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Canada's Wild West Phase Of Election Spending Is Coming To An End

Canada's big three unregulated third-party advertisers are either packing it in or scaling back.

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After millions (probably) of dollars spent and a million flyers of dead fetuses delivered, Canada's first era of unbridled third-party election spending is coming to an end.

In recent months third-party groups have taken advantage of a gap in Canada's election laws and have been running overtly political campaigns without any restrictions or oversight. But that's coming to an end.

The richest of the three biggest groups, union-backed Engage Canada, told BuzzFeed Canada it will shut down once the election is called. All signs point to that happening any day now.

The anti-union group Working Canadians and anti-abortion No2Trudeau say they will continue in smaller forms.

In fact, these third-parties may well be the reason for the massive 70-some day election everyone is expecting.

How is all of this legal?

Currently the only rule is there are no rules. Third-party groups in Canada have even fewer restrictions than Super PACs in America. They can fundraise and spend all they want on political activities, and unlike Super PACs they don't even have to report where their donations come from.

That all changes once the writ drops. Third-parties are subject to spending limits. The limit would be $206,000 for a normal campaign but would be about double that if Harper does call the election soon.

Also, they have to register federally and donors lose the anonymity they enjoy now.

Why is this happening now?

It started at the provincial level when labour unions in Ontario went to war. When former Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak promised in last year's election to cut 100,000 civil service jobs, labour unions joined forces under the banner Working Families.

Working Families spent millions of dollars on anti-Hudak ads, and helped the Liberals win the election. Hudak decried the group as a Liberal front but couldn't stop them.

Coincidentally, former senior Ontario Liberal and Dalton McGuinty's chief of staff Don Guy is involved in Engage Canada. So is Dave Gene, who worked under Guy in the Liberal government and liaised with Labour. Engage Canada also has NDP connections as former Jack Layton director of communications Kathleen Monk is involved.

What did Engage Canada do?

We don't know how much, but Engage Canada spent major amounts of cash to run attack ads against Stephen Harper, particularly in Ontario seats the Conservatives are trying to hold.

There's been much speculation that one of the key reasons behind the early election is it stops Engage Canada from putting out more ads.

What did No2Trudeau do?

This group says that by next week it will complete its goal of sending out one million flyers depicting bloody, aborted fetuses to mailboxes across the country. The group is protesting Justin Trudeau's stance that Liberal MPs must vote pro-choice. They had been allowed to vote with their personal beliefs under previous Liberal leaders.

The Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform contributed about 20 paid people distributing pamphlets every day since May, the group says. The Campaign Life Coalition's youth wing contributed another 10 less frequently.

On top of that, the group says it bought phone lists and had 300 volunteers cold calling people. They also plan to do polling after the election to see how much of an impact they had.

What did Working Canadians Do?

This group was formed to lobby against "the disproportionate effect unions have on government policy," in the words of spokeswoman Catherine Swift. Swift formerly worked for the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses and said the group raised its money from businesses and individuals.

Working Canadians was also the only group to offer some hint of its fundraising success. Swift said they had raised in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Like Engage Canada, Working Canadians bought ads to spread their message.

What happens now?

Engage Canada is shutting down altogether. Working Canadians and No2Trudeau both say they will register as official third-parties but both say they don't have major plans for the election.

Is this the new normal?

Parliament just passed a controversial election reform bill, but it didn't engage third-party spending. Until that happens under a future government, Canada's new era of no-rules election spending will continue.

Paul McLeod is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.

Contact Paul McLeod at paul.mcleod@buzzfeed.com.

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