Residents in the riding of Sault Ste. Marie contributed $427,017 to federal political parties in the years following the Liberals’ 2015 election victory through to the end of 2020, according to a new analysis of Elections Canada political donations data.
The total for donations greater than $200 made to federal political parties, riding associations and 2019 electoral candidates was below the national average of about $853,000 per riding.
Nationwide, Sault Ste. Marie ranked 238th out of 338 ridings for total donations, 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.
Affluent ridings in major cities, especially those represented by higher-profile politicians, dominated the top of the list.
The results for Sault Ste. Marie showed that:
- The average donation was $788, compared with the national average of $831.
- 542 people in the riding, or 81 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 Conservative Party received the largest share of support from local donors, pulling in $178,893, 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 contributions 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.
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.
People who are well-off are also 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.
In Sault Ste. Marie, median income was $33,103, below the national median of $34,204. Voter participation in the 2019 election was also lower at 63 per cent, as compared to the national turnout of 67 per cent.
Fundraisers said that federal parties face a number of constraints when trying to raise money outside of major cities.
“Events where you’re trying to serve food and have a speaker are never profitable in smaller communities,” said Brent McArthur, president of the federal Liberal association in Guelph, a riding that generated about $1.4 million in donations to all parties. “The top limit of a dinner event was around $100 and it would be very challenging to have 100 people attend a political event of this nature… (It’s) simply very hard to be profitable after paying the costs.”
Michel Paulin, president of the Nipissing–Timiskaming Federal Liberal Association, said the geography of larger, more rural ridings like his, which generated a total of $638,056 for all federal parties and ranked 192nd overall, makes it challenging to stay connected with constituents.
“People relate to, especially in the rural area, more of a face-to-face type relationship,” he said, but the distance between communities means drawing a crowd to association events isn’t always easy. “There's just less opportunity to have those conversations. From one extreme to the other in the riding, it's a good three hours travel.”
Less affluent ridings are also more difficult terrain for fundraisers, said Timmins–James Bay Conservative Association president Steve Kidd.
“You’re obviously not going to get disposable income spent on political campaigns if people are in dire straits,” he said, noting that parts of his rural riding, which ranked 265th overall and generated $302,803 in donations, are “extraordinarily low income” areas.
Erin Tolley, an associate professor of political science at Carleton University, said the rules in Canada governing donations to federal political parties limit the influence of individual donors. 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, she said.
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 Tory 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. When she was a legislator, she added, she met with many people who never donated to her campaign or her party.
Michael Roy, a former national digital director for the NDP’s 2015 campaign, said people donate because their values are aligned with those of a party and they believe their money will “help move those values forward.”
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 Québécois collected $7 million.
Top ridings for federal party fundraising (Oct. 20, 2015 to Dec. 31, 2020)
- Ottawa Centre: $5.9 million
- University–Rosedale: $5.4 million
- Toronto–St. Paul's: $4.1 million
- Calgary Centre: $4 million
- Don Valley West: $3.4 million
- Vancouver Quadra: $3.3 million
- Ottawa–Vanier: $3.1 million
- Vancouver Centre: $2.7 million
- West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country: $2.6 million
- Victoria: $2.6 million
- Saanich–Gulf Islands: $2.5 million
- Notre-Dame-de-Grâce–Westmount: $2.3 million
- Winnipeg South Centre: $2.3 million
- Vancouver Granville: $2.3 million
- Eglinton–Lawrence: $2.3 million
- Oakville: $2.2 million
- Edmonton Centre: $2.1 million
This story was produced by the Local News Data Hub, a project of the Local News Research Project at Toronto Metropolitan (formerly Ryerson) University’s School of Journalism, and the Investigative Journalism Foundation, a non-profit journalism startup tracking political donations and lobbyist activity in partnership with university researchers. Detailed information on the data and methodology can be found here.