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CANADIAN SCIENTISTS TAKE ISSUE WITH ELECTIONS CANADA’S INTERPRETATION OF THE ELECTIONS ACT
By Suzanne Forcese
On August 20, 2019, Stephane Perrault, Chief Electoral Officer, Elections Canada issued a clarifying statement after a number of media outlets reported that since the leader of the People’s Party of Canada had expressed an opinion regarding the role of human activity in climate change, any group that promotes action to fight climate change in paid advertising would be seen by Elections Canada as engaging in partisan advertising. In the statement, Perrault said, “The Elections Act does not make a distinction between fact and opinion”. A statement that concerns Canadian scientists.
WaterToday spoke with Katie Gibbs, Founder of Evidence For Democracy, (E4D) (watertodayca/ts-climate-change-funding-not-renewed-for-climate-change-scientists.asp) who informed WT of an open letter signed by 352 scientists urging Elections Canada to clarify the communication of climate change facts during elections. The letter was sent August 22, 2019, two days after Perrault’s ‘clarification'.
“The media coverage has been awful,” Gibbs told WT. “There have been over-exaggerations and misinformation. We have been trying to fight the misinformation on both sides. We are saying we want to comply with the legalities but we need more guidance.”
The 352 open letter signatories, all Canadian researchers, including 8 Canada Research Chairs, who are working in Canada or abroad, are concerned that describing climate change as an issue under which regulation may be required
makes it a subject that is open to debate. “The weight of scientific evidence and consistent cross-party political support for major international climate efforts makes absolutely clear that the existence of climate change is not up for debate,” said Dr. Marie Claire Brisbois, Assistant Professor at the University of Sussex, in the letter. “Given this scientific consensus, we don’t think that organizations and individuals should have to register as a third party in order to advertise to Canadians on the existence of climate change.”
According to Elections Canada’s interpretation of the Elections Act, “the Act does not prevent individuals or groups from talking about issues or publishing information. However, if they spend $500 or more on certain activities, they will need to register with Elections Canada and be subject to a spending limit of $511,700 during the election period.”
Scientists are objecting to the third party registrations on two points. “The bureaucratic process of registering in order to share non-partisan science may stifle evidence-based discussion on climate change during both a crucial democratic process and a critical period for climate action,” said Dr. Christopher Lyon, Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, in the August 22, 2019 open letter. “Together, these items set a chilling precedent for the discussion of science-based concern.”
“Previously our interpretation was the same as everyone else’s,” Gibbs told WT. “It is generally agreed that it is fine to say that climate change is an important topic but if you were to take a position such as ‘we need a carbon tax’, that would obviously mean you are supporting a political view.”
What concerns scientists is the broad view Elections Canada appears to be taking. “They have broadened their view and have given no indication as to the
threshold. We do a lot of advertising. We have printed materials. Is that crossing the threshold? At the moment we are not affected. But once the writ comes out, we don’t know.”
Another point of contention among the scientists is in placing ‘doubt’ on climate change upon which there is a scientific consensus. However Elections Canada does not enforce rules around registration on many other issues upon which there is scientific consensus – the health impacts of tobacco, for instance.
In a post on the West Coast Environmental Law Website, Andrew Gage, staff lawyer writes, “For some years Canada’s election laws have placed restrictions on election advertising. These rules require companies, non-profits, unions and others who spend a relatively significant amount on advertising during an election period to register and they limit the amount they can spend. It means that one deep-pocketed corporation cannot funnel massive amounts of money into skewing the election debate.”
The Canada Elections Act states, Gage continues, “Election advertising means the transmission to the public by any means during an election period of an advertising message that promotes or opposes a registered party or the election of a candidate, including by taking a position on an issue with which a registered party or candidate is associated. Recent media headlines suggested that because one party questions reality (of climate change), talking about the reality of climate change could be seen as partisan activity. This is not so. Election advertising is NOT the same thing as partisan activity.”
A corporation, non-profit, charity, union or individual that spends more than $500 on spreading a message related to climate change during the election writ period may need to register with Elections Canada if climate change becomes an election issue, in the sense that parties or candidates take positions on it.
“However, if Elections Canada staff suggested, as the original media stories reported, that talking about climate science would be considered ‘partisan’ even without referencing a party or individual candidate by name, this is not legally accurate. Other rules in the Elections Act regulate ‘partisan advertising’ which refers to the transmission of an advertising message that explicitly promotes or opposes a party or candidate, otherwise than by taking a position on an issue with which any such party or person is associated.”
There appears to be more confusion and misinformation in Elections Canada’s interpretations since partisan advertising raises different legal requirements than what Elections Canada calls ‘issue-based’ election advertising. Those undertaking partisan activities should already have registered if they have spent more than $500 in the ‘pre-election period’ which started June 30. Further, the law prohibits charities from engaging in partisan communications, making those organizations highly sensitive about being labelled partisan.
The open letter continues with the overwhelming consensus of the global scientific community on the existence of human-induced climate change. “This is primarily due to greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. It is an unprecedented challenge to humanity’s future.” In addition, major legal rulings in Canada have affirmed the unambiguous reality of climate change. In 2019, the Ontario Court of Appeals found that “There is no dispute that global climate change is taking place and that human activities are the primary cause.”
Again in 2019, The Court of Appeal for Saskatchewan found “The factual record presented to the Court confirms that climate change caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions is one of the great existential issues of our time.”
The scientific community believes, “the Canadian electorate deserve every opportunity to learn about climate change. It is already affecting lives and livelihood.”
It is a perplexing time for Katie Gibbs and other members of the charities and non-profit sector. As key translators of scientific knowledge and pathways to action, their mission in helping the public to ask informed questions of their candidates and parties cannot be fulfilled until they receive clarity and guidance in the interpretation of the Elections Act. In the final request the letter states:
“We the undersigned Canadian scientists and researchers ask that elections Canada recognize – along with the overwhelming majority of other countries and global institutions – that human-caused climate change is a non-partisan phenomenon of deep relevance to voters in Canada.”
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