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Getting True North on the Liberal Media Bus: A Primer

Everything you need to know about True North and the saga of getting Andrew Lawton on the Bus.

A few years ago, I started an independent, non-profit, non-partisan organization called True North as a grassroots-funded initiative to do research and advocacy around sound immigration and stronger national security policy. I envisioned something like a cross between the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Fraser Institute (I’m an alum of both organizations) but for national security and immigration. 

I started the organization from scratch. I used my own money to build a website, recruit a team of volunteers and started writing about important immigration issues. 

After a few months of releasing reports and analysis, we started a fundraising campaign. Next thing I knew, we had hundreds, then thousands of Canadians from coast to coast donating to this important cause. Over the next two years, I heard one thing over and over: Canada doesn’t need more research and advocacy organizations, we need more original journalism.

And so, we pivoted. True North became a registered charity in 2018, and as part of our mandate we started a program focused entirely on investigative journalism as well as original reporting and analysis of national political news in Canada. 

There are several other media outlets in Canada that have charitable status, including the Walrus Magazine the Montreal Newspaper La Presse. In fact, the Trudeau government changed the rules in 2018 to allow more media companies to be run as charities. 

Today, we envision True North as a next generation media company that also has a research arm. Think of it is a hybrid of an online news outlet and a modern think tank. We publish original news reports and videos everyday, and we also have researchers who focus on writing reports about terrorism, Iran, border security and other important issues. We are now funded through small online donations, subscriptions and foundation grants. 

We’ve been fortunate to receive so much support from so many Canadians, and we currently employ ten journalists, researchers and support staff as well as a roster of freelance contributors. 

Much like the Toronto Star, we also have an ideological mission. Ours is to stand up for Canadian values and traditions, and to promote ideas that will strengthen economic prosperity, peace and the rule of law. You can call that classical liberal, conservative or just plain Canadian. We are not “far-right” or “alt-right.” In fact, I routinely condemn extremists of all brands, including the alt-right, which you can read here.

True North is a start-up, and we’re still working out all the kinks. Regardless, we’re still very much a media organization and our journalism fellows are very much journalists. 

Andrew Lawton

Andrew Lawton is one of our most senior journalists. He is a veteran broadcaster who spent many years as the Host of the Andrew Lawton Show, which aired in London, ON and was streamed across Canada. He would also occasionally host his show in Calgary, AB.

He has interviewed thousands of people during his career, including Justin Trudeau, Maxime Bernier, Stephen Harper, Kathleen Wynne, Doug Ford, and many more. 

He’s also written columns for the Toronto Sun, National Post, Global News and continues to write a weekly column for Loonie Politics.

Andrew Lawton is a professional. He’s one of the most talented interviewers in Canada. That’s why, as Editor-in-Chief of True North, I decided to send Andrew onto the Liberal media tour bus. 

I will also note that Andrew briefly left the journalism profession during the last provincial election in Ontario, when he ran for the Progressive Conservatives in his hometown of London, ON, and lost. Andrew has never been shy about his small “c”-conservative views, and it’s quite common for political journalists in Canada to do stints working in partisan politics. Linda McQuag of the Toronto Star ran for the NDP in 2011, then went back to the Star after losing. It’s also common for people who lose elections to go back to their previous profession, be it a lawyer, business owner, or in this case, a journalist. 

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Covering the Campaign

Back to the bus story. 

During an election campaign, each of the major parties has a bus for journalists who are reporting on the campaign. These spots are not cheap, and can cost media outlets from $50,000 all the way up to $70,000 for the entire campaign, and include a seat on the bus and/or plane, hotel, and direct access to ask questions of the party leader during all the campaign events. 

During the past few months, we’d been planning our election coverage and decided to send Andrew out in the field to conduct interviews and do original news reporting in various places around Canada throughout the campaign. We did an online fundraising campaign and raised more than $10,000 from our generous supporters to pay the bill for Andrew’s travel costs. 

