Why Canadian politicians spar over so-called ‘facts’ — and how to keep track of the truth
It may seem strange to disagree over facts, but things are a little more complicated in the realm of politics.
It’s a space where facts — or so-called “facts” — are often up for debate.
That’s the case ahead of October’s federal election, with leaders already disagreeing over what is true.
Elections Canada has warned some environmental groups against advertising about climate change without registering as a third party. The rules dictate once the campaign starts, any group that spends more than $500 on ads concerning an election issue need to register.
Environmental Defence explained to Global News it was told that because Maxime Bernier, the leader of the People’s Party of Canada, has made comments disputing climate change as fact, it would count as an elections issue.
A spokeswoman Natasha Gauthier for Elections Canada told Global News that she can’t comment on the session with environmental groups, but this is potentially an issue that could arise.
“If that becomes an issue that’s associated with a party or a candidate, that would become issue advertising, and therefore it would become a regulated activity,” she explained.
WATCH: May urges Elections Canada to reconsider partisan warning on climate change discussion
Tim Powers, the vice-chairman of public affairs consulting firm Summa Strategies, told Global News that disagreements on things many deem as facts may seem strange — but it actually happens quite often in politics.
“In politics, as in some other realms, fact is in the eye of the beholder,” he said.
“In every election, you can point to parties fact-checking other parties because they don’t agree with or interpret facts differently.”
Powers noted that means in this election, all parties will present Canadians “misleading” information posed as fact.
In this case, Bernier is the only federal leader who has said that if climate change is real, it is a natural cycle of the earth and not an emergency. He also disagrees that carbon dioxide, which experts say is responsible for three-quarters of greenhouse emissions globally, is bad.
“It gets tougher, even though there are more ways to fact-check, for people to figure out what they should really be paying attention to and who they need to be believing,” Powers explained.
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He noted that climate change, as well as other hot-button issues such as the economy and immigration, can attract false claims.
“It’s easier to sell something that is clear and crisp, whether it’s truthful or not,” he said. “They’ll take some heat from people saying it’s not entirely accurate if they can get people on-side to their particular perspective.”
In February, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen claimed Liberals succeeded in reuniting more families under the parents and grandparents program than their Tory predecessors.
That was proven mostly false, as a fact check found that the Immigration Department’s numbers show fewer permanent residents had been accepted under the parents and grandparents program under the Liberal government, compared to its Conservative predecessors.
Between 2011 and 2015, the then-Conservative government admitted an average of 20,370 permanent residents per year under the parents and grandparents program, according to the Immigration Department’s annual reports.
The Liberals, who took office in late 2015, approved an average of 18,768 permanent residents per year under the program in 2016 and 2017.
Later in July, Hussen called out Bernier for forging facts on immigration.
“We must not be misled by false information designed to divide Canadian,” Hussen wrote on Twitter. “We must fight fear with facts.”
Hussen was referring to a specific claim Bernier made while delivering his immigration platform speech in Mississauga, Ont.
During the speech Bernier said: “Are Canadians happy to subsidize 74 per cent of our current immigrants?” In a fact check, CBC News determined the claim was “patently false” and relied on outdated numbers.
How Canadians can navigate disagreements over facts
Kathryn Harrison, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia, explained that politicians can sometimes spread misinformation or at least “cherry-pick” information that supports their positions.
“I think leaders, like voters, tend to zero in on the pieces of evidence that reinforce what they want to believe,” she told Global News.
But in the case of an election campaign, Harrison noted that there is some good news for Canadians hoping to make well-informed decisions.
“There are incentives for the other parties to call out misinformation and selective information,” she said.
One way of keeping track can be watching debates, which are designed for “leaders to call out each other over false statements,” Harrison added.
Canadians themselves, she noted, also have a role to play during the election campaign — doing their own homework.
WATCH: Bernier says he supports Canada’s distinct sense of multiculturalism
Some of that homework entails not believing politicians without doing their own fact-checking, and not believing everything they see on social media.
Canadians can also rely on reputable news sources and journalists whose role is to be an “unbiased fact-checker,” Harrison said.
She added Canadians should demand that politicians show the research behind their claims.
“People elect politicians to represent them on questions of values, but politicians typically don’t have any special claim to be able to answer questions of fact,” she noted.
Harrison said facts should be determined by experts in particular fields, whether that is medical professionals, engineers or social scientists.
“Canadians would not accept political parties espousing different positions on whether the earth is round or flat,” she said.
“It’s a matter of scientific consensus, and we accept that. So why would we be less willing to trust experts on other questions of fact on subjects like climate change?”
— With files from The Canadian Press
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