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Elections - Ontario Cases

. Working Families Coalition (Canada) Inc. v. Ontario (Attorney General)

In Working Families Coalition (Canada) Inc. v. Ontario (Attorney General) (Ont CA, 2023) the Court of Appeal consider a s.3 ['democratic rights'] Charter challenge to Election Finances Act amendments, here to third party election finance spending limits. In these quotes the court characterizes the purpose and legislative structure (through their sequential amendments) of third party election spending limits:
[2] More specifically, these appeals concern the third party spending limits most recently added to the Election Finances Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. E.7 (“EFA”), in 2021, and whether they infringe the informational component of the right to vote (i.e., a citizen’s right to exercise their vote in an informed manner), which is protected by s. 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (“Charter”).

[3] A proper aim of third party spending limits is to advance an egalitarian model of electoral democracy. The egalitarian model recognizes that “laws limiting spending are needed to preserve the equality of democratic rights and ensure that one person’s exercise of the freedom to spend does not hinder the communication opportunities of others”: Libman v. Quebec (Attorney General), 1997 CanLII 326 (SCC), [1997] 3 S.C.R. 569, at para. 47. Or, to put it more simply, limits are necessary to ensure that the voices of the well-resourced do not drown out all others. However, where spending restrictions go too far, and third parties are prevented from providing political information to voters to an extent that undermines the right of citizens to meaningfully participate in the political process and to be effectively represented, the right to vote is infringed: Harper v. Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 S.C.R. 827, at paras. 73-74.


[22] The third party spending limits for political advertising were first introduced into the EFA, effective January 1, 2017, as part of electoral financing reform under Bill 2. Many features of the legislation are expressly preserved in the version of the EFA currently in force following PEDDA. The objective of Bill 2 was to promote equality in political discourse, consistent with the egalitarian model and the Supreme Court's decision in Harper (both of which are elaborated on below). Germane to the issues on appeal, the 2017 legislative enactments introduced a spending limit of $600,000 for political advertising by a third party in the 6-month period before the writs for a general election.

[23] Further amendments to the EFA were implemented under Bill 254, which received Royal Assent on April 19, 2021. One such amendment was the extension of the pre-writ period of restricted spending for third parties from 6 months to 12 months, but with no increase in the $600,000 amount that could be spent. This EFA provision was among those re-enacted by PEDDA following the decision in Working Families 1.


(a) Pre-writ spending limits – s. 37.10.1(2) of the EFA

[25] As a result of PEDDA, the EFA imposes a $600,000 spending limit on political advertising by a third party during the 12-month period preceding the issuance of a writ for a fixed-date general election held in accordance with s. 9(2) of the Election Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. E.6. It also provides that a maximum of $24,000 may be spent in any particular electoral district. We refer to these provisions as the “challenged spending restrictions”.[3] The prior EFA provisions, adopted in 2017, imposed the same monetary limits over the 6-month pre-writ period.

(b) Definition of “political advertising” – ss. 1(1) and 37.0.1 of the EFA

[26] “Political advertising” is a defined term under s. 1(1) of the EFA. It includes advertising in any medium with the purpose of promoting or opposing any registered party or its leader or the election of a registered candidate, but expressly excludes a number of forms of communication:
“political advertising” means advertising in any broadcast, print, electronic or other medium with the purpose of promoting or opposing any registered party or its leader or the election of a registered candidate and includes advertising that takes a position on an issue that can reasonably be regarded as closely associated with a registered party or its leader or a registered candidate and “political advertisement” has a corresponding meaning, but for greater certainty does not include,

(a) the transmission to the public of an editorial, a debate, a speech, an interview, a column, a letter, a commentary or news,

(b) the distribution of a book, or the promotion of the sale of a book, for no less than its commercial value, if the book was planned to be made available to the public regardless of whether there was to be an election,

(c) communication in any form directly by a person, group, corporation or trade union to their members, employees or shareholders, as the case may be,

(d) the transmission by an individual, on a non-commercial basis on the Internet, of his or her personal political views, or

(e) the making of telephone calls to electors only to encourage them to vote;
[27] This definition exists alongside s. 37.0.1, which sets out a non-exhaustive list of factors that can be considered when determining whether an advertisement is a “political advertisement”:
In determining whether an advertisement is a political advertisement, the Chief Electoral Officer shall consider, in addition to any other relevant factors,

(a) whether it is reasonable to conclude that the advertising was specifically planned to coincide with the period referred to in section 37.10.1;

(b) whether the formatting or branding of the advertisement is similar to a registered political party’s or registered candidate’s formatting or branding or election material;

(c) whether the advertising makes reference to the election, election day, voting day, or similar terms;

(d) whether the advertisement makes reference to a registered political party or registered candidate either directly or indirectly;

(e) whether there is a material increase in the normal volume of advertising conducted by the person, organization, or entity;

(f) whether the advertising has historically occurred during the relevant time of the year;

(g) whether the advertising is consistent with previous advertising conducted by the person, organization, or entity;

(h) whether the advertising is within the normal parameters of promotion of a specific program or activity; and

(i) whether the content of the advertisement is similar to the political advertising of a party, constituency association, nomination contestant, candidate or leadership contestant registered under this Act.
The text of s. 37.0.1, which was re-enacted by PEDDA after being invalidated in Working Families 1, is unchanged from the 2017 EFA provisions.

