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Summary

Contribution and spending limits are regulated by the Canada Elections Act. The Law places limits on contributions to political parties and political candidates. Only individuals or natural persons (not corporations or trade unions) who are Canadian citizens or permanent residents may make contributions. Election expenses are subject to limits for candidates and registered political parties. These limits are calculated according to a formula based on the number of names on the preliminary or revised lists of electors for each electoral district, and on the length of the election period. Candidates and parties may be able to claim publicly-funded reimbursements for some of their election expenses.

Under the Canada Elections Act, only certain networks (not all broadcasters) are required to allocate free time to political parties. Two minutes are allocated to each registered and newly eligible party that did not want any paid broadcasting time, and the remainder of free time is allocated among political parties proportionally to their paid-time allocation. The minimum amount of broadcasting time that a network operator makes available cannot be less than the amount of free broadcasting time that it made available during the last general election.

I. Introduction

The Canada Elections Act[1] regulates the general elections of Members of Parliament (MPs) to the Canadian House of Commons. According to Elections Canada, an independent, nonpartisan agency that reports directly to Parliament, the Act also provides “a framework designed to make the financing of the political system transparent and fairer. This includes requirements respecting contributions to and spending by various entities involved in the federal electoral system.”[2]

Canada’s system of party and election finance regulation provides two forms of state funding to political parties and to candidates. First, political parties and candidates receive a reimbursement of some of their election expenses. Second, Canada provides substantial tax credits for donations to political parties and candidates.[3]

According to Elections Canada,

[d]isclosure requirements have existed for candidates since the beginning of the 20th century, but the current regime was essentially laid out with the introduction of political party registration and the Election Expenses Act in 1974. The latter introduced limits on election expenses for both candidates and political parties, as well as the first forms of public funding through partial reimbursement of expenses and tax credits for contributions. As of January 1, 2004, the scope of the legislation was extended to electoral district associations, nomination contestants and leadership contestants.[4]

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II. Contribution Limits

Canada’s federal election finance laws place limits on contributions to political parties and political candidates. Only individuals or natural persons (not corporations or trade unions) who are Canadian citizens or permanent residents[5] may make contributions.[6] Major changes were made to the political financing regime through amendments that came into effect in 2004 and 2007 that set limits on political contributions. These limits were increased in 2014 through an amendment of the Canada Elections Act made pursuant to the Fair Elections Act (FEA).[7]

Canada imposes limits on individual contributions, loans and loan guarantees. According to the Political Financing Handbook for Candidates and Official Agents,

[t]he contribution limits apply to: total contributions, the unpaid balance of loans made during the year and the amount of any loan guarantees made during the year that an individual is still liable for. The sum of these three amounts cannot at any time exceed the contribution limit.[8]

Contribution limits are statutorily set by section 367(1) of the Canada Elections Act.[9] Section 367 (1.1) stipulates that the limit must increase by $25 (about US$19)[10] on January 1 of each year.[11] Below is a table of contribution limits in 2016 for various political entities, including political parties and political candidates:

Table: 2016 Political Contribution Limits

Political Entries 2016
Political parties A maximum of $1,525 (about US$1,148) per calendar year to
each of the registered political parties
Registered associations A maximum of $1,525 per calendar year, in the aggregate, to
the registered electoral district associations, nomination
contestants and candidates of each of the registered
political parties
Nomination contestants A maximum of $1,525 per calendar year, in the aggregate, to
the registered electoral district associations, nomination
contestants and candidates of each of the registered
political parties
Party-endorsed candidates A maximum of $1,525 per calendar year, in the aggregate, to
the registered electoral district associations, nomination
contestants and candidates of each of the registered
political parties
Independent candidates A maximum of $1,525 per election to each
independent candidate
Leadership contestants A maximum of $1,525 per calendar year, in the aggregate, to
all of the contestants in a leadership contest

Source: From Elections Canada webpages Limits on Contributions (Notes), infra note 12, and The Electoral System of Canada Political Financing,
supra note 2, as combined by author.

