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Many candidates complain of dirty tricks, election-related vandalism in nasty campaign

By Kristen Shane      

Liberal Carolyn Bennett's campaign calls it the worst kind of voter suppression, but other political players say this election is no different from any others.

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Some political insiders say an especially confrontational Parliament recently and this election’s nasty tone may have opened the door to what some are saying is a higher level of election-related vandalism and dirty tricks during this campaign.

In St. Paul’s, Ont., Liberal incumbent Carolyn Bennett told The Hill Times last week that there were 40 incidents in the riding of homeowners who were known Liberals or had Liberal signs on their or their neighbours’ lawns who had their car tires slashed, lug nuts loosened, or car panels keyed over three nights during the Easter weekend.

Ten Liberal campaigns in Ontario, including Ms. Bennett’s, also complained of harassing phone calls made to their supporters purporting to be from them when they were not. Some were in the middle of the night or made repeatedly. Candidates feared the scheme was done deliberately to annoy their supporters and suppress the vote. The CBC reported that some calls were reportedly traced to American area codes and to a Canadian call centre doing some legitimate Liberal calling that denies it.

The CBC also reported that one of its journalists had talked to NDP and Conservative supporters who had experienced the same kinds of phone calls.

The Green Party has said the same sort of bogus calls happened in the 2008 federal election in Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C. More than a dozen Liberal supporters also had their brake lines cut in Ms. Bennett’s St. Paul’s riding and nearby Parkdale-High Park, Ont., during the same election.

But Ms. Bennett said this election’s vandalism is worse. In 2008, perpetrators hit two ridings and this time three, she said. There were about 20 incidents in one night last time, whereas this time she tallied 40 incidents in her riding over three nights (police have reported 19 damaged autos in her riding and six in nearby Trinity-Spadina, Ont.).

“There was one family that was actually attacked three nights in a row [this time],” she said. “Some people ended up with their lives at risk. One family ended up on the 401, not realizing all four of their tires had been punctured. Another family had lug nuts removed from their tires.”

Toronto Centre Liberal incumbent candidate Bob Rae reported that one of his car tires was slashed.

While stolen or defaced signs is an unfortunately usual occurrence in some election campaigns, this vandalism is unique because it’s violent, personal and ugly said Ms. Bennett’s campaign manager Lynne Steele.

“It’s true intimidation,” she said. “It is voter suppression of the worst kind.”

She said last week that seven victims asked the campaign to remove their signs. Others, refusing to be intimidated, have asked for bigger signs.

“It’s such a sad statement on our democracy,” said Ms. Bennett. “In Canada, less than five per cent of Canadians belong to a political party. We want people to be able to participate in our democracy and show their colours, literally. I think that these kinds of deterrents really do detract from the kind of vibrant political discussion and debate that should be part of an election.”

Ms. Bennett, who has run in six election campaigns, said the level of election-related vandalism she’s seen nationally this time is unprecedented. In hearing anecdotal comments from her visits to campaigns across the country, she said sign shenanigans seem to be worse.

Conservative incumbent candidate Laurie Hawn in Edmonton Centre, Alta., told The Hill Times that about 200 of his 1,500 to 1,600 signs had been damaged or stolen this year, which is about double what he’s seen in the four past elections he’s fought.

Ruby Dhalla, the Liberal incumbent candidate in her fourth campaign to win the hotly-contested Brampton-Springdale, Ont., riding, told QMI Agency recently that this is one of the nastiest campaigns in which she’s ever participated. She complained that she and her volunteers had been intimidated by unidentified people who were tailing them while they were campaigning and yelling comments.

Green Party spokesperson Kieran Green told The Hill Times that while he hasn’t heard of his party’s campaigns being victimized by dirty tricks and vandalism more than usual this election, the level of violence demonstrated in the Toronto car damaging seems to go further than normal.

Scott Bradley, the Liberal candidate in Ottawa Centre, Ont., who said his campaign has been affected by phone pranks and sign vandalism, said that campaigns are using new technological programs such as Twitter, telephone town halls, and Facebook. He said he’d heard someone taped his telephone town hall and was using snippets of his voice from that to make it seem like he was contacting supporters in bogus calls.

“Given the different ways people try to communicate to people, it opens up opportunities for people who don’t want to play fair to, I guess, manipulate the system,” he said.

Elections Canada is investigating the reported phone harassment in this election, according to the CBC.

About 15 or fewer Canadians in each recent election have been convicted of breaking Canada’s electoral laws, according to records on Elections Canada’s website. Most have had to pay fines of less than $2,000, do community service or be put on probation. Four members of the Conservative Party’s 2006 campaign team are currently fighting charges that they allegedly violated election spending rules during that campaign.

Canadians may be charged with numerous offences under the Criminal Code and Canada Elections Act for playing dirty tricks, intimidating or vandalizing during campaigns. For instance, under the Elections Act, someone could be slapped with up to a $5,000 fine, five-year imprisonment or both for publishing false statements about the personal character of a candidate or prospective candidate. If a person blocks election advertising without consent (such as by sign-tampering), he or she could face a $1,000 fine, three months in jail or both.

