Donations from wealthy individuals more important under new Alberta election ad rules

Alberta's United Conservative Party government made sweeping changes to election advertising in 2021, effectively barring union and corporate money. Here’s how the new rules are playing out.

Third-party advertisers can spend a maximum of $318,400 during the election period

An outside shot of the Alberta Legislature building. There are green trees and a fountain in front of the stone building.
The Alberta Legislature Building in Edmonton, Alberta. (Codie McLachlan/CBC)

Political parties aren't the only ones trying to sway voters during this election. Third-party advertisers are also hoping to influence, on issues ranging from policing to Alberta's role in Confederation, and they have hundreds of thousands of dollars to do it.

However, legislation passed by the United Conservative Party government in 2021 changed the rules for advertisers by banning donations from corporations, unions and people living outside of Alberta. 

The result, according to financial documents filed with Elections Alberta so far, is less money for third-party advertising overall and an environment where donations from a handful of wealthy people are becoming more important for third-party advertisers that want to promote their messages.

Even if the advertisers can find a way to raise the maximum amount allowed under the new rules — $318,400 — it can be hard to reach a diverse audience with those ads, said Greg Anderson, a political science professor at the University of Alberta. 

"Where you spend that money, and what kind of value you get for it, is really tricky," Anderson said. "Are you good at using that $300,000 to actually target the voters you want to get to the polls with a certain message?"

How third-party ads work and what changed

Third-party advertisers are similar to political action committees in the United States, but with more restrictions. They are defined as any group that wants to promote or oppose a registered party or candidate, or an issue associated with a party or candidate.

Third-party advertisers can spend a maximum of $318,400 during the election period — from Jan. 1 in the year of the election until polls close on election day. In Alberta's 2019 election, 20 of these groups pumped a total of $1 million into advertising.

This year, things are different. Seventeen third-party advertisers are registered and only six of them have reported income so far during the election period. These six groups collectively raised just over $600,000.

The difference between this election and the last one has a lot to do with the Election Statutes Amendment Act (Bill 81), which the legislature passed in 2021.

A man wearing glasses and a suit stands in front of Alberta and Canada flags.
Kaycee Madu was justice minister when he sponsored Bill 81, which made broad changes to election rules in Alberta. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Bill 81 prohibits unions and corporations from donating to third-party advertisers during the five-month election period. This change cut off the funding many third-party advertisers used to run campaigns during the last election.

Now, all donations to third-party advertisers during the election period have to come from individuals. Donors must be Alberta residents and the maximum individual donation is capped at $30,000 per year.

The not-for-profit Public Interest Alberta is a third-party advertiser that relied on union donors in the past. It spent $50,000 on ads during the 2019 election. Elections Alberta records show it posted a return of $0 raised in this election period.

Bradley Lafortune, executive director of Public Interest Alberta, said he supports a ban on corporate and union donations during elections, even if it hinders fundraising.

"We've always advocated for strengthening third-party advertising and election financing rules," Lafortune said. 

"We think Albertans should be deciding elections, not corporations, not labour unions, not any third-party organization."

Unions figure out how to play by the new rules

A man with a beard holds a microphone. He's standing in front of a white flag that says AUPE.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says new election finance laws are designed to silence unions. (Julie Prejet/CBC)

The Alberta Federation of Labour does not share Lafortune's optimism about the changes. 

It was one of the largest third-party advertisers in the 2019 election, raising nearly $250,000 from union locals. In April, the AFL filed a return for $0 raised so far during this election period.

AFL president Gil McGowan said he sees Bill 81 as a UCP move to silence unions.

"What they are trying to do, very clearly, is to shut workers up and shut us down, especially in the context of politics," McGowan said.

"They wrap themselves in the flag of freedom and free speech, but they are trying to shut down the free speech of working people in this province."

McGowan said the AFL is running an ad campaign, but it will be smaller than during the last election. 

The AFL will pay for it through existing funds, which McGowan said are grandfathered into the new rules. The AFL can't replenish those funds once they run out.

Two other union groups, the National Police Federation and the Health Sciences Association, have raised money under the new rules since January.

A man in a blue collared shirt with a suit jacket. He's sitting in a chair in an office setting.
Brian Sauvé, president of the National Police Federation, says the organization is campaigning in Alberta to convince voters to consider the future of the RCMP when voting in the May 29 provincial election. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

The National Police Federation, the union for the RCMP, is advertising to oppose the UCP's plan for a provincial police force. It raised $127,931, the second highest of all registered third-party advertisers.

NPF president Brian Sauvé said the federation isn't permitted to fund the campaign itself under the new rules. Instead, it solicited donations of $250 or less from a database of Alberta residents who supported its "Keep Alberta RCMP" campaign.

"We reached out to them, and they have opened their pocketbooks," Sauvé said.

