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Squamish mayor weighs in on the impact of anonymous group Squamish Voices

Mayor Karen Elliott looks to the federal government for a national transparency fix.
Squamish Mayor Karen Elliott.

Editor’s note: This story is part one of a series of stories on the impact of Squamish Voices. Other stories in the series look at the impact on councillors who have also been targeted, those who haven’t, as well as the bigger picture impact of these types of campaigns.

There is no doubt the anonymous group Squamish Voices — like it or not — has impacted politics and the discourse in this town. 

On its Meta Facebook page, which was set up on March 30, 2021,  organizers have so far paid for 92 ads costing a total of $24,409. 

This is not to mention the cost of several glossy mailers sent through Canada Post to residents. 

Who is behind the group locally has yet to be confirmed.

Facebook has refused to reveal the identity of those behind the page.

The campaign has taken aim at Mayor Karen Elliott, Coun. Jenna Stoner, Coun. Chris Pettingill and Coun. Doug Race. 

Coun. John French, Coun. Armand Hurford and Coun. Eric Andersen have not been targeted. 

Singled out

More than anyone else on council, Elliott has been the most harshly singled out in the campaign. Her face features prominently in the majority of posts, sponsored ads and flyers.

“When you step forward to run for council, you know you’re going to be in a position to speak with members of the community, and sometimes you’ll agree, and sometimes you won’t. Most of the time, you’ll find yourself somewhere in between the polar opposites. But there’s always been — I know who I’m talking to in the community. That level of transparency, that level of respect for working together. And, we all want what’s best for Squamish. What’s different is now this lack of transparency and a purposeful, ongoing, well-funded misinformation campaign,” she said. “There’s no desire in Squamish Voices to talk about the facts. But there’s every desire to sow distrust, throw accusations around, and create chaos. And so that’s changed the realm of public discourse in our community.”

In-person, she said even those who disagree with her are civil. 

"The people that are out there saying the horrible things are never the people that will approach me and say them to my face," she said.

Clickbait society

Elliott said Squamish Voices, and groups of its ilk are savvy with social media and how they target folks. 

“I think that people don’t have a lot of time. And, I think that’s who these misinformation campaigns are targeting —  people who are working hard. They don’t tend to read mainstream media. And they’re not going to go and dig for the facts. And so if something resonates with them, then they’re gonna like it, they might share it. And I think that’s the MO of these groups, right? They set up, they look like they’re a friendly community organization: 'What’s your favourite time of year in Squamish? What is your favourite place to get ice cream?' And then once they have engagement, and they have likes on the page, now they can start. And I think the way that social media algorithms are written and the way this happens, and the advertisement that’s happening to make sure it is popping up on people’s feeds now and it’s sort of insidious, and like a virus it can infect.”

Richmond Hill Voices and a Vaughan Voices also exist, among others. They look the same as the Squamish version and attack some members of those town councils. 

Elliott said she was proud that she has maintained her integrity and civility in council chambers. 

“To demonstrate through my words and actions at every council meeting, that we can debate the hard issues, and it doesn’t need to get nasty, and it doesn’t need to get personal.”

She acknowledged hard lessons have been learned through the last year of attacks. 

The District has learned it can’t take anything for granted when it comes to communicating what it is doing and how it is doing it. 

“I think we’ve got to be careful at the District in how we put out information and how we stay on message. So we don’t want to be out there always defensive, chasing whatever they’re saying. We want to be back talking to our community. And we kind of want to put them to the side. So that’s going to take some thinking and some thoughtfulness and, and maybe some outside advice to really help us figure that out,” she said.

Asked why Squamish, and in particular those on council featured in the ads are being singled out, Elliott said looking at how votes fall in council on certain issues is probably key to getting to the bottom of it. 

“The fact that there’s four of us who are consistently targeted, you know, it makes me wonder: What are those votes where the four of us made the same decision without the other three? Why these four? And so I think that makes me feel that whoever is funding this is absolutely connected to and interested in the outcome of Squamish decision making and election outcomes.”