With the election just wrapping up, other than through anecdotal evidence, it’s hard to say for sure whether there have been more incidents of election-related vandalism and dirty tricks this election than in the past.

Police have charged some people with election-related crimes. The Brampton Guardian, for instance, reported that police had charged a 47-year-old volunteer on Brampton West Liberal incumbent Andrew Kania’s campaign with possession of stolen property, after signs belonging to the riding’s Conservative candidate were allegedly found in the back of the volunteer’s truck.

The Liberals and Conservatives came within 250 votes of each other in Brampton West in 2008, and the riding is hotly contested again.

But in other regions with close races, such as in Vancouver, B.C., and Waterloo, Ont., police are reporting few cases of election-related crime and no more than usual.

While shocked by the unprecedented Toronto vandalism, Windsor-Tecumseh, Ont. incumbent NDP candidate Joe Comartin told The Hill Times last week that he hasn’t heard complaints of similar vandalism from NDP candidates across the country.

He said he is personally seeing less vandalism this year than in some of his previous six election campaigns.

“I think the important thing to remember is when you think about how many [political lawn] signs there are out there in Canada, it’s…thousands and thousands of them. The actual number of signs that are being defaced is pretty small in Canada,” said Queen’s University political studies professor Royce Koop, who’s studied local campaigns.

“This stuff does happen in every election, but it does seem to be worse than in the past,” he said. He’s just not sure whether that’s because incidents are being reported more often by the media. Since crosshairs were spray painted on a Liberal candidate’s signs in Ottawa at the campaign’s opening, he said, the media seem to have paid more attention and are more willing to cover these dirty tricks.

If there is more, he said, it’s not surprising given the intense air of partisanship recently, fostered, for instance, by successive minority Parliaments putting politicians in constant campaign mode, and attack ads before and during this campaign.

“This might be a consequence of that: people in the grassroots taking these cues,” he said.

“Politics in Canada, has become so competitive, so contentious, so combative, that some people…can’t figure out where the line is between working hard to accomplish something and destroying something,” said Mr. Hawn.

Ian Greene, a York University professor in its school of public policy and administration said the increasing use of negative ads, particularly by the Conservatives, has set a tone of nastiness that opens up space for people to think dirty tricks are okay and the end justifies the means.

Conservative Party spokesperson Chisholm Pothier disagreed. “I think advertising that informs people about positions and policies of the various parties does not even remotely condone illegal activity [or encourage it],” he said.

Prof. Greene said bad behaviour could come from overzealous campaign workers or breakaway vigilante-type groups.

Prof. Koop said he found it difficult to believe candidates were pulling off these stunts. In phoning Liberal supporters during Passover, for instance, he said, the payoff is small in that it, at most, might annoy them. But the consequences of a candidate being proved to be involved in such a trick are huge to both the candidate and his or her party. He suspected people who are hostile to one of the parties but not actually working on campaigns as perpetrators.

Media reports show that no party has been free of victimization. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and Conservative Leader Stephen Harper were both quoted last week expressing concern about how election-related vandalism hurts democracy. Mr. Ignatieff called on all parties to denounce it. Mr. Harper said he condemns it, whether people from inside or outside political parties perpetrate it.

Whoever’s doing it, it reinforces politics’ bad reputation for being a blood sport.

“People that are already disenchanted with politics, they read about this stuff in the newspaper and it confirms what they thought all along: it’s a dirty game, it’s not something they would want to be involved with or participate in,” said Prof. Koop.

-With files from Bea Vongdouangchanh

Reported bad behaviour on the campaign trail

Web games

•A volunteer for Kitchener-Conestoga, Ont. incumbent Conservative candidate Harold Albrecht, on his own accord, registered three websites in the name of Mr. Albrecht’s Liberal rival Bob Rosehart, according to the Waterloo Chronicle. Visitors to the sites were automatically redirected to a Conservative Party website attacking Michael Ignatieff. Mr. Albrecht told the Chronicle he’s disappointed to see a volunteer do that. He wouldn’t condone or suggest it.

•Liberal candidate Dan Veniez filed a lawsuit last week against his Conservative rival in West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country, B.C., incumbent John Weston. Mr. Veniez alleged that Mr. Weston posted on his Facebook page a link to a YouTube video that falsely reported that Mr. Veniez had stolen from employee pension funds of his former company. Pique newsmagazine reported that the Facebook site is not officially linked to Mr. Weston’s campaign. It quoted Mr. Weston as saying the lawsuit was “a desperate measure in a moving political campaign.”

Green Party candidate says she and her baby were chased off property

•Ottawa Centre, Ont. Green Party candidate Jen Hunter said in a video posted on her YouTube channel last week that she encountered a Conservative, while door-knocking with her four-and-half-month-old baby in tow, who “ran me right off his porch and said he would throw garbage at me.” Ms. Hunter encouraged fellow partisans to take personal attacks down a notch.