The Health Sciences Association of Alberta, which represents health-care workers including paramedics and lab workers, also raised money through individual donations — $103,259 so far, according to its filing. 

That's less than the $190,848 it spent on ads in 2019, which came through five large contributions from the association itself.

Wealthy individuals open their wallets

Photos of downtown Calgary taken Jan. 9, 2023.
Businessmen in Calgary have donated thousands to Alberta First Initiative and The Buffalo Project, two third-party advertisers registered with Elections Alberta. (Nicholas Coyne)

Four third-party advertiser groups, all backed by Calgary-area businessmen, raised a significant amount of money under the new rules. They switched from a mix of corporate and individual donations before the January deadline to large individual donations during the election period.

Alberta First Initiative tops the list for money raised, with $228,000 so far, according to its online filings. The group runs ads saying Alberta can't afford an NDP government.

During this campaign period, the Alberta First donors are 15 businessmen with ties to real estate and energy in Calgary.

Mackenzie Lee is listed as founder of Alberta First. He works for a surveying company in Calgary. Lee declined an interview with the CBC.

Donors to Alberta First include home builder Cal Wenzel, who gave $20,000, and Jay Westman, another housing developer, who donated $25,000. Airdrie resident Thomas Dawson donated the maximum amount of $30,000.

The Buffalo Project is another third-party advertiser, funded by 15 wealthy people in Calgary and area. It has raised $109,100 in the election period so far, according to online filings.

The group says it aims to strengthen the role of Alberta and Saskatchewan in federation. It paid for billboards with the faces of Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh with the slogan: "They are one and the same."

Some donors to the Buffalo Party include WestJet co-founder Don Bell, former PotashCorp CEO Dallas Howe and former Imperial Oil chairman Tim Hearn. They each donated $10,000. 

The Buffalo Project's chief financial officer is Bill Turnbull, a Calgary real estate developer who donated $5,000. He did not respond to requests for an interview.

Two other third-party advertisers, Alberta Proud and Shaping Alberta's Future, have raised smaller amounts through individual donations.

Take Back Alberta is another group with similar messaging that will be active during this election. It posted a return of $0 raised so far in this election period, and $22,309 raised in 2022.

A while man in a red and black buffalo check jacket with a ball cap on. He's standing in front of a tractor and a truck.
Marco Van Huigenbos, a councillor in Fort Macleod, Alta., is involved with the Take Back Alberta third-party advertiser. (Mirna Djukic/Radio-Canada)

Take Back Alberta urges voters to support conservative candidates. Marco Van Huigenbos registered the group with Elections Alberta last year. A Fort Macleod town councillor, Van Huigenbos is facing charges of mischief over $5,000 after the blockade at the Coutts border crossing.

Take Back Alberta executive director David Parker says the group is recruiting volunteers province-wide and will focus efforts in hotly contested ridings.

"We're probably focused on the same ridings as everybody else, Calgary, the [Edmonton] doughnut, Lethbridge," Parker said. "That's where the campaign is being fought."

Not registering, or sitting this one out

A group of seven people stand in front of a billboard with chairs on it. They are holding signs that "stand for public education" and "my class size is 35."
Alberta Teachers' Association president Jason Schilling stands with local teachers in front of a billboard in Red Deer, Alta. (Alberta Teachers Association)

The Alberta Teachers' Association is missing from the list of registered third-party advertisers. It spent the maximum allowable amount during the last election.

Even though the ATA isn't registered, it already rolled out an ad campaign featuring rows of chairs with the tagline "Alberta's classrooms are over capacity."

The ATA will keep ads politically neutral, so it does not have to register with Elections Alberta, said associate communications co-ordinator Jonathan Teghtmeyer.

"We're a non-partisan organization, so we do not support or oppose any specific parties or candidates," Teghtmeyer said. 

"We don't take a position on an issue that is associated with a candidate, or a party."

However, the ATA ads run a risk of breaking the law if one of the political parties makes class sizes a campaign issue.

"This is a risk with all advertisers, and with this legislation, generally," said Teghtmeyer. "We don't know what any party is going to put forward in their platforms as we design campaigns."

The Alberta Roadbuilders and Heavy Construction Association is taking the opposite approach of the teachers. It spent around $50,000 on third-party ads during the 2019 campaign, but plans to sit this election out.

"On behalf of the organization I run, we are going to comply with the law," said president Ron Glen. 

"We understand that, during elections, they should be contested by political parties, during the campaign."

Glen said the association's board talked about other options, but decided it would not solicit individual donations or advertise without registering. It will resume advertising after the election.

After the election is over, Albertans will have a clearer picture of how the new advertising rules played out, and which groups found a way to operate within them.

Election third party advertisers have to file weekly financial reports with Elections Alberta for the remainder of the campaign period, with a final report within six months of election day, May 29.


Emily Senger is director of CBC's Radio Active in Edmonton. You can reach her at emily.senger@cbc.ca