Comedian John Oliver waded into the Canadian election campaign on Sunday night, appearing to flout a law barring non-residents from attempting to influence an election as he urged voters not to re-elect Stephen Harper.
In a 15-minute segment on his weekly HBO show Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, the Daily Show alumnus offered a primer on Canadian elections, ran through some of the campaign’s small scandals (including the peeing-in-a-cup repairman-turned-Conservative-candidate Jerry Bance, and Alex Johnstone, the NDP candidate who declared she didn’t know what Auschwitz was), and mocked each of the three main federal leaders.
He played a clip of Tom Mulcair at a rally declaiming, “Health care, pharmacare, child care, Mulcair,” and one of Susan Delacourt, the Toronto Star’s parliamentary reporter, telling TVOntario’s Steve Paikin that Justin Trudeau has “an emotional intelligence that Pierre Trudeau didn’t have.” Laughing, Oliver said emotional intelligence is “the kind of made-up quality you might find on a report card from a Montessori school.”
But Oliver saved his real savagery for Stephen Harper, charging that the Conservatives have reduced environmental regulations, cut health-care benefits for refugees and attempted to inflame a culture war against Muslims.
He said Zunera Ishaq, the woman at the centre of the niqab debate, “sued Harper’s government, and won, presumably arguing that, if Harper was happy to let Canadians interact with their government dressed like this – ” – at which point Oliver showed a photo of the Conservative Leader shaking hands with an overall-clad, backward-baseball-cap-wearing Justin Bieber – “she should be allowed to wear whatever the fuck she wants.”
He concluded the segment by noting that Canadian law bars any non-resident from attempting to influence elections. Possible penalties include a $5,000 fine or six months in jail.
Section 331 of the Canada Elections Act declares: “No person who does not reside in Canada shall, during an election period, in any way induce electors to vote or refrain from voting or vote or refrain from voting for a particular candidate unless the person is (a) a Canadian citizen; or (b) a permanent resident within the meaning of subsection 2(1) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.”
Declaring that he wasn’t scared of any potential penalty, Oliver said he would tell Canadians to vote for someone other than Harper, and he would do so “in the most Canadian way possible.” He proceeded to bring out a man dressed as a beaver who played Sweet Caroline (a Stephen Harper favourite) on the piano; a man dressed as a moose “receiving a colonoscopy” courtesy of Canada’s single-payer health-care system; and Mike Myers dressed as a Mountie, riding a snowplow.
Together, the two comedians urged Canadians to elect someone other than Harper, and threw $5,000 into the air.
Bell Media and Corus Entertainment, which share the rights to HBO Canada programming, issued a joint press release Monday morning boasting that “Oliver blatantly invited people to not vote for Stephen Harper, breaking the Canadian election law ... a violation that could result in a $5,000 fine or six-months jail time.”
The Globe and Mail asked a spokesman for Bell Media, which broadcasts HBO Canada in the eastern half of the country, whether the company had any comment on the fact that it appears to have aided a non-resident in breaking Canadian law. He refused to comment.
On Monday afternoon, a spokeswoman for the Commissioner for Canada Elections said the law is not intended to prevent non-residents from offering their opinion on the election.
The act “has historically meant doing something that’s corrupt or nefarious,” Michelle Laliberté said. “Presenting an opinion or providing advice is not capture by the act.”
She added that “there hasn’t been in recent history anybody who’s been charged” under Section 331.
Oliver is not the first foreign celebrity to be threatened with the act.
In 2004, during a visit to Canada while promoting his film Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore urged Canadians not to vote for Harper. After a university student asked Elections Canada to charge Moore, Mike Bradley, the mayor of Sarnia, said he would make Moore an honorary citizen to protect him from the charges.
Last month, during a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, Moore joked about the 2004 incident, and said he would not be encouraging people to vote for any particular party this time around. Then he looked out into the audience and mouthed: “NDP.”