The Elections Canada website also states the following:

  • The contribution limits apply to: total contributions, the unpaid balance of loans made during the contribution period and the amount of any loan guarantees made during the contribution period that an individual is still liable for. The sum of these three amounts cannot at any time exceed the contribution limit.
  • A nomination contestant is permitted to give an additional $1,000 [about US$753] in total per contest in contributions, loans and loan guarantees to his or her own campaign.
  • A candidate is permitted to give a total of $5,000 [about US$3,764] in contributions, loans and loan guarantees to his or her campaign.
  • A candidate is also permitted to give an additional $1,525 in total per year incontributions, loans and loan guarantees to other candidates, registered associations and nomination contestants of each party. (This includes contributions to the registered association in the candidate’s electoral district and contributions to the candidate’s own nomination campaign.)
  • A leadership contestant is permitted to give a total of $25,000 [about US$18,818] in contributions, loans and loan guarantees to his or her campaign.
  • A leadership contestant is also permitted to give an additional $1,525 in total per year in contributions, loans and loan guarantees to other leadership contestants.[12]

The Act also stipulates a cash contribution limit of $20 (about US$15) for individuals.[13]

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III. Spending Limits

A. Candidate Spending Limits

A candidate’s election campaign will incur different types of expenses related to the election. These expenses are “collectively called electoral campaign expenses.”[14] They come under three categories: election expenses, the candidate’s personal expenses, and other expenses not included in the first two categories.[15]

The Canada Elections Act defines an election expense as

any cost incurred, or non-monetary contribution received, by a registered party or a candidate, to the extent that the property or service that the cost was incurred for or that was received as a non-monetary contribution is used to directly promote or oppose a registered party, its leader or a candidate during an election period.[16]

According to Elections Canada,

Such expenses are subject to limits for candidates and registered political parties. These limits are calculated according to a formula based on the number of names on the preliminary or revised lists of electors for each electoral district, and on the length of the election period. (For a party, the electoral districts are those in which the party has endorsed confirmed candidates.)[17]

Therefore, the candidate spending limit amount varies from one electoral district to another and also depends on the length of the election period.[18] Section 57 of the Canada Elections Act specifies that the election period must last a minimum of 36 days.[19] Maximum election expenses for candidates are calculated in accordance with sections 477.49(1) to 477.52(1) of the Act.[20]

Elections Canada calculates the limit for each electoral district as follows:

  1. Expenses limits are based on the number of names appearing on the preliminary lists of electors or on the revised lists of electors for the electoral district, whichever is greater.
  2. The Canada Elections Act provides for an adjustment for candidates running in electoral districts where there are fewer electors than the national average. In these districts the limit is increased.
  3. The Canada Elections Act also provides for an adjustment for geographically large electoral districts. If the number of electors per square kilometre of the electoral district is less than 10, the candidate’s expenses limit is increased.
  4. The limit is then adjusted by the inflation adjustment factor in effect on the day the election is called.[21]

For example, for the 2015 general election, which had an election period of 78 days (one of the longest in the country’s history),[22] the limits for the 338 electoral districts[23] ranged from $169,928.60 (about US$127, 910) (for the Egmont district of Prince Edward Island) to $279,227.99 (about US$210,161) (for the Kootenay-Columbia district of British-Columbia).[24]

Personal expenses that are reasonably incurred in relation to an election campaign outside certain categories[25] are subject to a limit of $200 (about US$151) established by Elections Canada.[26]

Expenses limits are also calculated for nomination campaigns. The Canada Elections Act defines “an expense reasonably incurred by or on behalf of a nomination contestant during a nomination contest as an incidence of the contest, including a personal expense.”[27] For a nomination campaign, a nomination contestant can spend “20 percent of the amount allowed for a candidate’s election expenses in the same riding [electoral district] during the previous general election if the boundaries of the electoral district have not changed since then. In any other case, a nomination contestant can spend the amount that the Chief Electoral Officer determines.”[28]

According to Elections Canada, “[t]he Canada Elections Act does not set limits on the amount of leadership campaign expenses that each contestant may incur. A registered party may set its own limits by internal rules, but such limits are not enforceable through the Act.”[29]

A candidate who is elected or receives at least ten percent of the valid votes cast in his or her electoral district and “who complies with the financial reporting provisions and submits an auditor’s report” is entitled to a publicly-funded reimbursement of election and personal expenses paid “up to a maximum of 60 percent of the election expenses limit established for the electoral district.”[30]

B. Party Spending Limits

As noted above, the Canada Elections Act also places election expenses limits on registered political parties. These limits are also calculated according to a formula based on the number of names on the preliminary or revised lists of electors for each electoral district, and on the length of the election period. According to section 430(1) of the Canada Election Act, the maximum amount that is allowed for election expenses of a registered party for an election is the product of:

  • “$0.735 multiplied by the number of names on the preliminary lists of electors for electoral districts in which the registered party has endorsed a candidate or by the number of names on the revised lists of electors for those electoral districts, whichever is greater”;[31] and
  • the inflation adjustment factor, published by the Chief Electoral Officer, which is in effect on the day the election is called.[32]

The maximum amount is increased if the election period is longer than 37 days and is calculated through another statutory formula under section 430(2).[33]

For the 78-day election period prior to the 2015 general election, the limits for registered political party ranged from $119,542.99 (about US$89,966) (Canada Party) to $54,936,320.15 (about US$41,340,656) (Liberal, Conservative, and New Democratic parties).[34]

According to Elections Canada, registered political parties are eligible for a publicly-funded reimbursement of fifty percent of their paid election expenses for general elections “if they file the proper financial reports and receive at least 2 percent of the valid votes cast nationally or 5 percent of the valid votes cast in electoral districts where they endorsed candidates.”[35]

C. Third Party Spending Limits

The Canada Elections Act also limits the amount that third parties (individuals, corporations, or groups not contesting an election) can spend on election advertising.[36] Such entities must register with Elections Canada if they incur or intend to incur election advertising expenses of more than $500 (about US$376).[37] In a 37-day election period, the base limit for a general election is $150,000 (about US$112,880).[38] According to Elections Canada, “[o]f that amount, no more than a base limit of $3,000 can be incurred to promote or oppose the election of one or more candidates in a particular electoral district. The $3,000 limit is also applicable to byelections. Base limits are multiplied by the inflation adjustment factor in effect on the date the writs are issued.”[39] If the election period is more than 37 days, the expenses limit is increased.[40]

In the most recent general election, third parties could spend up to $8,788.22 (about US$6,614) in a given electoral district, and up to a maximum of $439,410.81 (about US$330,699.46) nationally during the 78 day election period.[41]

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IV. Media Air Time

A. Allocation of Broadcasting Time Available for Purchase

Pursuant to section 335 of the Canada Elections Act,[42] every broadcaster in Canada must make a total of six and one-half hours (390 minutes) of airtime available for purchase by registered political parties during a federal general election.[43] The Act provides that the allocation of this time among the parties is determined through a unanimous agreement among them.[44] If the parties fail to agree then the Broadcasting Arbitrator sets the allocation based on a statutory formula stipulated in section 338 of the Canada Elections Act.[45]

The statutory formula used by the Broadcasting Arbitrator in allocating broadcasting time is as follows:

  • The Broadcasting Arbitrator must consider certain factors in allocation, which consist of giving equal weight to the percentage of seats in the House of Commons held by each of the registered parties at the previous general election; and the percentage of the popular vote at the previous general election of each registered party.[46] Specific rules also exist for allocating broadcasting time in the case when two or more registered parties merge.[47]
  • The Broadcasting Arbitrator must in addition give half the weight given to each of the factors referred to above to the number of candidates endorsed by each of the registered parties at the previous general election, expressed as a percentage of all candidates endorsed by all registered parties at that election.[48]
  • The Broadcasting Arbitrator cannot allocate more than 50% of the total of the broadcasting time to a registered party.[49]
  • If the calculation would give more than 50% of the total of the broadcasting time to a registered party, the Broadcasting Arbitrator must allocate the excess amount to the other registered parties entitled to broadcasting time on a proportionate basis.[50]

The Act “also gives the Broadcasting Arbitrator the discretion to modify an allocation based on the statutory formula,” subject to the last two bullet points above, “if he believes that such an allocation would be unfair to a registered party or contrary to the public interest.”[51] Besides allocating both paid air time (provided by broadcasters) and free air time (provided by network operators) to political parties during a general election, the “Broadcasting Arbitrator also arbitrates time-allocation disputes between political parties and broadcasters or network operators.”[52]

Under section 339 of the Act, each new eligible party receives broadcasting time “in an amount equal to the lesser of the smallest portion of broadcasting time to be made available under section 335 allocated” and six minutes.[53] However, pursuant to section 343(2) of the Act, the total allocated must be rolled back to 390 minutes on a proportionate basis.[54]