Evaluating candidates

Elliott says while she was concerned the nastiness of the campaign and discourse in the community would mean fewer diverse and quality people would be willing to run for office in Squamish, she has been pleasantly surprised to see a few women come to her recently interested in running. 

She surmises these folks have watched what is happening in council chambers rather than being concerned with the online battles. 

“And so I think, while all that noise has been going on in the social media realm, people who are interested in running, are watching the leadership at the table and seeing something different,” she said. 

Because it can’t be taken for granted this shadow group or another won’t try to influence local government elections this fall, Elliott, who has not yet declared whether or not she will run again, said citizens have to look closely at candidates. 

“Citizens should be looking at candidates that are running for something.  Not the candidates that are like, ‘clean house.’ And I also think people should look for well-rounded candidates who are interested in a number of issues. They’re not just one-issue candidates. It’s a really complicated job. And the problems that we have in front of us are not going to be solved by one term in office,” she said. 

“We are talking about a major childcare crisis, a major housing crisis. We’ve got significant infrastructure we need to rebuild over the next 10 years and make that manageable for the taxpayer. We still need to increase transit — there’s no expansion. There’s no provincial transit expansion money this year, we still don’t have the regional system. You know, we need serious people who are patient and thoughtful and willing to work hard in service of solutions with all levels of government with the rest of the corridor. We need those collaborative, team-based people.”

Elliott said she is looking to the federal level to see what can be done to ensure transparency with these organized attack campaigns.

“What I’ve been advocating with our MP and MLA is just like, where are the conversations happening around transparency? Of course, we don’t want to stifle freedom of expression, freedom of speech,” she said. “This is somehow politically motivated. It’s very targeted. And it’s well-funded. And it gets to be anonymous. And that’s not — I think — that’s not fair,” she said. 

“I think [the federal government]  does have the power to regulate social media platforms. I think that’s really important. And I think people should be writing to their MP if they think this issue is important, too. And let them know that transparency on social media platforms matters a lot,” she said.

Complicated fix

West Vancouver – Sunshine Coast – Sea to Sky Country MP Patrick Weiler told The Squamish Chief that anonymous attacks such as this are complicated to fix. 

“We have a certain appreciation for things like what happens when we don’t have transparency, for instance, in homeownership or in corporate ownership. But we have a very different idea when it comes to the internet,” Weiler said. 

“What we’re seeing happening on social media is very different than the internet when it was first developed. And so I think we need to take a very close look at this.” 

Weiler noted the federal government has been funding a Digital Citizen Initiative to try to combat misinformation and disinformation. 

“We’ve worked on things like disinformation on COVID. And also disinformation with [the invasion of] Ukraine. And not surprisingly, a lot of the folks who are consuming the information with disinformation on COVID are the same ones that are consuming disinformation on Ukraine. Even before last year, we’d reached over 12 million Canadians with some of this work. But it’s a very, very big challenge.”

He said a new Advisory Committee is also being struck. It’s going to help develop some new legislation that will allow the government to regulate social media better. It will be focused on hate speech and the non-consensual sharing of sexual images, but Weiler said he hopes the committee will be able to tackle some of the trickier issues, such as the lack of transparency on social media.

Weiler also noted that the federal government has funding initiatives to help media survive in areas outside urban centres. When there isn’t an accountable newspaper or media outlet in a community, rumours, disinformation, and misinformation can more easily spread unchecked, he said. (Find out more about that support on the Government of Canada website.)

Over the past year, Squamish Chief reporters have made several attempts to speak to those behind Squamish Voices, including prior to going live with this series, messaging their social media pages and repeatedly calling the phone numbers associated with the advertisements.

No one has ever replied.


Other stories in this series so far:

Targeted council members weigh in on the impact of Squamish Voices

What is it like being a member of council who is not being targeted by Squamish Voices?

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