RCMP probing Ontario group’s ads siding with government in 2020 dispute with teachers

A demonstration organized by teachers unions takes place outside the Ontario Legislature, in Toronto in February, 2020.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The RCMP is investigating whether newspaper ads supporting the Ontario government in its labour dispute with teachers last year and placed by a group headed by a prominent Toronto-area developer violated the province’s election finance rules, the Ontario NDP said Tuesday.

The ads, which ran in Toronto’s major newspapers in early February 2020 – before COVID-19 the pandemic set in – echoed the government’s rhetoric and accused teachers unions of using students as “pawns.” The ads were credited to a previously little known group called Vaughan Working Families, and the government said it had no role in the ads.

The name Vaughan Working Families was registered in 2018 by a corporation called Vaughan Health Campus of Care, which had been active a decade earlier in raising funds and lobbying for a new hospital in Vaughan, Ont., north of Toronto. According to corporate records, the corporation’s president was prominent Toronto-area developer Michael DeGasperis, a donor to the governing PC Party.

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The lawyer who registered the name, who is also listed as a director of Vaughan Health Campus of Care, is Quinto Annibale, a large donor to the PC Party whom the Ford government has named vice-chairman of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce, who was locked in an escalating labour dispute with teachers unions when the ads appeared, represents the riding of King-Vaughan in the Legislature

NDP MPP Peter Tabuns revealed the RCMP investigation in the Ontario Legislature in Question Period, demanding that Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government allow a legislative committee to question Mr. Annibale, a move it had previously blocked, about his involvement in what Mr. Tabuns called a “shadowy group.”

Government House Leader Paul Calandra did not answer that question, but said he was confident in Elections Ontario’s ability to ensure elections are conducted fairly.

Last year, the NDP asked Elections Ontario to look into whether the ads, which would normally sell for tens of thousands of dollars, violated elections rules. In June, the agency concluded that the ads were “an apparent contravention” of sections of the Ontario Elections Act that require third-party political advertisers to register.

While Ontario’s next provincial election is not until next June, at the time the ads appeared, two Ottawa-area provincial by-elections were under way.

The agency referred the allegations to Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General. The ministry then referred the allegation to the RCMP. According to an e-mail dated April 30 and produced by the NDP on Tuesday, the Mounties are now investigating. The possible penalty is a fine of up to $5,000.

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According to Elections Ontario, Vaughan Health Campus of Care was registered as a third-party political advertiser in 2018 and in 2014. Elections Ontario says third-party advertisers must register upon spending $500 during an election period. The group spent just $5,922 from May to September of 2018 on third-party political activity, according to election records, and $83,768.27 from May to September, 2014.

The Ford government recently changed election rules to increase the maximum amount for individual political donations, while imposing tougher restrictions on third-party political advertisers.

The Opposition at Queen’s Park has repeatedly criticized Mr. Ford and his government for favouring prominent developers, including its use of ministerial zoning orders (MZOs), which allow it to override normal planning procedures and fast-track approvals.

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