B. Allocation of Free Broadcasting Time

Under section 345(1) of the Canada Elections Act, only certain networks (not all broadcasters) are required to allocate free airtime for political parties.[55] The legislation requires that “all network operators that provided free broadcasting time in the previous general election must provide as much free broadcasting time to registered and eligible parties as they did during the previous election.”[56] The networks are required to make available two minutes to each registered and newly eligible party[57] that did not want any paid broadcasting time, and the remainder of free time is allocated among political parties proportionally to their paid time allocation.[58]

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Prepared by Tariq Ahmad
Foreign Law Specialist
March 2016


[1] Canada Elections Act, S.C. 2000, c. 9, http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/e-2.01/FullText.html, archived at https://perma.cc/9VX5-CRDJ. What constitutes a contribution and an election expense are set out in sections 363 and 376 of the Act.

[2] The Electoral System of Canada Political Financing, ELECTIONS CANADA, http://www.elections.ca/content. aspx?section=res&dir=ces&document=part6&lang=e (last updated Nov. 16, 2015), archived at https://perma.cc/TDA5-HWPK.

[3] Political Party Financing, HISTORICA CANADA, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/party-financing/ (last visited Mar. 4, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/AB2F-BCVB.

[4] The Electoral System of Canada Political Financing, supra note 2. For more information on limits on election contributions see CHARTERED PROFESSIONAL ACCOUNTANTS OF CANADA, A GUIDE FOR THE AUDITOR OF A CANDIDATE IN A FEDERAL ELECTION PURSUANT TO THE CANADA ELECTIONS ACT 6 (10th ed. 2015), https://www.cpacanada.ca/~/media/site/business-and-accounting-resources/docs/guide-for-auditors-of-candidate-federal-election-pursuant-canada-elections-act-10th-edition-october%202015.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/RZ2Z-MG5W.

[5] Canada Elections Act § 363(1).

[6] Id.

[7] The Electoral System of Canada Political Financing, supra note 2.

[8] ELECTIONS CANADA, POLITICAL FINANCING HANDBOOK FOR CANDIDATES AND OFFICIAL AGENTS (EC 20155), ch. 2 – Campaign Inflows (July 2015), http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=pol&dir=can/man/ec20155 &document=p2&lang=e, archived at https://perma.cc/Z3Z3-89RH.

[9] Canada Elections Act § 367(1).

[10] All references to dollars in this report are to the Canadian dollar unless otherwise indicated. The current exchange rate is Can$1 = US$0.75. The Law Library of Congress 16

[11] Id. § 367(1.1).

[12] Limits on Contributions (Notes), ELECTIONS CANADA, http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=pol& document=index&dir=lim&lang=e (last visited Jan. 4, 2016; footnotes in original omitted), archived at https://perma.cc/8EXZ-PPAY.

[13] Canada Elections Act, § 371.

[14] ELECTIONS CANADA, POLITICAL FINANCING HANDBOOK FOR CANDIDATES AND OFFICIAL AGENTS (EC 20155), ch. 3 – Campaign Outflows (July 2015), http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=pol&dir=can/man/ec20155 &document=p3&lang=e, archived at https://perma.cc/YF73-XNGX.

[15] Id.

[16] Canada Elections Act § 376(1)(a); see also §§ 376(1)(b), 376(2), 376(3).

[17] The Electoral System of Canada Political Financing, supra note 2.

[18] ELECTIONS CANADA, POLITICAL FINANCING HANDBOOK FOR CANDIDATES AND OFFICIAL AGENTS, supra note 14.

[19] Canada Elections Act, § 57.

[20] Id. §§ 477.49 (1) to 477.52.

[21] ELECTIONS CANADA, POLITICAL FINANCING HANDBOOK FOR CANDIDATES AND OFFICIAL AGENTS, supra note 14.

[22] Canada Election 2015: Stephen Harper Confirms Start of 11-Week Federal Campaign, CBC NEWS (Aug. 2, 2015), http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/canada-election-2015-stephen-harper-confirms-start-of-11-week-federal-campaign-1.3175136, archived at https://perma.cc/4SAV-NLS9.

[23] Canada’s Federal Electoral Districts, ELECTIONS CANADA (Mar. 2015), http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx? section=res&dir=cir/list&document=index338&lang=e, archived at https://perma.cc/JUW3-YJVH.