Following news of Trudeau’s embarrassing blackface incidents last Wednesday, however, we decided to send Lawton on the Liberal campaign bus instead. We wanted him to question the Prime Minister and continue digging into this story. We were worried that the legacy media would give Trudeau too easy of a time, and — for the benefit of all Canadians — we wanted to make sure there was a smart, bold, well-informed and skeptical journalist on the bus. 

More scrutiny, more questions from a more diverse audience of journalists is always better, right? Diversity is our strength, right?

We learned that the cost of getting a journalist on the Liberal bus would be about $8,000 per week. And so, we started another online fundraising campaign and I started making phone calls. Within 24 hours, we had raised enough to get Andrew on the bus — for at least two weeks.

I told him to pack his bags. 

That was last Friday, and news came that the Liberals had suspended their campaign so Trudeau could regroup after the whole racist blackface scandal. 

This gave us time to reach out to the Liberal war room as well as the Liberal campaign bus. We told them that we wanted to put a journalist on the media bus, and that Andrew would be joining them when the campaign resumed. We told them we were happy to pay whatever fee they charged other media outlets. 

No one on the Liberal campaign responded to our emails, texts or phone calls. 

That brings us to Sunday, when Andrew went to Brampton, ON — bags packed for the campaign — to speak to the Liberals in person. We assumed that once they met him and realized who is was, they’d let him report and let him on the bus. 

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Getting Blocked

We assumed wrong. 

We learned that the Liberals were intentionally blocking us from reporting and refusing to acknowledge True North as a media organization or Andrew Lawton as a journalist. They gave us inconsistent and contradicting reasons, and told Andrew that he needed “accreditation” to join the bus. 

Here’s the thing, though, there is no institution in Canada that grants accreditation to journalists. It happens on a case by case basis. In this case, it would be the Liberals themselves who would grant accreditation. And they were refusing — because we weren’t accredited.

This is the equivalent of showing up at the DMV to get a driver’s license and them telling you that they can’t give a license because you’re not a licensed driver — even though you’re an experienced driver! 

The Liberal bus left Brampton and headed to Hamilton, ON, and Lawton jumped in an Uber and followed them. Lawton continued to report for True North, interviewing the Liberal candidate in the riding — who said blackface was no big deal — and spoke to Trudeau’s press secretary Cameron Ahmad, who once again gave an inconsistent account of why True North was banned. 

That was enough. 

I was in Toronto and decided to drive to Hamilton (along with my husband and 7-month old son) to speak to the Liberal campaign in person. Maybe I was missing something. Maybe this was a big misunderstanding. 

An hour and a half later, I was in the Sheraton Hotel in Hamilton, sitting with Andrew Lawton, and Liberal communications officials Cameron Ahmad and Chantal Gagnon. 

I explained that our organization was in fact a media outlet, and that Andrew worked for us as a journalist. 

Unfortunately, there was no reasoning with these people. 

They repeated their talking points and said that he was not accredited, that True North was not a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery (PPG), and that they couldn’t simply acknowledge anyone who showed up off the street who wanted to be a journalist and let them on the bus. (They knew Lawton, and know that he is a long time journalist who is respected and popular among many circles in Canada.)

It was clear that they were powerless to make a decision.

They knew what they were saying was nonsense and counter to the values that their leader claims to uphold (like media freedom, diversity, and being tolerant and inclusive of others) — but they had no choice. The higher-ups had said no, and that was that. 

They apologized for not replying to our earlier requests and referred us to the Liberal war room to try to get accreditation. 

I told them we were not giving up, and that Andrew would follow the tour bus until they let him on. I don’t care if we have to spend every last dollar in True North’s budget, I will personally pay for Andrew, if need be, and he will follow the campaign — by car, train, plane, whatever means necessary — to report the other side of the story for Canadians. 

We left it at that, and my family and I drove back to Toronto. 

Getting the Cops involved

The next morning, (Monday) Andrew rented a car to drive to Niagara Falls for the next announcement. This is when things took a sudden and authoritarian turn. 

The Liberals had refused to give us an itinerary and refused to say the location of the next event. The other journalists on the bus refused to help True North or provide the address, so Andrew did they only thing he could — he followed the bus. 