(c) Anti-circumvention – s. 37.10.1(3)-(3.1) of the EFA

[28] Since 2017 and continuing through the PEDDA re-enactments, the EFA has sought to prevent third parties from circumventing spending limits. The current version of the anti-circumvention provisions, re-enacted by PEDDA, prohibits third parties from circumventing or attempting to circumvent a spending limit by doing any of the following:
(a) acting in collusion with another third party so that their combined political advertising expenses exceed the applicable limit;

(b) splitting itself into two or more third parties;

(c) colluding with, including sharing information with, a registered party, registered constituency association, registered candidate, registered leadership contestant, or registered nomination contestant or any of their agents or employees for the purpose of circumventing the limit;

(d) sharing a common vendor with one or more third parties that share a common advocacy, cause or goal;

(e) sharing a common set of political contributors or donors with one or more third parties that share a common advocacy, cause or goal;

(f) sharing information with one or more third parties that share a common advocacy, cause or goal; or

(g) using funds obtained from a foreign source prior to the issue of a writ for an election
[29]Additionally, contributions made by one third party to another third party for the purposes of political advertising are deemed to be part of the expenses of the contributing third party: s. 37.10.1(3.1).

(d) Interim reporting requirements – s. 37.10.2 of the EFA

[30] Since 2021, a third party has been required to file an interim report each time its aggregate political advertising spending increases by an amount of at least $1,000 and another report upon reaching the spending limit. Elections Ontario provides a standard form for the purpose of making these reports. The Chief Electoral Officer is required to publish them online.

(e) Administrative penalties and offences – ss. 45.1, 46.0.2, 47-48 of the EFA

[31] As of 2021, the Chief Electoral Officer has been authorized to make orders requiring a person or organization to pay an administrative penalty for contravening particular provisions of the EFA, including for breaches of the spending limits (s. 37.10.1) and interim reporting requirements (s. 37.10.2). The Chief Electoral Officer can issue such an order up to two years after becoming aware of the contravention. The EFA prescribes maximum amounts, criteria for determining the amount, and procedures for issuing the orders: s. 45.1.

[32] Since 2017 and continuing through the PEDDA re-enactments, third parties that contravene spending limits are liable, in addition to other applicable penalties, to a fine of no more than five times the amount by which the third party exceeded the limit: s. 46.0.2.

[33] Additionally, a corporation or trade union that knowingly contravenes a provision of the EFA is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $50,000. Similarly, where no other penalty is provided, a person, political party, constituency association, or third party that knowingly contravenes the EFA is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $5,000: ss. 47-48.
. Dickson v. Essensa

In Dickson v. Essensa (Div Ct, 2022) the Divisional Court considered a successful judicial review where an applicant for a new Ontario political party was refused registration for the party by reason of having an 'unregistrable' party name.

. Vaughan Health Campus of Care v. Essensa

In Vaughan Health Campus of Care v. Essensa (Div Ct, 2021) the Divisional Court denied a judicial review application of the decision of the Ontario Chief Electoral Officer to refer complaints to investigation, based on it not being justiciable under the JRPA::
[1] This is an application for judicial review of a decision of the Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario to refer certain complaints to the Attorney General as apparent contraventions under the Elections Finances Act.

[2] We are of the view that the issues raised in this application are indistinguishable at law from the decision of the Court of Appeal for Ontario in PC Ontario Fund v. Greg Essensa, Chief Electoral Officer, 2012 ONCA 453. There, the Court of Appeal wrote, at paragraphs 11 and 12:
11. We agree with the Divisional Court that under the statutory scheme established by the EFA, the CEO’s decision to investigate the PCPO’s allegations, the manner in which he chose to conduct that investigation and his decision not to report the matter to the Attorney General as an apparent contravention, are not susceptible to judicial review.

12. When he dealt with the appellants’ allegations involving the WFC, the CEO’s decision not to report the complaint to the Attorney General did not decide or determine any legal rights. The CEO’s treatment of the complaint made by the appellants may well have had significant political consequences. However, it did not amount to a decision affecting the legal rights, interests, property, privileges or liberty of any person or party. It was not, therefore, a decision amenable to review under the traditional prerogative writs and it did not amount to the exercise of a “statutory power of decision” within the meaning of the Judicial Review Procedure Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. J.1, ss. 1 and 2(1). From a legal perspective, the CEO’s decision was analogous to that of a police officer refusing to lay a charge or a crown attorney declining to prosecute a case on the ground that there is no reasonable prospect of a successful prosecution. The appellants’ plea to afford the EFA a “purposive interpretation” that would make the decision susceptible to judicial review amounts to a plea to create a different statutory regime, and that we cannot do.
[3] We are unanimously of the view that the decision of the Chief Electoral Officer in this case similarly does not affect the legal rights, interests, property, privileges or liberty of any person or party.


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