Third-party advertiser Ontario Proud, which describes itself as a “grassroots” operation, received over half a million dollars in donations during the spring provincial election — 89.6 per cent of it from corporations.
Filings submitted to Elections Ontario on Friday show that the top donors to the Facebook-centric conservative advocacy group were Toronto-based housing developer Mattamy Homes, at $100,000; anti-union contractors association Merit Ontario, at $50,000; Nashville Developments, also at $50,000; Opportunities Asia Ltd. at $30,000; and Shiplake Properties Limited at $25,000. Seventeen other companies, mostly related to housing development, donated $10,000 apiece. Of the corporate donations received by Ontario Proud, at least 89.7 per cent came from companies involved in the development and construction industries.
The filings are published in full at bottom.
“For once, anti-Liberal forces were able to fight back,” Ontario Proud founder Jeff Ballingall says when asked about his group’s fundraising.
“If you add up all the union expenses combined, they still outspent us, but we had a bigger effect than they did. And we are showing that digital democracy is a great thing, and if you have a message that resonates with some money behind you, and a lot of hard work, you can make a big difference.”
Ontario Proud initially focused its attacks on then-Premier Kathleen Wynne, but after polls made it clear that the NDP was Ontario’s preferred alternative to Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives in the election, the group shifted its attention to that party. The CBC observed that some of the same companies that funded Ontario Proud during the election period had previously contributed to the PCs, prior to the 2017 ban on corporate and union donations to parties.
This past winter, Ford told developers he would look into opening up “a big chunk” of the Greenbelt for development. He then walked back those comments after video of his statements emerged during the election.
But the last bill tabled during the fall session of the legislature— Bill 66, Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act — would allow municipalities to circumvent laws protecting the 7,200-square-kilometre green space. (On Twitter, the premier once again affirmed his intention to “protect” the Greenbelt.)
Toward the end of 2017, Ballingall told CANADALAND that his group had no large corporate donors.
“No massive donors. It’s not like one group or another. Small businesses, a lot of people giving $100 or $200, $300, that kind of thing,” he said.
In a subsequent interview, he described the group’s revenue source as “crowdfunding,” while also stating that they do “have people giving us $5,000 cheques. But no one big donor has given any huge amount.”
Ballingall on Canadaland, December 10, 2017: pic.twitter.com/qyQ4M8RD5S
— Jonathan Goldsbie (@goldsbie) December 11, 2018
In a phone interview on Tuesday, Ballingall says his remarks were accurate at the time.
“The biggest ones we had at that point were — the majority of our donors were small — I was telling the truth at that point,” he says. “While some of our donors were small, we had received some $5,000 and $10,000, but nothing like the big cheques that rolled in later. We got more successful, and then more people wanted to give money.”
Also on Tuesday, Ryan O’Connor, Ontario Proud’s lawyer and second principal, was grilled by a House of Commons committee following testimony concerning proposed legislation regulating third parties in federal elections.
Asked about the biggest donation the group had ever received, O’Connor told the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics, “We’ve received donations as little as, I think, $5. Donations in the tens of thousands of dollars.” He estimated that the group had approximately 200 individual donors and two dozen “institutional” donors, including corporations.
June’s election was the first under new restrictions for third-party advertisers introduced by the Wynne government in late 2016. The old rules allowed for unlimited spending, which organizations such as unions took advantage of, but the new rules capped advertising spending at $100,000 during the writ period and $600,000 in the six-month lead-up.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, for example, spent $693,686 during the election. Other registered third-party advertisers included Leadnow and North99.
And I just dug up ETFO – the union spent $693,686 on advertising #onpoli
— Sabrina Nanji (@sabrinananji) December 11, 2018
Around this time last year, Ballingall told CANADALAND that Ontario Proud had already spent significant money, including $200,000 on advertising, primarily on Facebook.
“That was from a lot of different sources,” Ballingall says now, declining to further expand on what those sources were. “But unlike Leadnow and others, we don’t accept foreign money… The bulk of the money was from big donors, but the majority of our donors are small.”
(Leadnow says it does not use foreign funds for election-related purposes, and was cleared of accusations it had done so during the 2015 federal election.)
A confidential Ontario Proud fundraising pitch published by PressProgress last month showed that the organization was already soliciting big-money donors in the fall of 2017, offering “sponsorship opportunities” and “investment options” at tiers up to $250,000.
Names of donors who give less than $100 do not have to be disclosed to Elections Ontario. Nor do third parties have to disclose money spent on activities other than advertising, such as staff salaries, polling, and door-to-door campaigning, which are unregulated. At the tail end of the election, Ontario Proud sent unsolicited text messages to Ontarians as part of a voter-identification campaign. The funds for that do not have to be reported.
Among the expenses that were disclosed, Ontario Proud spent just under $100,000 on Facebook advertising and $154,250 on YouTube ads. Ballingall’s other company, Mobilize Media, was paid $11,300, and One Persuades — the company co-owned by federal Conservative campaign manager and former Rebel Media director Hamish Marshall — received just over $30,000 from Ontario Proud to produce television ads.
More recently, Ontario Proud has launched a #StopSaudiOil advertising blitz on behalf of an undisclosed client or clients. Ballingall says that includes a $21,000 ad buy with the TTC that covers a streetcar inside and out for a month, as well as $69,000 on digital and radio advertising.
Clarification (12/12/18 at 12:51 p.m. EST): While Ontario Proud’s Jeff Ballingall notes that his group does not accept foreign money “unlike Leadnow and others,” the Vancouver-based Leadnow maintains that it doesn’t use foreign funds for election-related purposes, which would be illegal.
Clarification (12/12/18 at 9:52 p.m. EST): We’ve revised one sentence to clarify that corporations can no longer donate to political parties in Ontario.
Ontario Proud’s full filing is below. CANADALAND has partially redacted the addresses of individual donors.