Minister in Doug Ford’s government accused of using controversial new law to try to ‘silence’ grassroots groups

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An Ontario cabinet minister used a controversial new election ad law to try to handcuff at least three grassroots organizations — including two in his riding who are fighting the province’s decision to build a new prison. .

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Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark filed a complaint with Elections Ontario last month, targeting two small community organizations in Kemptville, alleging they were “conducting unregistered third-party political advertising” by sending mailers and putting up lawn signs. Were. Starr learns that the prison is planned for an Eastern Ontario community of 4,000.

Two groups – the Coalition Against the Proposed Prison (CAPP) and the Prison Opposition Group (JOG) – have been vocal about the lack of consultation about the province’s plans to create a maximum-security 235-bed facility in a community with no social services. Huh. , shelters, court or public transport.

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Colleen Linas, head of the CAPP, a nonpartisan group composed mostly of retirees, said she was “stunned” when she was informed by Election Ontario that a complaint had been filed by Clark alleging Was told that they are “breaking the law.”

“We were initially shocked that Minister Clark would use election funding laws to try to silence his own constituents who are only speaking publicly on behalf of their community,” Linas said.

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“We are a small group, most of us are retired. We don’t have money – we are just a group of people who believe in the importance of attending a public square. Why would he think it has merit and why would he take the time to personally file a complaint?

In its letter to Linas obtained by the Star, Election Ontario said there was no merit in the complaint against the two groups in Kemptville, which is about 60 kilometers south of Ottawa.

This summer, the Doug Ford government faced criticism when it implemented a “despite clause” to the rarely used Charter of Rights and Freedoms to enforce spending limits on third-party advertising. forced, capped it to $600,000 12 months before the election. Any organization that spends more than $500 on political advertising must now register as a third party.

Clarke’s director of communications Zoe Knowles said the minister had heard “increased political activity from third-party organizations in the ride, from several concerned constituents.”

But critics say the definition of political advertising is unclear. While the government argued that a change in law is a necessary tool to protect elections from outside influence, others believe it is a way of silencing the opposition.

“The real problem is that the definition of political advertising is so vague and ambiguous that it can apply to situations that have nothing to do with the election – this is a good example of that,” said working lawyer Paul Cavaluzzo. Family union coalitions who have launched a constitutional challenge to the law.

“It has to do with a government policy – ​​they are talking about whether to put a prison in a particular place – and a neighborhood group is, in fact, advertising that as political speech,” he also said. said.

But given the vague definition of political advertising, the law “can be used by the government to attack you … that you do not name the party on the sign, that you do not name a candidate or that you do not name the party.” You don’t name the leader of the party, you don’t use the colors of the party – but that’s what’s happening and that’s the problem.”

Such complaints force community groups to seek legal help, which they cannot afford, and it also has a “cool” effect on free speech, he said.

“In the future they are going to be discouraged from exercising their freedom of expression and that was probably the point of the complaint – to silence them, to suppress their political speech, which is terrible,” he said. .

And coming from a cabinet minister, the complaint “will certainly attract the attention of Election Ontario,” Cavaluzzo said, calling such a move against a community group “very unconscionable.”

Knowles said that in addition to the two Kemptville groups, the minister filed a complaint against the Peaceful Parks Coalition, a group that describes itself on its website as a Volunteer Citizens Coalition that encourages the public to protect Ontario’s wildlife and wild places. does.

“Election Ontario reviewed the activities of the organizations and advised the Peaceful Parks Coalition (PPC) that they are not in compliance with the Election Finance Act and should be registered as a third party. As a result, we understand that this organization has We have now taken steps to complete this registration process,” Knowles said.

Annamaria Valestro with PPC said they were “surprised” by the complaint and that “third party advertising limits were so low that it started at $500.”

“It tells me that Doug Ford is concerned about those ‘kitchen table moms’ handing out flyers in their neighborhoods,” she said.

Knowles defended Clark’s decision to file the complaint, saying, “Ontario’s election mandate is to maintain the integrity, security and transparency of the electoral process, including educating political organizations about their legislative requirements and responsibilities.” “

Kirk Albert, founder of the prison opposition group, said Clark’s complaint was “anti-democratic and an attempt to placate dissent to the proposed prison plan,” he said.

“We’re really only trying to inform our residents in Kemptville about the prison imposed,” he said. “We are trying to provide a service, mostly because it is very difficult to get information about this project from the Solicitor General or the Steve Clark Ministry.”

“We don’t expect that from our elected officials,” he said. “It’s not something that’s going to slow our efforts.”

A spokesman for Elections Ontario would not confirm whether any complaints were received about the election advertising, saying the number and types of cases are contained in the annual report, and that it “does not comment on whether He has received complaints.”

Clark, as Minister for Municipal Affairs and Housing, has been criticized by his government for his frequent use of ministerial zoning orders, or MZOs, which override any local or regional council planning decisions and cannot be appealed. . An investigation by Torstar detailed how the order is being used by the Ford government to benefit a select group of land developers.

Noor Javed 905 is a Toronto-based reporter for Star covering city news with an interest in municipal politics. Follow him on Twitter: @njaved
Kristin Rushovi is a Toronto-based reporter who covers Ontario politics for Granthshala. Follow him on Twitter: @krushowy
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