Robocalls: the early years

The robocall investigation has ended; not with a bang but a whimper. The scam got off to a good start even before the last election when thousands of voters complained of misleading phone calls.


Voters received calls from someone pretended to be from Elections Canada directing them to go to nonexistent polls. Others got harassing calls late at night from someone claiming to be from the Liberal Party. Suspiciously, non-Conservative voters were targeted most according to an EKOS poll.

Long before the voter suppression tactics of the last election, John Fryer witnessed firsthand the mischief that the Conservatives were up to. In 2010 he was invited to attend a campaign training school offered by the Conservative-aligned Manning Centre for Democracy.

As lifelong student of politics, Fryer was fascinated by the offer of a two-day course offered by insiders. He was not only a keen observer of politics but a recipient of the Order of Canada and an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria.

Fryer was attracted by the program’s promise to deliver “the knowledge and skills it takes to win” from “some of the most experienced campaign managers in the country.” The event’s star-studded slate included Stephen Harper’s former press secretary and campaign experts from Campaign Research Inc.

Intrigued, he signed up and took the course in January of 2010. Some of the content was mundane: identify your supporters and make sure they vote. The strategy involving non-supporters, however, was startling.

Detailed instructions were given on how to automated phone messages — robocalls — work. In addition to being inexpensive, attendees were told, robocalls gave campaign managers complete control of the message.

In a question and answer session that followed, some attendees discussed voter suppression tactics. They talked about posing as a member of another party and making rude phone calls at inconvenient times as a way of driving non-supporters away from their first choice.

The election tactics used a year later looked suspiciously familiar to Fryer. In a letter to the Globe and Mail, he wrote: “Instructors made it clear that robo-calling and voter suppression were an acceptable and normal part of winning political campaigns.” These tactics had been borrowed from the U.S. Republican Party, Fryer said.

Campaign Research Inc. was blunt. They told Maclean’s magazine “We’re in the business of getting Conservatives elected and ending Liberal careers. We’re good at it.” It was no an idle boast. Some Conservatives who won seats in the last election paid Campaign Research tens of thousands of dollars.

Elections Canada investigator Al Mathews says two Conservative officials, in an Ontario riding won by Marty Burke, were overheard discussing the use of harassing and misleading calls in U.S. political races. Mathews found that the phone number list used by the seemingly fictitious Pierre Poutine to deceive voters was drawn up using information from the Conservative Party’s internal database.

I’ll bet that John Fryer will not be invited back to that school.




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