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Third-party groups have already poured millions of dollars into the federal election campaign, with the lion’s share of that money coming from unions, according to the first round of Elections Canada financial reports to be released since the campaign began.

The documents also detail the donors to Canada Proud, which along with its earlier cousin, Ontario Proud, was the subject of a recent Globe and Mail investigation into the rise of third-party cash. The group raised roughly $250,000 as of Sept. 15, more than half of which came from corporate donors or people connected to them.

There have been federal rules governing the role of third-party groups in election campaigns since the 1990s. However, that activity has increased since corporate and union donations were banned from donating directly to candidates and political parties and as cheaper online advertising has made it easier for groups to get their message out.

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New rules in place this year extended restrictions and spending limits into a prewrit period that begins several months before the start of the official campaign. The law was expanded to include not just advertising but also activity such as polling and canvassing, and it significantly increased the spending limits. Third-party groups are forbidden from working with political parties.

More than 80 organizations have registered as third parties and 18 have released financial interim reports, which are only required when groups spend more than $10,000.

By far the largest third-party group has been the labour union Unifor, which spent about $900,000 between June 30 and when the campaign began last Wednesday – just shy of the limit of $1,023,400. Now that the campaign has begun, Unifor has already spent another $366,000 and plans to hit the limit of $511,700 on a series of ads attacking the Conservatives and Leader Andrew Scheer

The United Steelworkers have spent $736,000 on a campaign endorsing NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. The Canadian Labour Congress has so far spent $278,000 on ads through a group called Fairness Works, promoting an array of progressive issues but not endorsing a particular candidate. The Canadian Union of Public Employees, which also supports the NDP, spent about $51,000 in the prewrit period

Unifor president Jerry Dias said he supports spending limits to curb the influence of money in politics, although he argued the union is simply adding balance to a system that is already awash in corporate money.

Unifor national president Jerry Diaz speaks at the Unifor union annual convention on Aug. 19, 2019 in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

“If we’re going to talk about a puritan system where the media and everybody else is hands off and there’s no interference, that’s one thing, but that’s not the system we live in," he said in an interview.

Of the non-union groups, the largest spender so far is Canada Proud, which has been using a mix of paid ads and widely-shared social-media posts to attack Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and support Mr. Scheer’s Conservatives.

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The Globe and Mail recently reported how the group’s precursor, Ontario Proud, had ties to conservative politics and was largely funded by home builders and construction companies. Both Ontario Proud and its new national counterpart are run by Jeff Ballingall, a former political staffer and employee of the short-lived Sun News Network.

Canada Proud raised $249,000 as of Sept. 15.

Of that, $50,000 came from Calgary-based Coril Holdings Ltd., which has interests in real estate, transportation and health care, while another $50,000 came from the company’s owner, Ronald Mannix. The Merit Contractors Association of Canada, whose provincial counterparts have supported conservative politicians in Alberta and Ontario, donated $45,000.

The bulk of the remaining contributions came from individual donors, including more than 2,000 who gave $200 or less.

Mr. Ballingall, who has cast the group as a counterpoint to union-funded campaigns, said Canada Proud has been successful not because of the money behind it but because of its message.

“It doesn’t matter how much money you spend online if your message doesn’t resonate,” he said in an interview.

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Another significant spender is the Canada Growth Council, which began in Western Canada with billboards targeting Liberal MPs but has expanded into Ontario. The group, run by several people with connections to the Saskatchewan Party, has so far raised $183,000 and spent nearly $100,000 of that.

Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch said the changes brought in by the Liberal government have strengthened the influence of corporate and union money in politics. He said the spending limits were increased because they now covered a wider range of activity, such as polling.

“But if you don’t do those things, you can spend the whole $511,000 on ads," he said in an interview.

“Especially big-business groups, they’re not going to be door knocking or canvassing. It makes the election much more driven by big-money interests.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said the Canadian Union of Public Employees spent $512,169 in the period before the election. In fact, the union spent $51,219.

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