Politics

Kinsella consulting firm worked to 'seek and destroy' Bernier's PPC party, documents say

Warren Kinsella’s Daisy Group consulting firm was behind a social media campaign to put the People’s Party of Canada on the defensive and keep leader Maxime Bernier out of the federal leaders’ debates, according to documents provided to CBC News.

Source tells CBC News that Daisy Group was acting for Conservative Party of Canada

Lisa and Warren Kinsella lead Daisy Group, a Toronto-based consulting firm. Documents shown to CBC News reveal Daisy Group produced a project to 'seek and destroy' Maxime Bernier's People's Party of Canada for a client that a source tells CBC News is the Conservative Party of Canada. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Warren Kinsella's Daisy Group consulting firm was behind a social media campaign to put the People's Party of Canada (PPC) on the defensive and keep leader Maxime Bernier out of the federal leaders' debates, according to documents provided to CBC News.

The documents outline the work done by several employees of Daisy on behalf of an unnamed client. A source with knowledge of the project told CBC News that client was the Conservative Party of Canada.

The plan was first reported Friday night by the Globe and Mail.

According to a source with knowledge of the project, who spoke to CBC News on condition they not be named, the objective of the plan, dubbed "Project Cactus," was to make the Conservative Party look more attractive to voters by highlighting PPC candidates' and supporters' xenophobic statements on social media.

The source added that Daisy employed four full-time staffers on Project Cactus at one time.

Kinsella is a lawyer, anti-racism activist and former Liberal strategist who has been a vocal critic of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. 

Repeatedly asked to confirm or explain his party's involvement during a campaign event in Toronto on Saturday, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer refused to answer.

"As a rule, we never make comments on vendors that we may or may not have engaged with," he said repeatedly.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is repeatedly asked if his party contracted a firm to negatively target the People's Party of Canada. 1:46

Trudeau was asked today if he has concerns his party could also have been targeted, but he did not answer directly.

"We've seen through this campaign that the Conservatives have had to use the policies of fear and division and indeed, just make stuff up in order to get their message across," he said, during an event in Hamilton. 

"Why? It's because they have nothing to offer Canadians except $53 billion worth of cuts."

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said any plan to "subvert" a political party, paid by another party, is "troubling."

"I've made it clear that I don't believe someone like Mr. Bernier should have a platform to spread hateful messages. I think his messages are wrong," he said during a campaign event in Vancouver. 

"But at the end of the day, people should be able to discuss and express their opinions, as long as they're not hateful and divisive, and be able to have the forum to do that."

Singh said Scheer should be more transparent and explain his party's actions.

Bernier is expected to respond to the reports during a news conference at 2 p.m. ET in Sainte-Marie, Que.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May faced criticism from her own supporters in July when it was reported that Kinsella had been hired for her party. May told the Toronto Star that Kinsella's involvement, to set up a quick-response communications unit, was short-lived.

When asked Friday for comment about his work on the anti-Bernier project, Kinsella issued a short statement. 

"We don't ever discuss client matters," Kinsella said in an email. "We are always proud, however, to be fighting racism and intolerance."

Simon Jefferies, a spokesperson for the Conservative Party, told CBC News, "We do not comment on vendors or suppliers we may or may not be using."

'Seek and destroy'

Documents seen by CBC News outline a plan to "seek and destroy" the PPC and prevent Bernier from getting into the leaders' debates.

The project was designed with three phases, according to the documents.

The first involved research and branding in March and April. The second was identified as a "launch phase" known as "seek and destroy," running from April 16 through to June 30, the start of the pre-writ period when new restrictions kicked in for third-party advertising.

The third phase, to run "July 1st 2019 to TBD" was called the "full steam ahead phase," where the team would "push Maxime Bernier and the PCC off their messages — forcing them, instead, to defend instances of hate speech and sympathy for racism."

Portions of a WhatsApp Chatroom set up by Daisy for Project Cactus and shared with CBC News show Daisy employees workshopping tweets critical of PPC candidates or supporters before asking Kinsella's approval. The tweets were then published on STAMP Out Hate, a Twitter account set up April 24 for an existing anti-racism nonprofit run by Daisy.

Part of the plan involved setting up a Twitter account related to an anti-hate initiative connected to Daisy, known as Standing Together Against Misogyny and Prejudice, or STAMP. (Twitter)

In the documents seen by CBC News, drafted prior to the launch, STAMP is described as a screen for the project and its client.

"Daisy will create an arm's-length organization that cannot be linked to the client or any participating organization. This organization will run a proxy war room public relations campaign that allows real Canadians to shine a light on the prejudice and hate that is associated with the PPC," a Daisy consultant writes.

Anti-PPC tweets dried up after June 29

Tweets for the STAMP Twitter account that were workshopped in the chatroom and later tweeted out by the account are still visible online

The STAMP Out Hate account lambasted the PPC, its candidates and its supporters right up until June 29, a day before new election rules regarding third-party advertisers came into effect. The account has since stopped attacking Bernier's party but has continued to tweet anti-racist messages.

There is no indication whether any further work was done after June 29.

An anti-PPC tweet sent out by the STAMP account on June 29, the final day before new third-party advertising rules kicked in. (Twitter)

The emails outlining the plan for Project Cactus say "Daisy will work to ensure this campaign is not named as a third party." Later, in the Whatsapp chat provided to CBC News, a Daisy Group employee asks when the date for third-party spending rules kick in.

Another employee replies, "June 30" and the first employee responds, "great thanks!"

CBC News reached out to multiple employees involved in the chat but either did not receive a response or were told they would not comment.

In a statement to CBC News on Friday, the executive director of the PPC said, "It hardly comes as a surprise that the Conservative Party of Canada would be behind such disgraceful and cowardly tactics."

"As our Leader Maxime Bernier stated when he left the CPC and repeated on numerous occasions since then, they are 'morally and intellectually corrupt.' And today, this story proves it without a doubt," Johanne Mennie said in an email.

With files from Ashley Burke

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