[24] Final Candidate Election Expenses Limits, 42nd General Election, October 19, 2015, ELECTIONS CANADA, http://www.elections.ca/content2.aspx?section=can&dir=cand/canlim&document=index&lang=e (last visited Mar. 7, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/FE5F-KUKQ.

[25] ELECTIONS CANADA, POLITICAL FINANCING HANDBOOK FOR CANDIDATES AND OFFICIAL AGENTS, supra note 14. According to the Elections Canada’s Political Financing Handbook, the following categories of personal expenses do not count against the election expenses limit: travel and living expenses; child care expenses; “expenses related to the provision of care for a person with a physical or mental incapacity for whom the candidate normally provides such care”; “in the case of a candidate who has a disability, additional personal expenses that are related to the disability”; “expenses incurred to pay candidate’s representatives at a polling station or at the office of a returning officer.” Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Canada Elections Act § 2(1).

[28] The Electoral System of Canada Political Financing, supra note 2.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Canada Elections Act § 430(1)(a).

[32] Id. § 430(1)(b).

[33] Id. § 430(2).

[34] Final Election Expenses Limits for Registered Political Parties, 42nd General Election, October 19, 2015,ELECTIONS CANADA, http://www.elections.ca/content2.aspx?section=can&dir=part/pollim&document=index&lang=e (last visited Mar. 7, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/YPH2-GB9N.

[35] The Electoral System of Canada Political Financing, supra note 2.

[36] See Third Party Election Advertising Expenses Limits, ELECTIONS CANADA, http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=pol&document=index&dir=thi/limits&lang=e (last modified Feb. 25, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/ALT6-XCNJ. See also ELECTIONS CANADA, ELECTION ADVERTISING HANDBOOK FOR THIRD PARTIES, FINANCIAL AGENTS AND AUDITORS (EC 20227), ch. 3 (July 2015), http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=pol&document=index&dir=thi/ec20227&lang=e, archived at https://perma.cc/9ZQE-ZH2G.

[37] See ELECTIONS CANADA, ELECTION ADVERTISING HANDBOOK FOR THIRD PARTIES, FINANCIAL AGENTS AND AUDITORS (EC 20227), ch. 1 (July 2015) http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=pol&dir=thi/ec20227&document=p1&lang=e#b, archived at https://perma.cc/9D9F-Z7M6.

[38] Canada Elections Act § 350(1).

[39] Third Party Election Advertising Expenses Limit, supra note 36.

[40] Canada Elections Act § 350(6).

[41] Limits on Election Advertising Expenses Incurred by Third Parties – 42nd General Election, ELECTIONS CANADA, http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=ele&document=index&dir=pas/42ge/thilim&lang=e (last updated Feb. 22, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/FMG7-PS2K.

[42] Canada Elections Act § 335(1).

[43] Allocation of Paid Broadcasting Time, ELECTIONS CANADA, http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=abo&dir=bra/all&document=index&lang=e (last updated June 29, 2015), archived at https://perma.cc/23KA-995A.

[44] Canada Elections Act § 337(2).

[45] Id. § 338.

[46] Id. § 338(1).

[47] Id. § 338(2).

[48] Id. § 338(1).

[49] Id. § 338(3).

[50] Id. § 338(4).

[51] Allocation of Paid Broadcasting Time, supra note 43. For the 2015 allocation of paid time and the reasons for the decision see 2015 Allocation of Paid Time, ELECTIONS CANADA, http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=abo&dir=bra/all/2015&document=index&lang=e (last updated June 29, 2015), archived at https://perma.cc/KW2CBGU9

[52] The Electoral System of Canada, ELECTIONS CANADA, http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=ces&document=part3&lang=e (last updated Nov. 16, 2015), archived at https://perma.cc/L9ZB-UZT6.

[53] Canada Elections Act § 339.

[54] Id. § 343(2).

[55] Broadcasting Guidelines, ELECTIONS CANADA, http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=abo&dir=bra/bro/2015&document=index&lang=e (last updated Aug. 4, 2015), archived at https://perma.cc/V5BN-JVWS.

[56] Allocation of Free Broadcasting Time, ELECTIONS CANADA, http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=abo&dir=bra/fre&document=index&lang=e (last updated Jan. 4, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/JGZ8-65PJ.

[57] Canada Elections Act § 345(2)(a).

[58] Id. § 345(2)(b).

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Last Updated: 05/17/2016