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Ringing up robocall justice

Misleading robocalls may have suppressed more than 600 Yukon votes during the last federal election, according to the Council of Canadians.

Misleading robocalls may have suppressed more than 600 Yukon votes during the last federal election, according to the Council of Canadians.

This week, the council asked the Federal Court of Canada to overturn election results in seven ridings across the country where misleading calls may have kept voters from the polls.

The Yukon - where Conservative MP Ryan Leef won his seat by just 132 votes - is one of them.

The council picked ridings where the margin of victory was relatively small, said Garry Neil, executive director of the Ottawa-based organization, in a telephone interview Thursday.

“The case in the Yukon is pretty standard with what we have been hearing from people across the country,” he said.

“People seem to have been the recipients of a robotic call on or just before election day advising them their polling station had changed due to higher-than-expected voter turnout.”

Whitehorse resident Neil Hartling received such a call.

“It was a pretty sophisticated process,” said the owner of Canadian River Expeditions and Nahanni River Adventures.

“I bet you there are a lot of people up here who got them.”

After getting the misleading robocall, Hartling asked his wife if she’d heard the polling station had changed. “But she was confident it hadn’t,” he said.

Hartling chalked the phone call up to a “mistake” and “ignored it” until this month when he learned other Yukoners had also received misleading robocalls.

That’s when Hartling went online and reported it, using Elections Canada’s website.

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Yukoners Tom Parlee, Bob Nardi, Sylvia Leonard and Sandi Haryett also received misleading robocalls just before the last election informing them that their polling station had changed.

But Leef had only heard about two misleading robocalls in the Yukon when he talked to the News on Tuesday.

“Not to minimize it,” he said, at the time. “But two calls are not swinging an election.”

The Council of Canadians isn’t so sure.

“If there were five people that were prepared to come forward, we suspect there were others who also received the calls,” said Neil. “Some might not want to come forward, some might not be interested and some might be wary of admitting publicly that they were duped.”

The council is working with an election analyst who has shown that misleading robocalls can suppress the vote by an average of three per cent per riding.

In the Yukon, that works out to roughly 600 votes.

“I recognize there are some people in the territory who are not happy I was elected,” said Leef. “And it was a close election, but it’s a shame ... they’re just finding whatever strategy they can find to unseat results they don’t like.”

Leef suggested Nardi get his phone records from Northwestel in order to trace the calls.

“He’s the only one capable of providing that, Elections Canada can’t subpoena his phone records,” said Leef.

Leef’s constituency assistant, Martin Lehner, said just the opposite.

“Elections Canada may have to produce a court order subpoenaing the records,” wrote Lehner in an online comment to the News.

Northwestel will never release phone records, said corporate communications manager Emily Younker.

“We do not, as a matter of normal business, track, log or record any information on local incoming or outgoing phone calls,” she said.

The only way phone records can be retrieved is by an RCMP request or a court order, she said. And then call records are “only released to the RCMP, never directly to the customer,” said Younker.

But who made the calls really doesn’t matter, according to the Council of Canadians.

“Your local MP said his books are open,” said Neil. “But in the end we don’t have to prove who was behind the calls, we just have to prove that they happened, they’re fraudulent and they affected the outcome.”

Parlee is the local applicant representing the Yukon in the Council of Canadians’ federal court challenge.

“We don’t need 300 people in the Yukon to come forward and say, ‘I didn’t vote and I would have voted for somebody other than the Conservatives,’” said Neil.

“If there were a sufficient number of people whose vote was taken away from them to overcome that margin of difference, then the judge would be in a position to annul the election.”

This is the first time in Canadian history that “electors have come forward and argued to overturn election results,” added Neil. “This is uncharted territory.”

Yukon Teachers’ Association president Katherine Mackwood brought up Canada’s election irregularities during a recent meeting at the United Nations in New York City.

“It was a huge topic,” said Mackwood. “It’s all about protecting our democracy.”

The Yukon Teachers’ Association has signed a petition urging the government to investigate the misleading robocalls. “And those that are responsible should be reprimanded or fired in order to have individuals believe in the system once again,” she said.

“I applaud those that came forward to help protect what our forefathers fought for.”

The Council of Canadians has 30 days to supply corroborating evidence, such as affidavits, from those who received misleading calls, before the matter goes before the federal court.

“The Canada Elections Act is unique in that the courts are instructed to deal with these matters expeditiously,” said Neil. “And for very good reason, because we can’t let these things hang, given the question of an election.”

There is also an automatic right of appeal to the Supreme Court for the losing party, he said.

A month ago the council invited Canadians to share stories of dirty election tricks. “And we got hundreds of Canadians contacting us,” said Neil. “So we wanted to inform Canadians what their rights are.”

These rights are encoded in the Elections Act, which states citizens can “seek to annul the results in a riding if they are aware of irregularities, fraud, or corrupt or illegal practices where the results may have affected the outcome of the election.”

This week, Elections Canada announced it has received robocall complaints from 200 ridings in 10 provinces and one territory.

Canada’s chief electoral officer, Marc Mayrand, said the complaints “cut pretty much across the whole country,” according to the Globe and Mail.

“It’s absolutely outrageous,” Mayrand told a parliamentary committee. “It’s totally unacceptable in a modern democracy.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at