Elections Canada is standing by its directive that to run election ads about climate change, environmental groups will have to follow rules that some organizations say would effectively silence them during a crucial debate.
A coalition of environmental organizations is running a social-media campaign called One Earth, One Vote, which urges Canadians to encourage all political parties to “implement a strong climate action plan that meets our international commitments to keep global warming below catastrophic levels.”
Once the election campaign starts in September, organizations that advertise about the urgent need for climate action would face rules for third-party advertising that require them to register with Elections Canada, submit audits of activity and name their donors.
The groups are worried that the regulations could prohibit them from engaging in advertising not related to the election.
Agency officials warned environmental groups earlier this summer that climate change has become an election issue because Maxime Bernier, Leader of the People’s Party of Canada, has expressed skepticism about whether it is human-caused or requires urgent action. As a result, groups that, during the campaign, promote the broad scientific evidence that there is a growing crisis will fall under Elections Canada regulations.
“The [elections] act is designed that way because nobody wants an agency or a bureaucrat in Ottawa deciding who is or isn’t credible,” Elections Canada spokeswoman Natasha Gauthier said. “That’s not how a democracy works. The act is agnostic on ideology and the act is agnostic on the validity of the issue.”
Environmental groups say climate science is not a matter of one candidate’s opinion, it is fact.
The organizations are considering whether to continue this fall with their advocacy campaign, which is unregulated in the precampaign period because it is is non-partisan, and with how to respond to concerns that paid social-media activity on climate change could be fall under the advertising rules.
“We were assuming that we could continue to talk about the importance of the issue and the validity of the issue,” Tim Gray, executive director at Toronto-based Environmental Defence, said on Monday. “But what [Elections Canada is] saying now is that if you just want to say that climate change is real, that because a political party says it is not, contrary to all scientific fact, that public interest groups have to register as third-party advertisers. ... It’s a bit of a cop-out for Elections Canada to say it has no possible way of differentiating between truth and fiction on policy issues."
Mr. Gray said meeting third-party regulations would be onerous for the organization and could threaten its charitable status. Environmental Defence is a registered charity that promotes the need to reduce greenhouse gases and other pollution through education and the encouragement of action, according to its registration with the Canada Revenue Agency.
Revenue Canada has ruled that “public policy dialogue and development work" are valid charitable activities, including support or opposition to a law, policy or a decision of government. However, a charity cannot offer “direct or indirect support of, or opposition to, any political party or candidate for public office," spokesman Etienne Biram said in an e-mail. An organization may register as a third party and undertake non-partisan election-issue advertising and not jeopardize its charitable status, he added.
Asked about the Elections Canada directive at an event in Quebec City, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government would “look closely” at how the agency is dealing with the issue.
“I will always respect Elections Canada’s role and responsibility to independently apply the election law,” Mr. Trudeau said. He then attacked “conservative politicians” who question the validity of climate science or the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to combat it.
Daniel Schow, a spokesman for Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer, said the Liberal government should let Elections Canada do its job. “It is up to them to regulate groups that spend money on advocacy during the election writ,” Mr. Schow said.
Conservatives have, in the past, accused environmental groups of engaging in partisan activities in contravention of their charitable status, although no major organizations were found to have violated regulations. Mr. Schow noted Mr. Scheer has acknowledged the reality of climate change and called it a “serious threat.”