NDP candidate says she’s been smeared

•The NDP candidate for Gatineau, Que., Françoise Boivin, said she was the victim of a smear campaign, after an unnamed Liberal source was quoted in Le Devoir as saying she was kicked out of the Liberal Party (she previously held the riding for the Liberals) for employing a member of her family in her Parliamentary office, against Parliamentary rules. She said it was a roommate.

Pamphlet swap

•A Green Party campaign worker in Eglinton-Lawrence, Ont., posted photos on the internet last week that she said she snapped of a Liberal campaign worker for incumbent Joe Volpe swapping Green Party pamphlets for Liberal ones in constituents’ mailboxes. She also photographed a Green Party pamphlet in a recycling bin. Mr. Volpe’s campaign said it didn’t condone that type of behaviour. A spokeswoman said there was no evidence Mr. Volpe’s canvasser threw out the Greens’ pamphlet, but sacked the canvasser out of respect to the Greens, according to the National Post.

Bots boost leaders’ Twitter popularity

•Researchers with Dalhousie University’s Social Media Lab said they have found that party leaders’ numbers of Twitter followers are artificially inflated by automated computer programs, or ‘bots,’ that purport to be running accounts run by real people, according to a Postmedia News report.

Sign shenanigans

•In hotly-contested Edmonton-Strathcona, Alta., Conservative candidate Ryan Hastman and NDP incumbent candidate Linda Duncan‘s campaigns say they’ve had signs trashed, stolen, and hidden. One of her supporters has apologized for threatening to boycott a rental unit company whose owner put Conservative signs on his properties, the Edmonton Sun reported.

•Next door, Edmonton Centre incumbent Conservative Laurie Hawn told The Hill Times he’s had 200 of about 1,500 to 1,600 signs stolen or destroyed. That’s about twice the number normally tampered with, he said.

•Nepean-Carleton, Ont., Liberal candidate Ryan Keon said more than 100 of his signs on public property were vandalized in the campaign’s first weeks, some with the crosshairs of a gun spray painted over his head.

Kimberley Love, the Liberal candidate in Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, Ont., had crosshairs and profanities written on half a dozen of her signs, and at least 100 others damaged or stolen.

Royal Galipeau, the Conservative incumbent candidate in Ottawa-Orléans, Ont., said some of his signs were stolen by Liberals. The Orleans Star reported that a Liberal campaigner picked up one of Mr. Galipeau’s signs after the campaign got a call from a homeowner saying someone put it on their lawn with a note asking to call the Galipeau campaign if the person didn’t want it. The homeowner called, no one responded, so they asked the Liberals to remove it. Liberal candidate David Bertschi‘s spokesperson said he told Mr. Galipeau’s office and someone picked up the sign from Mr. Bertschi’s office.

•A volunteer on Brampton West Liberal incumbent candidate Andrew Kania‘s campaign was charged in mid April with possessing stolen property. Several signs belonging to Kyle Seeback, the riding’s Conservative candidate, were allegedly found in the volunteer’s truck, according to the Brampton Guardian. The paper reported that the volunteer believes the signs were planted there by Mr. Seeback’s supporters.

•St. Catharines Conservative incumbent candidate Rick Dykstra and his Liberal rival Andy Gill have both reported signs being stolen, vandalized, moved or destroyed, according to the St. Catharines Standard.

Candidates allege

intimidation, pressure

•In a campaign rife with mud-slinging, QMI Agency quoted Brampton-Springdale, Ont. incumbent Liberal candidate Ruby Dhalla in an article April 20 as saying she and her volunteers were verbally harassed while campaigning by unknown people in passing vehicles.

•In another heated race in Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C., Liberal candidate Renée Hetherington said Green Party operatives have approached her pressuring her to quit so Green Party Leader Elizabeth May would have a better chance of winning against Conservative incumbent Gary Lunn, The Vancouver Province reported. The Liberals almost won the riding last time. Ms. May denied the claim, the CBC reported.

Liberal supporters’ cars damaged in Toronto

•Liberal incumbent candidate Carolyn Bennett told The Hill Times that she is aware of 40 incidents in her St. Paul’s, Ont. riding over three nights of homeowners with Liberal signs at or next door to their houses having their cars damaged. Some had Ls keyed into their cars’ paint, tires punctured and one even had lug nuts loosened. She spoke of similar events in nearby Toronto ridings of Trinity-Spadina, Toronto Centre and Davenport.

Toronto police reported 19 vehicles damaged in Ms. Bennett’s riding and another six in Trinity-Spadina, but they could not confirm that the two sets of incidents were related or election-related.

Liberals victimized included Toronto Centre incumbent candidate Bob Rae and local MPP Eric Hoskins.

Harassing phone calls

•Ten Ontario Liberal candidates have complained that their supporters were called by live people or automated messages pretending to be from their campaigns in some cases late at night, on religious holidays, repeatedly, or in a rude manner. They claimed the strategy was done deliberately to annoy their supporters and potentially suppress the vote. Some calls reportedly traced to a North Dakota area code.

According to CBC News, NDP and Conservative supporters also told the CBC they received similar calls. Calls have also reportedly happened in Manitoba and P.E.I.

—Compiled by Kristen Shane

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