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Alberta's 'Energy War Room' apparently operating in defiance of Canada Elections Act

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney opens Canadian Energy Centre Ltd. on Dec. 11, 2019. Energy Minister Sonya Savage is at left, CEC Ltd. CEO Tom Olsen at right. Image: video still/Captured by David Climenhaga

Alberta's "Energy War Room" appears to be continuing to operate in defiance of Canada's election laws, campaigning against positions clearly identified with a Canadian political party without registering as an election third party.

Greenpeace Canada senior energy strategist Keith Stewart argued recently in a tweet thread that the War Room, legally known as Canadian Energy Centre Ltd. (CEC), has been engaged in a number of activities during the current federal election campaign that are regulated under the Canada Elections Act and require its registration as a third party.

"When the Kenney government set up the War Room as an independent corporation to shield it from Freedom of Information legislation, they made it subject to federal election rules," Stewart told AlbertaDiary. "You don't get to pick which laws apply to you, even if you are the premier or minister of energy."

If Canadian Energy Centre Ltd. had been a branch of the government, which arguably it should have been since it was set up to carry out government policy, or even a Crown corporation, it could have done pretty well as it wished during a federal election campaign.

But as Stewart pointed out, the United Conservative Party's strategic brain trust chose to incorporate it in December 2019 as a private corporation, allegedly to provide Canadians with "a fact-based narrative about Canadian Energy." Its unusual corporate structure, however, was understood at the time to be a gambit to dodge provincially legislated Freedom of Information and Privacy rules about what it planned to do with its just-announced $30-million annual budget.

UCP officials were were pretty blunt about this at the time. "The CEC's internal operations are not subject to FOIP, as this would provide a tactical and/or strategic advantage to the very foreign-funded special interests the CEC is looking to counter," Premier Jason Kenney's press secretary Christine Myatt told the CBC in an email in October 2019.

"For example, we would not let those foreign-funded special interests seeking to attack our province see our detailed defence plans," she said.

CEC Ltd. has three directors, all ministers in the UCP government -- Energy Minister Sonya Savage, Environment Minister Jason Nixon, and Doug Schweitzer, who at the time was minister of justice.

As a lawyer and board member, one would think Schweitzer, now the minister of jobs, economy and innovation, would be well-positioned to give CEC Ltd. CEO Tom Olsen good advice about the need to register the company with Elections Canada as an election third-party.

Olsen, a UCP loyalist and unsuccessful candidate in the 2019 provincial election that brought the UCP to power, is a former Calgary journalist. He also worked for a spell as a spokesperson for Progressive Conservative Premier Ed Stelmach.

Regardless, as Elections Canada explains on its Questions and Answers for Third Parties webpage, "a corporation carrying on business in and incorporated in Canada" comes under the ambit of the federal legislation if it engages during the formal campaign period in activities that promote or oppose a registered political party or candidate, "including by taking a position on an issue with which the registered political party or person is clearly associated." Elections Canada's rules apply to individuals, groups and corporations.

As of last night, CEC Ltd. did not appear in Election Canada's database of entities and individuals that have registered as third parties.

In his tweets, Stewart pointed to a number of activities by the War Room that seem to meet the Election Act's definition of third party activities.

Among them:

  • Hosting an online "Stop the 'Just Transition'" petition on its website that attacks a key policy position of the governing Liberal Party as well as the NDP and Green Party and portrays it as an attack on Canada's energy industry.
  • Paying a controversial company run by the Conservative Party's former national campaign manager $6,000 a month to promote its petitions, which appear in part to be designed to harvest information about potential supporters.
  • Buying "issues, elections or politics" category ads on Facebook to accuse the report of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of having an "apocalypse bias" during a campaign in which climate change is a key election issue.
  • Sending emails during the campaign making the false claim Canada is already meeting its climate objectives, and asking recipients to share them on social media.
  • Publishing attacks on the Liberal government's $170-per-tonne carbon tax and clean fuel standard.

CEC Ltd. could try to argue its activities are not regulated because they do not identify a political party by name. Still, from a common sense perspective, the War Room's activities cited above seem obviously intended to benefit the Conservative Party of Canada, the only party, for example, not talking about a just transition.

It would be easy and cost CEC Ltd. nothing to register. Allowable spending limits for the current campaign are $525,700.

CEC Ltd.'s problem may be that it would then have to open a separate bank account for the sole purpose of the campaign and report on its activities, when the corporation was intentionally structured to foil provincial FOIP laws and make financial accountability impossible.

The election is scheduled to take place on Sept. 20, and advance polls are open this weekend.

A contact form for members of the public who wish to make complaints about violations of the Canada Elections Act is found on the Elections Canada webpage.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: David Climenhaga/Video still 

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