The video begins with images of angry protesters who “have attempted to landlock our resources.”
Then it cuts to shots of oil rigs and roughnecks in coveralls and hard hats.
“We’ve been busy reducing GHG emissions and maintaining the highest environmental and human rights standards for energy development in the world,” the voiceover says.
Over pictures of waterfalls and sunsets, community barbecues and playing children, the narrative reaches a crescendo.
“We create jobs and build schools, playgrounds and hospitals … pay doctors and teachers. … Canada needs us. The world needs us. We are Canadian energy and we are proud.”
Amid an increasingly acrimonious national debate over pipelines and climate change, the video — which has more than 5 million views across YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter — has all the hallmarks of a political advocacy ad. But because the two-minute video was put online two weeks before the writ was dropped, and because it does not name a party or a candidate, it skirts the disclosure rules that would publicly reveal who made the video, who paid for it, and how much it cost.
Canada’s election laws are among the strictest in the world, with hard caps on campaign and advertising spending and a ban on donations from corporations and unions. Amid growing fears of the potential for outside actors to manipulate election campaigns, stricter third-party rules were brought in earlier this year, broadening requirements for private interests to register and disclose their activities.
But instead of increasing transparency, the new rules have pushed private interests to broadcast their messages earlier and earlier in the campaign cycle, when they can choose to remain anonymous.
Outside of certain dates — June 30 for partisan ads and Sept. 11 for issue-based messages — Canadian election years are still a free-for-all where anyone can spend whatever they want without disclosing their identities or their funders.
The oil video, titled “Supporting the well-being of every Canadian,” ends with the logo of a group called “Canadians for Canada’s Future,” whose bare-bones website was registered 10 days before the video was posted. Other than a Calgary address, the website has no information on who is behind the group.
An email to the general mailbox, however, elicited a rapid response. Spokesperson Jesse Doenz was happy to talk about how a number of players in Alberta’s oil industry came together to make the project happen.
Doenz, an investor relations manager at Birchcliff Energy, said the video was inspired by a similar video put out by Oklahoma’s Oil & Natural Gas Producers & Royalty Owners that proudly boasted of its technological and environmental advancements.
“Some of the CEOs up here, including Mike Rose from Tourmaline [Oil], and [Birchcliff] CEO Jeff Tonken, were like, ‘We need to do something like this,’” said Doenz. “We only had five weeks to do it because we had to have the stuff out before the election in case energy is considered an election issue. There’s a bunch of rules around it, and we just didn’t want to be a part of that.”
Rose did not respond to questions about his involvement. In a telephone interview, Tonken stressed that the video wasn’t made with the election in mind. It was an effort to have an honest conversation about energy.
“We weren’t trying to influence the election when we started. Then we ran smack into the rules and stopped immediately,” he said.
“The rules are so restrictive. You can’t pay for any advertising anymore,” Token said. “It stops anybody from doing anything, because they don’t want to get offside these rules.”
Political messaging that falls just outside of the official campaign period is “one of the things that we do absolutely need to keep an eye on,” said Lisa Young, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.
“Transparency is important because it helps the person who sees the ad evaluate the source of the message,” said Young. “Is this a public service message that a group of concerned citizens have paid for? Or is there a corporation or a union that has a financial stake in the outcome of this public policy issue?”
After corporate and union political donations were banned at the federal level in 2004, Young said, money that once went to candidates and political parties started to flow to outside advocacy organizations.
“Back in the day, when corporations and unions could give money directly to political parties, we knew who was giving money to whom,” Young said.
“Now, some corporations play an active role in the political conversation via this kind of third-party spending. And when it happens inside the writ period, we have some notion of who it is that’s putting the money forward. But when it’s outside of the election period, we don’t necessarily know.”
Fixed election dates, which were instituted in 2007, have made it easier for third parties to execute their campaigns immediately before reporting rules and spending caps come into force.
Dan Robertson, a partner at One Persuades, a public affairs marketing firm that works with third parties before and during election campaigns, said most outside groups time their spending with the rules in mind.
“As a rule, there’s a bit more freedom and a higher spending cap in the pre-writ period,” he said. “Once the election starts, the cap becomes quite a bit more restrictive.”
Third-party spending has come to be known as “dark money” in the United States because of its ability to escape public scrutiny. Run largely by groups called super PACs that supposedly act at arm’s length from political parties, US dark money has poured through loopholes so big they now attract far more money than traditional — and publicly disclosed — campaign donations.
“We’re certainly not in the same place as the Americans by any stretch of the imagination,” said Young. “How dark is our dark money, really?”
Doenz said there was no attempt to hide who was behind the video, which was launched with fanfare at the Calgary Petroleum Club on Aug. 26 with a number of oil industry CEOs in attendance.
“We did the press release with my name on it, and we had the big release with 400 people,” he said. “Everyone knew it was coming from me. ... So we’re not trying to hide it at all. But we just didn’t have the names on the video because we wanted to make it inclusive.”
Tonken said he has received emails from people around the country who have seen the video.
“If people really want to know [who made the video], all you have to do is make a couple calls and you’ll end up here at Birchcliff,” he said.
