mr. Valeriote, who ultimately defeated his Tory rival by about 6,200 votes. “I was told it would be a targeted riding by some Conservatives I’m friendly with. They basically said, ‘Prepare yourself.’”
Hotbed of innovation
Guelph has long been an incubator for ideas.
It’s home to North America’s inaugural cable TV system and Canada’s first army cadet corps. Its police officers adopted two-way radios and motorcycle patrols before other municipal forces in the country, and the Yukon Gold potato, jock straps and last year’s student Vote Mob movement – you can thank Guelph for their creation.
The research-intensive University of Guelph, which Mr. Winegard presided over from 1967 to 1975, drives a lot of the community’s ideas and innovation. It also shapes its demographics. The rapidly growing city of about 120,000 people also has about 22,000 university students.
Mr. Sona, 23, was once a student at the school, graduating with a bachelor of arts one year before the 2011 campaign. E-mails between Mr. Sona, Mr. Burke and other members of the campaign team show there was some tension early on with national Conservative headquarters. In the internal communication, mistakenly forwarded by Mr. Burke to the Guelph Mercury on March 23, 2011, the Tory candidate suggested bypassing “vetting through Ottawa” for an opinion piece he wanted to submit to the newspaper. The vetting process, Mr. Burke wrote, was “unwieldy,” the Mercury reported.
A former Canadian Air Force pilot who now flies planes for Air Canada, Mr. Burke is known to be blunt and assertive. He remains a prolific writer of letters to the local paper, praising Mr. Harper’s “calm and effective leadership” this past summer. During the campaign, though, he rarely attended debates and granted few media interviews. The 2011 federal election was his first major race.
Mr. Burke did not respond to repeated requests for an interview this week. He has not spoken publicly about the Elections Canada probe. Mr. Sona, who resigned last week from his position in the office of Conservative MP Eve Adams, has released a statement. He said he had “no involvement in the fraudulent phone calls” and hoped “the real guilty party would be apprehended.”
The robo-calls started early on election day.
United Church minister Susan Campbell found a message on her voicemail purportedly from Elections Canada. She was told her voting station had changed to the Old Quebec Street Mall due to an expected increase in turnout at her original location. She immediately knew the message was phony: She and her husband, Green candidate John Lawson, had voted that morning. As her husband knocked on door after door in a bid to encourage people to vote, Ms. Campbell alerted Elections Canada to the hoax. She wasn’t the only one.
Social worker Shannon Testart and her husband were among the estimated 150 to 200 voters who showed up at the wrong polling station as a result of the robo-calls. If they hadn’t had car, they’re not certain they would have reached the right ballot box in time to cast their ballots.
“I was very shocked and upset because this is Canada that we’re in. It’s not some crazy dictatorship,” Ms. Testart said Friday. “I was really appalled … that someone in Canada would make such a blatant attack at our democracy and our voting process.”
Former Guelph Tory candidate Brent Barr, who ran in 2006, thinks whoever is responsible for the misleading calls should serve jail time.
“It’s a very dirty game and it shouldn’t be,” he said of politics, adding all parties are culpable. “If people do not get irate and do not hoot and holler and kick people out over these things, they’re only going to get worse.”
Mr. Winegard considers jail time too harsh a penalty, but he hopes the truth is unravelled. Politics, the elder statesman said, wasn’t always this way.
“We had always prided ourselves in Guelph on running good, tough, but straight-up campaigns,” he said. “Let’s truly hope this is a one-off kind of thing and that next election – provincial or federal – we go back to being civilized combatants.”
With a report from Kim Mackrael