Private individuals donated about $53,000, mostly in amounts in the low three figures, but corporations gave about $460,000. Some large donations from developers stand out, notably $100,000 from Mattamy Homes, a Toronto-based residential developer.
“We got so much money in the end that we weren’t able to spend it all,” says the site’s founder, Jeff Ballingall.
“We had our content, we were doing really well on line, and we were the only ones who were standing up to the Ontario Liberals. A lot of people really got excited about it, and gave accordingly. We had hundreds and hundreds of donors.”
Ontario Proud, which has over 425,000 followers, is one of a family of conservative Canadian Facebook pages that have emerged over the past two years. By turns abrasive and sentimental, they oppose Liberals, the NDP, unions and the ‘war on Christmas‘. There is a BC Proud, (74,000 followers) an Alberta Proud (155,000 followers), and, less successfully, a Toronto Proud with only 1,800 followers.
Sites like this – political social media organizations with very large followings that operate somewhat under the radar of traditional gatekeepers in the media and political parties – are a new force in Canadian politics. It remains to be seen what role they will play in next year’s federal election.
The Ontario disclosures, however, are our first glimpse into how they actually operate.
“We were able to talk about issues in a fun way, a different way, a way that’s never really been done before in Ontario politics before,” Ballingall says. “We can say and do things that traditional parties and media can’t. We can be funny, we can be more hard-hitting.”
“For a relatively unknown group, that’s surprising,” says retired York University political science professor Robert MacDermid of the sums of money involved. “For unions and other groups that have historically spent a lot, it wouldn’t be surprising.”
Ontario Proud spent the leadup to Ontario’s election, and the campaign itself, largely attacking then-Premier Kathleen Wynne. On May, as the NDP rose in the polls, they came under attack as well. The page has also run videos supportive of the PCs, but largely stayed out of the party’s messy leadership process earlier in 2018.
Since the Ontario election, the site has shifted its focus to attack the federal Liberals.
Ontario Proud spent roughly equal amounts of money – about $150,000 – on Facebook ads and YouTube ads promoting the site.
Ballingall would not say in detail how the Facebook ads were targeted (ads on the platform can be very precisely tailored to include or exclude by age, sex, postal code, religion, political views, race and many, many other factors.)
“We targeted them at people who we thought were most likely to share our message. We’d developed a strong core audience, and we knew that by targeting the people most likely to share our content, we’d be able to reach more and more people and obviously have that social validation as well.”
YouTube reached a different, less politically engaged audience. YouTube ads can’t be as precisely targeted; these ones were only restricted to viewers in Ontario.
How much influence did the site have on the election? It’s hard to tell, but Ontario Proud itself certainly thought it was considerable.
“Ontario Proud played a pivotal role in the provincial election,” boasted a video published the week after PC leader Doug Ford‘s victory. They cited 63 million Facebook impressions, 2.1 million Twitter impressions, over a million text messages sent promoting the site, and 9.4 million views of its videos. It said that Ontario Proud had had more engagement than every Ontario politician and political party combined, a claim that cannot be independently verified.
Ballingall would not discuss what approaches had been tried and failed.
Ontario has no donation limits for third-party advertisers, as there are for donations to political parties.
One goal, Ballingall says, was simply to have as few people vote Liberal as possible, regardless of the outcome in any given riding:
“We wanted to see that the Liberal vote was driven down across the province, because of their vote subsidy. We wanted to make sure that they’d be bleeding votes everywhere, even in safe Liberal ridings or safe non-Liberal ridings.”
We reached out to Ontario Proud’s three largest donors.
- Merit Ontario ($50,000) is an organization that opposes restricting the right to bid on contracts to union members. “For 15 years the previous government was hostile to open shop contractors,” executive director Michael Gallardo said in an e-mail. “We hoped for change, prompting our support for Ontario Proud. We now have that change, and under Premier Ford, the future is looking brighter for construction, the economy and for opportunities for youth to enter the skilled trades.”
- Mattamy Homes ($100,000), a Toronto-based residential developer. “Our donation was in line with support we provide to other not-for-profit organizations whose purpose is to engage with Ontarians on issues of public importance – in this case, issues related to housing affordability, availability and industry policies,” company spokesperson Brent Carey wrote in an e-mail. (“I worked with a fundraiser, and … I think they knew each other socially,” Ballingall says of this donation. MacDermid calls it ” … incredibly excessive. We haven’t seen donations of that size since 2004, maybe.”)
- Nashville Developments ($50,000) a Vaughan, Ont. developer, did not respond to a request for comment.
Eleven companies in construction-related businesses, like excavating, concrete, plumbing and drywall, gave $10,000 each in early May.
“It was just us hustling,’ Ballingall says of these donations. “I think there was some nervousness around the election, and people started to really give because they were really concerned about the NDP.”
MacDermid sees the large donations as as result of restrictions on giving to traditional parties.
“Because we’ve controlled money going to parties and candidates, and limited that very severely – you look at some very wealthy people on those lists who are only able to give $1,200 – there’s a lot of pent-up desire to influence the political process. Where is that going? It’s going into third-party campaigns.”