Politics·Fact Check

Is the 2019 election Canada's 'nastiest' ever? Not by a long shot

The 2019 vote is just another in long list of Canada's most divisive and dirty elections.

Justin Trudeau accused the Conservatives of playing 'dirty'. But all the parties are guilty, say the experts.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer take part in the the federal leaders' French language debate in Gatineau, Que. last week. Trudeau is accusing the Conservatives of running one of the "nastiest" campaigns in Canadian history. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The claim: "We know that the Conservative Party is running one of the dirtiest, nastiest campaigns based on disinformation that we've ever seen in this country and it's no surprise that they don't want to share whose deep pockets are funding their attacks on Canadians, on other parties, and on the most important fight of our generation, the fight against climate change."

— Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau frames the 2019 election campaign as an historical aberration during an event in Montreal on Wednesday.

The facts:

Canada's electoral history has never been pretty.

In the years immediately before and after Confederation — when votes were carried out by voice at public meetings — the system was crooked by design. The parties frequently purchased loyalties with cash, or with gifts of food, booze or household staples. And they made certain they were getting what they paid for by keeping lists of the bribes and crossing off names.

The necessary funds came from party backers and self-interested corporate titans — people like railway baron Sir Hugh Allan, who was at the centre of the Pacific Scandal that led to the fall of Sir John A. Macdonald's government in 1873.

"Elections cannot be carried without money," fumed John H. Cameron, the Conservative MP for Peel, as the House of Commons debated secret ballots in the scandal's aftermath. "Under an open system of voting, you can readily ascertain whether the voter has deceived you. Under vote by ballot, an elector may take your money and vote as he likes without detection."

The abuses continued even after open voting ended. Clergy regularly threatened hellfire from the pulpits, and businesses promised instant unemployment, should parishioners or employees break ranks and vote for the wrong party. Electoral lists were drawn up by government appointees who struck off opposition supporters and retained the names of residents who had moved or died — so that ballot boxes could be stuffed if required.

How bad was it back then? According to Elections Canada, between 1874 and 1896 the courts overturned the results in 134 ridings on the grounds that one party or the other had committed vote fraud.

Changes to the laws on elections and political donations improved the situation. But that didn't result in campaigns becoming more genteel or evidence-based.

Matthew Hayday, a professor of Canadian history at the University of Guelph, cites a few prime examples of gutter politics. In the 1917 election, Robert Borden's Unionist government manipulated voting rules, painted anti-conscription Quebecers as traitors and openly accused Liberal Leader Wilfrid Laurier of being in the corner of the German Kaiser.

In the 1993 campaign, Kim Campbell's Conservatives aired their infamous "Think Twice" commercials featuring close-ups of Jean Chrétien's face — ads that many perceived as mocking the Liberal leader's partial facial paralysis.

"To me, those campaigns were far worse than anything we've seen in this election," said Hayday.

Unionist posters from the 1917 federal election campaign. (Library and Archives Canada)

Richard Johnston is the Canada Research Chair in Public Opinion, Elections and Representation at the University of British Columbia. He said he thinks that this campaign has been "more vituperative" than many recent elections — but negative politics has been the norm in Canada for a long time.

He pointed to the June 1945 federal and Ontario provincial elections, which saw Conservative backers portraying the left wing Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) — the forerunner of the NDP — as a party of "foreign" ideas, and published pamphlets featuring anti-Semitic caricatures of David Lewis, the CCF's national secretary.

"That would probably be the true low point in Canadian history," said Johnston.

In fact, upbeat and optimistic campaigns like Jack Layton's 2011 run, or Justin Trudeau's 2015 offer of "sunny ways", are the exceptions in Canadian politics — not the rule.

Paul Martin's Liberals clung to power in 2004 by going ultra-negative against Stephen Harper's Tories. The 2011 Conservative win was sullied by the 'Robocall' scandal — which saw voters directed to the wrong polling places — and by the attempted 'swiftboating' of Jack Layton with a leaked story about an old massage parlour raid.

And it's worth noting that self-fulfilling prophecies seem to be at play this time around. A year ago, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and Trudeau both warned that the 2019 election would be dirty and perhaps "the nastiest one yet."

To be sure, this campaign has been filled with pointed personal criticism, and things like Trudeau's blackface scandal and the controversy over Scheer's dual citizenship have often overshadowed the platforms.

And it's fair to say that, as the vote approaches, all the parties seem to be doing their best to stoke public fears about their opponents with talk of "secret" plans about hard drugs or abortion, or through third party attack ads and selectively-edited campaign literature.

"We are living in a more polarized political climate in Canada," said Johnston, "and nobody's hands are clean."

It's worth remembering at this point that, just six months ago, the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP all signed on to a global "election integrity" pledge through which they vowed to crack down on the use of social media bots and avoid the dissemination of "falsified, fabricated" disinformation.

The Verdict: False. The 2019 campaign has featured plenty of ugliness, but it is hardly ranks among the "nastiest, dirtiest" elections in Canadian history. Still, as the clock ticks down, there might be new depths to be plumbed. 

Sources: A History of the Vote in Canada, Elections Canada; The Pacific Scandal, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Back then, when the hustings really got down and dirty, Globe and Mail; Top dirty tricks from past campaigns, iPolitics; The Pollcast: Canada's divisive wartime election, CBC News; Zolf: Larry Zolf, Exile Editions, 1999; Martin wins nasty campaign, The Canadian Encyclopedia; Michael Sona guilty in robocalls trial - but 'did not likely act alone', CBC News; No charges in Layton massage parlour leak, CBC News; Conservative leader predicts a 'nasty' election campaign in 2019, CBC News; 2019 federal election campaign likely to be nastiest ever, Trudeau says, CTV News; Scheer suggests Liberals could decriminalize hard drugs, despite Trudeau's denial, CBC News; Liberals, Conservatives and NDP endorse global pledge against fraudulent campaign tactics, Globe and Mail; The Pledge for Election Integrity, Alliance of Democracies.


Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.

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