Ontario aims to tame the 'Wild West' of 3rd party election advertising

Elections Ontario expects advertisers to register if they take out more than $500 in political ads this campaign.

Groups that spend more than $500 in advertising are supposed to register with Elections Ontario

An online ad promoting an Ontario Proud TV commercial. (Ontario Proud)

Ontario Proud, the province's most popular political Facebook group, is making no effort to hide the fact it buys ads that take some pointed shots at Kathleen Wynne. 

The group has bought ad space on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and even some traditional television spots.

When the election is over, it plans to provide a full accounting of what it spent to Elections Ontario.

"We've kept within the spending restrictions as outlined in the Elections Financing Act," said Ontario Proud lawyer Ryan O'Connor. "And we continue to abide by it and will until election day."

But he's concerned that not every advertiser is doing the same.

"It really is a Wild West out there."

Political parties, candidates, and riding associations must all follow specific rules around campaign spending and advertising. 

Any other group that engages in political advertising is considered a third party by Elections Ontario.

Any group that spends more than $500 on political ads must also follow specific rules and register as a third party.

The Elections Ontario website lists 34 groups registered as third-party advertisers, ranging from the Campaign Life coalition to the Ontario Nurses Association.

For the first time, the spending rules apply to the six-month period leading up to the vote.

CBC News has been able to track many of the Facebook ads placed during that time in a Political Ad database being crowdsourced and compiled by ProPublica, CBC and other news organizations.

It has found several ads placed by groups that have not registered with Elections Ontario.

Among some of the ads found in the database:

  • An ad from Canada Christian College's Charles McVety accusing Kathleen Wynne of bullying Tanya Granic Allen out as a PC candidate.

  • Press Progress promoting a story about London West PC candidate Andrew Lawton wanting to start a political movement modelled after the U.S. Tea Party.

  • A group called Scarborough Deserves Better taking out ads promoting articles critical of the Ontario Liberals.

  • An ad from the Fraser Institute criticizing Ontario's electricity policy.

  • A series of ads from the group Canadians for Eyewear Choice that feature images of Andrea Horwath, Doug Ford and Kathleen Wynne. The ad asks people to sign a petition in support of online eyeglass retailers.

Charles McVety says he spent about $300 on his Facebook ad in support of Tanya Granic Allen this week, after PC Leader Doug Ford removed the former leadership hopeful as a candidate in Mississauga Centre.

Facebook ad placed by Charles McVety on May 8 in support of Tanya Granic Allen. (ProPublica)

"It was an important one for me," he told CBC News.

Still, he finds the regulations confusing.

"We live in a new world, with new rules every day," he said.

Since McVety's ad buy falls below the Elections Ontario threshold, he may not need to register as a third-party advertiser. But it's not clear if those rules apply to the Canadians for Eyewear Choice ads.

CBC News reached out to two women associated with the group, who described it as a grassroots organization, staffed by volunteers trying to raise awareness about an injunction against online eyeglass sales in Ontario.

This Facebook ad bought by Canadians For Eyewear Choice may fall into a grey area. They insist they're not a third-party political group but their ads ask users to sign a petition that argues for policy change and is sent to Ontario politicians like NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. (Facebook)

"We are not a third-party election group," Beth Clarkson said in an email.

But many of their ads were directed at the main party leaders. The ads also asked supporters to sign an online petition in support of their cause. Clarkson did not respond to questions about whether her group had spent more than $500 on their Facebook ads, or the website for their online petition campaign.

O'Connor says the spending rules apply to any ad that tries to support a political issue.

"If you discuss any issue du-jour in Ontario politics, whether that's high hydro rates, high taxes, ethics or accountability in government ... any kind of advocacy on those issues, whether or not you mention a party, would be third party political advertising."

However, University of Guelph political scientist Tamara Small says the definition of what constitutes a political ad is vague, and open to interpretation by Elections Ontario.

She's not sure the Canadians for Eyewear Choice ads would qualify as political ads, since they don't specifically support or oppose one candidate.

"I think it is a grey area," said Small. "That would be for Elections Ontario to adjudicate and decide if they want to prosecute."

Elections Ontario says it will only investigate if it receives a complaint, and won't say if it has started looking into any of the ads.

O'Connor thinks when it comes to policing online ads, there's an issue of fairness to consider.

"We can't have one set of rules for the law-abiding, and another set of rules for people who openly flaunt the rules," he said.


Mike Wise

Host, CBC Toronto News at 11

Mike Wise is the anchor of CBC Toronto News at 11. Mike grew up in Brampton, but now calls North York home. He started at CBC when he was just 17 years old, as part of a high-school Co-Op placement. Mike is married and teaches journalism part-time at Humber College.