Mr. Speaker, for the last two weeks, this House has been seized, indeed gripped, with a very important issue. It strikes at the very core of why we are here, the prospect of electoral fraud after a comprehensive, sophisticated, nationwide, organized attempt to prevent Canadians from voting through suppression calls.
Voting is a sacred duty that we try to instill in our children from a very young age. This civic duty and engagement is part of our social contract as a democratic society. Yet sadly, election after election, voter turnouts are stagnant or decreasing as voters become disenchanted, cynical and disengaged. As a result, fewer and fewer Canadians vote. With organized groups attempting to subvert our right to vote, how can we blame them?
One of the last safeguards Canadians have is Elections Canada and the Canada Elections Act, an organization and legislation that distinguish us from, and cause our electoral democracy to be revered by, most other countries. Just weeks ago, before the controversy erupted over voter suppression robocalls, the Conservative government used its majority on committee to deny Elections Canada the additional powers it was requesting to undertake its important work as the elections watchdog. Surprisingly, or not, weeks later Elections Canada would be faced with over 31,000 people calling on it to examine fraudulent and malicious voter suppression calls that went out across the country throughout the election and on election day.
The motion before us today is calling on the government to equip Elections Canada, rightfully, with the tools to ensure that in all future campaigns it will be armed with the ability to investigate even more thoroughly. This would include granting the Chief Electoral Officer the power to directly request all necessary documentation from political parties, to ensure compliance with the Canada Elections Act, and to ensure that call centres and other telecommunications companies involved in the election are registered and that their clients are clearly identified.
On election day, almost a year ago, after knocking on doors and greeting people around the city, my wife and I arrived at my campaign office to find it in a state of chaos. My campaign staff were frantically answering the phone calls of hundreds of Guelphites who received fraudulent robocalls from a person claiming to be from Elections Canada. The caller informed them that, due to high voter turnout, their polling location had changed to the Old Quebec Street Mall. We rushed over as fast as we could with drivers to ensure voters were given the opportunity to get to their proper voting location. There is no telling how late we were for some voters.
I remember very clearly speaking to a young woman and her older father who had received the call. As the Old Quebec Street Mall was out of their way, they had made an effort to come out, only to discover they had been misled. Frustrated, they were turning away to go home when they saw me in the mall. The young woman explained to me that she and her father had stood in line, only to be turned away after getting a call changing their voting station. They were tired and frustrated. She needed to get her father home and they would not be voting in this election. I was saddened as I watched them go, knowing that something, someone or some group of ill-intentioned people had prevented them from voting. I did not know then that it was as pervasive, organized and sophisticated a campaign across Canada as it is now revealing itself to be.
In the weeks following the election, I submitted a list of 80 names we were able to record on election day, with comments and in some cases call display numbers from their phones. These 80 electors had received a robocall from someone purporting to be with Elections Canada misdirecting voters to the wrong polling station. These events were reported in Guelph media but did not break nationally until recently. That is what prompted Canadians from coast to coast to recall the events of that day. We now know that the number which showed up on so many call displays was that now-infamous 450 area code, from a disposable cell phone bought under the name Pierre Poutine, registered to a Separatist Street in Joliette, Quebec but used in Guelph. Of course, this is a ridiculous pseudonym cribbed from a restaurant in Guelph. The phone made two calls to Conservative call centre RackNine, one presumably to set up an account and the other to record and distribute the malicious and fraudulent call which misled voters on election day.
Pierre Poutine was not the only Guelph connection with a relationship to RackNine. A campaign staffer for the Conservative candidate also had an undisclosed commercial relationship with RackNine. This is illegal under the Canada Elections Act.
Days after the story broke, just weeks ago, the Conservative government was all too happy to throw a 23-year-old staffer under the bus. The Minister of National Defence declared the case closed once this young man had taken the rap. Interestingly, the staffer denied his involvement. He called on the real guilty party to come forward. Of course, we have learned in the past couple of weeks just how far reaching these fraudulent calls were that were made across the country. We know now that this was much too complicated an operation for a lone Conservative partisan in Guelph to execute.
In my riding, voters were misdirected to the Old Quebec Street Mall, while in Saanich--Gulf Islands, British Columbia, voters were misdirected to St. John's United Church. In Sydney, Nova Scotia, the other side of the country, voters were asked to travel 30 kilometres out of their way to vote in New Waterford. This happened in ridings throughout Canada. This required organization with a national scope, significant financial resources and access to a national list of electors who had been identified as Liberals, NDP or Green supporters, or people who would not say how they were voting.
The Conservative Party wants Canadians to believe that this is all an unsubstantiated smear by the opposition. It cannot deny the evidence offered by over 31,000 Canadians who complained about these calls in recent weeks, or the thousands who called their candidates on election day.
Take for instance Arnold Dodds, from Kingston, who reported receiving a phone call soliciting his support for the Conservative Party during the election. He said he was a Conservative supporter, but because Conservatives unnecessarily closed a prison farm he would no longer be voting Conservative. Not surprisingly, he received a phone call on election day misdirecting him to the wrong poll. Similarly, Peggy Walsh Craig was sent to the wrong poll in Nipissing—Timiskaming, just as Raymond Young was in Sydney—Victoria, Cape Breton.
Therein lies the pattern across Canada. The Conservatives may accuse these individuals of unsubstantiated smears, but aside from the denial and allegations clearly betraying their own insecurity, there is no way that so many Canadians are inventing such a malicious electoral fraud. Since opening its investigation in Guelph, Elections Canada has expanded its investigation to include Thunder Bay, Kingston and Nipissing--Timiskaming.
What is clear from the fallout of the scandalous behaviour in the last election is that the Canada Elections Act needs to be retooled to better equip Elections Canada investigators. Politics is now a professional industry of marketers, communications experts and subterfuge imported from the neo-conservative movement in the United States. The Conservative Party has created an atmosphere in Ottawa and across the country where it is acceptable to smear an opponent. It did it to Michael Ignatieff. It did it to the member for Saint-Laurent—Cartierville. Taliban Jack was a Conservative creation. Most recently, it suggested that those who were opposed to its wholly inappropriate Internet monitoring bill were friends of child pornographers. There is no good policy for them, just politics.
For the good of the state of our democracy, we need these changes. If we are going to make this work, we will need to equip the CEO of Elections Canada with the tools necessary to ensure effective oversight and compliance with the financial reporting of political parties. In particular, Elections Canada, and the CEO specifically, should have the power to obtain documentary evidence from political parties regarding the documentation of expenses. That way the Conservative members would no longer be able to hide behind their tired talking points that it is up to the opposition to provide documents, clearing ourselves of the ridiculous charge of suppressing our own vote.
What happened in Guelph was fundamentally disheartening because it discouraged so many people from voting. When I was back in the riding last week I was speaking with Donald Miller. He told me he received one of the robocalls fraudulently misleading him to the Old Quebec Street Mall. Tired, exasperated and not completely mobile, he gave up and decided not to vote. On election day I sent out a phone message to supporters and our local radio station began warning listeners in Guelph that the robocalls were false and to go and vote at their original location. This man, who served his country in the navy during the second world war, told me he mustered up the strength and decided to vote. He would never let these people get away with trying to take away a right he had fought and bled for.
This is why the Canada Elections Act requires amendment. We owe it to Canadians, like this veteran in my riding, and to Canadians across the country, to never let such an abomination occur again. We must get to the bottom of the who, what, where, and why of these robocalls. It is imperative that we institute the appropriate measures to prevent something so horrible from happening again.