• Allison Baker

FACT CHECK: Will New Election Rules Limit “Constitutional Rights to Free Political Speech"?

FALSE. Bill C-76 is an effort to curb foreign interference in elections—it does not limit domestic engagement. Among other things, the bill prevents advocacy groups from receiving funding from foreign entities and requires online platforms to create advertisement registries.

Bill C-76, also known as the Elections Modernization Act, was passed by the Senate earlier this month in Ottawa. As reported by iPolitics, the bill undoes many changes made to the Canadian Elections Act under the Harper government, such as restoring the use of voter information cards as proof of residence and extending the right to vote to Canadians living abroad.

On December 26, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Vancouver-based columnist J.J. McCullough criticizing Bill C-76’s electoral reforms. In the piece, McCullough says that the changes “will further restrain the degree that Canadians can exercise their constitutional rights to free political speech and activism” by punishing “politically motivated groups” from engaging in “advertising.”

This characterization of Bill C-76 is false. As reported by the CBC, the bill will “work to prevent foreign interference,” restrict spending by parties prior to the election, and “regulate third-party political activity.” As such, its purview covers only political parties and foreign funders during election periods—not the average Canadian citizen or local advocacy group.

As reported by CTV News, the bill prevents advocacy groups from using funding from foreign entities to “conduct partisan campaigns.” So although the funding source is restricted, the campaigning itself is not. The bill also limits spending by advocacy groups and political parties in “the three month period before an election is officially called, as well as during an official campaign.” Both regulations are an effort to limit “partisan advertising” before an election and to curb any foreign influence of the kind that was seen in the latest US election. The bill has been touted as the “first stab at grappling with the spectre of social media being abused by bad actors.”

On social media, many users criticized McCullough’s argument that the bill was stripping Canadians of their constitutional rights. Some fundamental components of the Canadian Constitution are freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, and the right to vote. This bill does not deny Canadians these rights. (And to be clear, there is no constitutional right to receiving foreign funding or engaging in political advertising.)

One user, @JCCWhyte, also pointed out that “many if not most of the changes [in Bill C-76] were at the urging of Elections Canada,” which is partly true. The decision to reinstate voter information cards as proof of residence, for example, was already made in 2016 as an amendment to Harper’s Fair Elections Act. And Marc Mayrand, who retired as Chief Electoral Officer of Elections Canada in 2016, called at the time for a modernization of the electoral system. He recommended many of the changes now found in Bill C-76.