That is when the Prime Minister sent the RCMP to detain Andrew and stop him from following the campaign bus. It was completely out of line — something that happens in a dictatorship not a free country like Canada — but I’ll let you read about that in Andrew’s own words, here.

Imagine for a minute if a journalist from another upstart online media company — say Canadaland or Buzzfeed — had been detained by the cops for trying to ask questions of a powerful politician running for re-election. Now imagine that politician was a conservative. 

This story would be on the front page of newspapers across the country and groups like Amnesty International and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression would be making demands and howling about the attacks against the free press. 

But when it happens to a liberal prime minister and a conservative journalist, too many remain silent. 

Jumping Through Liberal Hoops

Andrew was trying his best to get on the campaign bus, and I was back in Toronto doing my best too.

I reached out to the Liberal war room and actually got a reply this time. Here is what Zita Astravas, head of communications in the Liberal war room, told me:

Hi Candice,

Thank you for reaching out and working with the team on the ground about your questions about accreditation. We appreciate your interest in joining the National Leader’s Tour.

Media accredited by the National Press Gallery in Ottawa are welcome to submit requests for accreditation which are then considered.

Many thanks,

Zita

(Emphasis added by me)

She is clearly moving the goal posts here. Foreign press are allowed to cover the tour, as are regional media outlets. The Liberals never said anything about needing accreditation through the Parliamentary Press Gallery (PPG) when they announced their tour and opened it up to media outlets. 

The PPG, meanwhile, specifically told us that they have no jurisdiction over election campaigns. Obtaining accreditation for partisan campaign events, we were told, is up to the parties.

Regardless, I began working on gaining getting accreditation through the PPG for True North. We had never bothered in the past since we are not based in Ottawa and we have no journalists there (our people are in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, London, and Prince Edward Island). 

In the past, any time I needed to cover an event in Ottawa, they PPG would issue credentials on the spot. 

This is what the Parliamentary Press Gallery told me when it comes to accreditation:

Hi Candice,

Like I told you this morning, to receive a full-time accreditation you must be base in Ottawa and work from Ottawa full time.

If you have any other question let me know

Philippe

(Emphasis added by me)

You get that? You need to live in Ottawa, apparently, to be considered a journalist in the eyes of the Liberal campaign. 

What message does that send to journalists from across the country? That if you do not live in Ottawa, you don’t matter and you cannot report?

What message does this send to start-ups and entrepreneurs in the media space? Not only will the Prime Minister not support you with government bailout money unless you are part of the legacy media, but he won’t even speak to you or acknowledge you as a journalist. Worse, he’ll send the cops after you if you try too hard. 

Of course, the PPG accreditation thing is all total nonsense. It’s a hoop, and even if we jump through it, I’m certain the Liberals would still say no. 

They are afraid of our journalists because we are not Liberal cheerleaders, and we will actually ask tough questions and continue to press the Prime Minister. He is afraid of Andrew Lawton, afraid of True North, afraid of Canadians and afraid to tell the truth. 

UPDATE:

Tuesday: Andrew Lawton flew to Vancouver to cover Liberal events. He was denied entry at the Trudeau event in Burnaby, while the Liberal underling let in two BCIT students because one pulled up a story she had written on her smartphone and the other admitted she was a foreign exchange student and not a journalist. 

Andrew Lawton instead went to the NDP town hall with Jagmeet Singh, where they recognized him as a journalist, issued accreditation on the spot and even let him ask a question!

Wednesday: Andrew Lawton took the red eye to Toronto then flew back up to Thunder Bay to attend the Liberal event at Lakehead University. A Liberal underling walked up and took a photo of Andrew and a little later, two police officers stopped Andrew and ejected him from the building. Andrew had RSVP’s to this public event at a public university, and even had a wristband on. Watch his incredible live reaction here.

Candice Malcolm 

True North Founder and Editor-In-Chief 

If you’d like to support our independent Canadian journalism, please do so here. We really appreciate every dollar. Thank you. 

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