Winnipeg is a hot spot for Canadian political donations, new analysis suggests

An Elections Canada sign. Global News

Winnipeg provided lucrative territory for federal political party fundraisers during the five years after the 2015 election, suggests a new analysis of Elections Canada political donations data.

Donors in the riding of Winnipeg South Centre contributed $2.3 million to federal political parties in the years following the Liberals’ sweeping 2015 election victory through the end of 2020. This was substantially more than the national average of about $853,000, according to an analysis by the Local News Data Hub at Toronto Metropolitan University and the Investigative Journalism Foundation, a non-profit journalism startup tracking political donations and lobbyist activity in partnership with scholars from Canadian universities.

Winnipeg South Centre ranked 13th out of 338 ridings nationwide in terms of total donations greater than $200 made to federal political parties, electoral district associations and 2019 election candidates. Affluent ridings in major cities, especially those represented by higher-profile politicians, dominated the top of the list.

Among the reasons for Winnipeg South Centre’s high ranking:

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  • Donors dug deep: The average donation in the riding was $1,120, compared with the national average of $831.
  • More people donated: 2,054 residents in the riding, or 286 out of every 10,000 registered voters, reached into their pockets to support political parties. By comparison, the national average was 971 donors per riding, or about 119 per 10,000 registered voters.

The Liberal Party was the main beneficiary of donor largesse in Winnipeg South Centre, drawing $974,947, or 42 per cent of total donations.

Nationally, Ottawa Centre led the country in political contributions. The riding, which includes Parliament Hill and is home to many public servants, lobbyists and others with a stake in public policy, generated $5.9 million in donations.

Geoff Turner, chair of the Ottawa Centre Federal Liberal Association, said residents in the riding tend to work and volunteer in the public sphere.

“There’s just a higher level of political activity,” he said. “There’s a higher proportion of people who spend their professional and personal lives focused on public policy.”

Ranking second and third for total donations were Toronto’s University—Rosedale riding, which encompasses the wealthy enclave of Rosedale-Moore Park, and the riding of Toronto—St. Paul’s, home to part of the tony Forest Hill neighbourhood. Together they contributed nearly $9.5 million to federal parties over the five-year period.

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The analysis, which mostly focused on the 17 ridings in the 95th percentile, meaning that total donations were greater than in 95 per cent of all ridings, found a clear relationship between median income and total donations.

This held true for Winnipeg South Centre, where median income and voter turnout were both higher than national levels. The median income in the riding is $40,022, as compared with the national median of $34,204. In the 2019 election, 71 per cent of registered electors voted, while the national turnout was 67 per cent.

Liberal MP for Winnipeg South Centre Jim Carr rises during Question Period in Ottawa, Thursday, March 24, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

People who are well-off are more likely to vote, said Erin Crandall, an associate professor of politics at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, noting that research has consistently linked voter turnout with affluence. “They feel like they’re a part of the democratic system and party system,” she said.

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Erin Tolley, an associate professor of political science at Carleton University, said that compared with the United States, where “wealthy donors can really have considerable influence over political direction,” Canada’s political fundraising landscape is more focused on frequent, small donations.

Political financing experts and experienced fundraisers said federal laws limit donors’ influence on elected officials, with Elections Canada auditing party fundraising records and requiring parties to publish donor information for contributions greater than $200. Donations are currently limited to a maximum of $1,675 to each registered political party per year, an additional $1,675 spread among contestants in a party leadership race, and another $1,675 per party spread among local electoral district associations, candidates running for office and nomination contestants in a riding.

What political donations can buy donors is access.

“You might get a phone call returned faster. You might get invited to the exclusive little meet and greet at some large donor’s house or a backyard barbecue,” said former Ontario finance minister Janet Ecker, who fundraised in her suburban riding just east of Toronto and has helped other Conservative candidates raise money. “But just because somebody’s got the ability to meet with you, or talk to you, doesn’t mean you’re doing what they want you to do.”

“A donation might get you in the door, but it won’t guarantee you an outcome,” Ecker said, adding that as a legislator, she met with many people who never donated to her campaign or her party.

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The involvement of well-known politicians also drives donations, Ecker said. Seven of the MPs elected in the 17 top ridings entered the 2019 election as cabinet ministers, including Ottawa Centre’s Catherine McKenna, who was environment minister; Jim Carr from Winnipeg South Centre, the then-minister of international trade diversification; and former transport minister Marc Garneau, from Notre-Dame-de-Grace—Westmount in Montreal.

Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Catherine McKenna holds a press conference in Ottawa on Monday, March 29, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

People donate because their values align with those of a party, said Michael Roy, a former national digital director for the NDP’s 2015 campaign. They believe their money will “help move those values forward,” he said.

Nationwide, counting donations of all amounts, the Conservative Party of Canada raised the most money over the five years. The federal party, Tory candidates and riding associations pulled in nearly $179 million, while the Liberals amassed $142 million. The NDP raised $52 million, the Green Party raised $24 million and the Bloc Quebecois collected $7 million.

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Top ridings for federal party fundraising, from Oct. 20, 2015, to Dec. 31, 2020.

1. Ottawa Centre: $5.9 million

2. University—Rosedale: $5.4 million

3. Toronto—St. Paul’s: $4.1 million

4. Calgary Centre: $4 million

5. Don Valley West: $3.4 million

6. Vancouver Quadra: $3.3 million

7. Ottawa—Vanier: $3.1 million

8. Vancouver Centre: $2.7 million

9. West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country: $2.6 million

10. Victoria: $2.6 million

11. Saanich—Gulf Islands: $2.5 million

12. Notre-Dame-de-Grace—Westmount: $2.3 million

13. Winnipeg South Centre: $2.3 million

14. Vancouver Granville: $2.3 million

15. Eglinton—Lawrence: $2.3 million

16. Oakville: $2.2 million

17. Edmonton Centre: $2.1 million

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