A decision was made to create an umbrella group rather than put company logos on the video, Tonken said, because of a fear that viewers wouldn’t watch the video with an open mind if they knew it was made by oil companies.
The video was posted to Facebook and Twitter, and within hours it was shared by prominent Conservatives such as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall, and businessperson Brett Wilson.
It had more than 10,000 views in the first day.
Since then, the video’s spread has only accelerated, reaching a total of 10 million people by early October, Doenz said, including paid ad buys. Along the way, it has been promoted by a panoply of right-leaning groups like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Alberta Proud, and a number of oil industry groups, including the Modern Miracle Network and the Canadian Energy Network.
Tonken credited the video’s success to both a promotional push and organic spread. They reached out to Kenney and asked him to share the video early on, and purchased advertising on Facebook, targeting French speakers in Quebec, and on the CBC’s website.
While the video was posted before the official election period, its massive online circulation means it has continued to reach voters during the campaign.
There are actually eight versions of the video — four in English and four in French — each with different titles like “Supporting the well-being of every Canadian” or “The world needs Canadian energy.”
The videos cost more than $500,000 to produce and promote, Tonken said, money that was fronted by Birchcliff and Tourmaline. About 15 other companies later contributed, he said.
“We started the distribution of the video before the election started. And then we stopped all paid advertising the day the election was called.”
Doenz added that the video project was almost canceled because of restrictive election rules.
“We were like, ‘OK, it looks like we can do all this and get it out before the election. But we have to be careful on timing.’”
The Canadians for Canada’s Future video is not the only pro-oil third party operating on the fringes of this year’s election campaign. Since the spring, the oil and gas industry has been organizing to get its message out.
Back in April, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer attended a secret meeting with oil and gas executives outside Calgary that was organized by the pro-oil group Modern Miracle Network. The meeting was first reported by the Globe and Mail.
Modern Miracle Network, which is not registered as a third party with Elections Canada, did not respond to a request for comment.
Shortly after the meeting, Scheer commended the Modern Miracle Network’s fundraising, calling it “a clearinghouse for effective pro-oil and gas advocacy” in an interview with the Daily Oil Bulletin.
Tourmaline CEO Rose, who backed the Canadians for Canada’s Future video, is also on the board of the Modern Miracle Network and was reportedly in attendance at the April meeting, the Globe reported. The Star was unable to confirm this information.
Rose donated $30,000 to the Conservative party during Alberta’s last election, but has since focused his donations on third parties. This spring, he contributed $20,000 to Alberta Proud, which blasted former premier Rachel Notley.
The Modern Miracle Network donated $7,000 to New Brunswick Proud during its election last fall. Conservatives took power in both provinces.
Ontario Proud, which helped elect Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford last year in Ontario, didn’t receive any donations from oil companies or their executives. But it did pay more than $30,000 to the strategy firm One Persuades — which is comanaged by Scheer’s campaign manager, Hamish Marshall — to produce TV ads in the months before the election campaign started. The ads later ran on CP24.
Marshall referred comment to Dan Robertson, another partner at One Persuades, who said no one at the firm was affiliated with a particular campaign at the time.
Elections Canada has produced a 69-page handbook to help third parties comply with the law.
It requires any group that spends more than $500 on a “regulated activity” such as surveys, advertising, or door-to-door canvassing during the preelection or election period (from June 30 to Election Day) to register as a third party. If that group raises or spends $10,000 or more, it has to file periodic interim reports detailing donations and expenses. All third parties must file a final report four months after the election detailing all donations and expenses.
Spending by third parties is capped at $1,023,400 for the preelection period and $511,700 for the election period. Foreign contributions are banned.
Online videos, such as the one posted by Canadians for Canada’s Future, are not considered a “regulated activity” because they are not paid advertising. Paying to promote the video, however, would draw it into Election Canada’s rules.
The rules are also written in such a way as to exempt groups running issue-based ads during the preelection period and those running explicitly partisan ads, as long as they ran before June 30.
A group called “Engage Canada” ran a series of high-profile television ads attacking Scheer during the NBA Finals in June. The ads ceased immediately after the championship run, and the group is not currently registered as a third party with Elections Canada.
The last update of its website was on June 28.
On its website, the group says it is a “broad-based, grassroots organization” that has “received funding from groups, organizations, and individuals from across Canada.”
Engage Canada did not respond to an interview request. In an interview with the Canadian Press in June, spokesperson Tabitha Bernard confirmed that the private-sector union Unifor (which represents the Star newsroom) had a relationship with the group, but would not specify its nature.
Bernard declined to say how much the ads cost, but studies of previous NBA Finals show a 30-second ad cost $750,000 US in 2018.
Any attempt to further extend election reporting rules and restrictions on third-party spending risks infringing on citizens’ rights to free speech, said Robert Boatright, the author of a comparative study on US and Canadian election financing and a professor of political science at Clark University in Massachusetts.
“Once you go down that road, where does it end?” he said. “It seems unreasonable to say if your group truly cares about the environment, you got to shut up about it a couple months out of the year just because we happen to be holding an election.”
BuzzFeed News and the Toronto Star are investigating the ways in which political parties, third-party pressure groups, foreign powers, and individuals are influencing Canada’s political debate in the run-up to this fall’s federal election. This report was published as part of that collaboration.