A small advocacy group made up of Canadians with autism who challenge the benefits of behavioural therapy received free media training from a Toronto consulting firm, whose president then threatened to sue the group after they questioned whether the services were aimed at helping the Ontario Progressive Conservatives.
The unsolicited offer of free help from Daisy Group, a firm led by Warren Kinsella, came during a controversy this year over the Ontario government’s cuts to autism funding.
The autism issue flared up in early February, when Lisa MacLeod - then minister of Children, Community and Social Services - announced at Queen’s Park that the Ontario government would change its funding formula for autism therapy as of April 1.
One of the most controversial aspects was that Ontario proposed to change the way it funds applied behavioural analysis (ABA) therapy, an approach that is common but expensive.
Parents of children with autism protested, saying they would no longer be able to afford treatment for their kids.
Autistics For Autistics (A4A), a group of autistic adults who engage in self-advocacy, takes a different view on the therapy than some of the more high-profile organizations. A4A is critical of it and says better, less expensive, alternatives exist.
In a statement to The Globe, Mr. Kinsella said his firm offered its services to the group because he and his colleagues were impressed by the organization.
“They were an impressive and persuasive group," he said. "They said they wanted help in getting noticed. They had no money. We do several pro bono files at any given time, and we thought we could help them.”
Mr. Kinsella’s firm had contracts in 2018 to provide strategic advice to the Ontario government through the ministry that was led by Ms. MacLeod, who was also responsible for the autism file until June, 2019. Mr. Kinsella said those contracts focused on planned changes to social assistance programs, and were unrelated to Daisy’s 2019 volunteer work for A4A.
“The work in these two files was separated by many months. It was for two entirely different clients. The subject-matter was not related in any way, shape or form,” he said in the statement.
Derek Rowland, a spokesperson for Ms. MacLeod, said the minister’s office hired Daisy Group to provide strategic communications advice and media training to the minister and her staff from October to November, 2018. The training was provided by Mr. Kinsella and other Daisy staff.
Anne Borden, a spokesperson and board member for A4A, told The Globe about her group’s interactions with Daisy.
A4A has an executive board, but it is essentially a small grassroots organization that interacts on social media and through community educational events. It is not a registered non-profit organization, has no official membership and no formal budget.
On March 21, the group received an unsolicited e-mail from Daisy Group praising its “amazing work” and offering free media training.
A few A4A members went to Daisy’s Toronto offices on April 24 for a two-hour training session. Ms. Borden said she posted a statement on Twitter about the event, but was later told by Daisy Group to take it down, which she did, and not publicize the training.
Another session took place on May 22.
“Four of our members attended two two-hour sessions at the Daisy Group that involved talking about who our group is, neurodiversity and Ontario autism policy," Ms. Borden said. "We thought the sessions would have practical tips about appearing on camera, etc., but they didn’t.”
Ms. Borden said the participants felt the two sessions were not particularly useful, but a third was scheduled for July 29, in part because one A4A member had not attended the previous ones and was coming from out of town.
“Then about two hours before the session, I got an e-mail from Daisy cancelling it,” Ms. Borden said. “The e-mail said there was a new development with the government, so they needed to reschedule. The e-mail had a link to an article about new changes to the Tories’ autism plan.”
That day, the government announced that it was reversing its original changes to the autism program and would design a new approach.
The group said that e-mail led them to suspect a possible connection between Daisy and the provincial government, and that they requested that their relationship with the firm end.
“We told them our concerns that they may have been trying to leverage a relationship with us for a larger project with a government client,” Ms. Borden said. “Daisy’s leadership responded with angry e-mails accusing us of libeling them (referring to our e-mail, which was only sent to them) and demanding we apologize or they would seek legal counsel. We then asked the Daisy Group to leave us alone, and they have.”
Ms. Borden said the warning of legal action was sent by Mr. Kinsella.
“To me, it was a totally bizarre and rude e-mail. I quickly e-mailed back that pro bono clients deserve the same respect as other clients,” she said.
The seven other members of the A4A board told The Globe they unanimously support Ms. Borden’s account.
Matthew Dever, the A4A member who travelled to Toronto and booked a hotel to attend the July training session that was cancelled, said he later tried to resolve the dispute between Ms. Borden and Mr. Kinsella.
“I wish they had been more patient with each other,” said Mr. Dever, who is not on the A4A board, but is a member of the Ontario government’s Autism Program Advisory Panel.
Mr. Dever said he can see why it might have looked like Mr. Kinsella was trying to help the government given the similarities between A4A’s policy positions and the government’s, but he said he does not believe that was the case.
At the time of the July 29 policy announcement and cancelled training session, Ms. MacLeod was no longer responsible for autism policy. She was moved to tourism in a June 21 cabinet shuffle.
Ms. MacLeod told The Globe this week she knew about Daisy’s pro-bono work for A4A, but said it was not connected to the Ontario government or the PC Party.
“I was not involved in it, but I was aware of it,” she said. She added that her office did not pay Daisy for the A4A media training. When asked why Daisy provided the service, she said that question should be put to Daisy.
Ms. MacLeod was asked if she supported the Daisy Group training.
“I think it’s important to make sure that people have good media training when they’re speaking to the media," she said during a brief interview. Her office declined to answer further questions about who made the decision for the government to hire Daisy Group in 2018 and how much the firm was paid.
Bruce McIntosh, the former head of the Ontario Autism Coalition, left his job with the PC government last year over the changes to the autism program.
He said he has no direct knowledge of Daisy Group’s contracts, but that training a group such as A4A would have benefited Ms. MacLeod.
“It would have been in furtherance of her objectives in terms of policy, and it would also no doubt at some point have been brought to bear as a rearguard to defend herself," Mr. McIntosh said.
The Globe reported earlier this month that Daisy Group was hired to conduct a “seek and destroy” operation aimed at discrediting Maxime Bernier’s Peoples’ Party of Canada and its supporters.
A source with direct knowledge of the plan - which was called Project Cactus - said the client was the Conservative Party of Canada.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has refused to confirm or deny whether his party hired Mr. Kinsella’s firm. Mr. Kinsella has confirmed that he worked to oppose Mr. Bernier’s party, but said he is not authorized to identify his client.
In a podcast on Friday, Mr. Kinsella said Daisy has worked for all major Canadian political parties over the years.
The PC Party of Ontario told The Globe it pays Mr. Kinsella for advertising space on his personal website.
In March, 2019, Mr. Kinsella donated $1,050 to the PC Party of Ontario.
Ms. MacLeod and Mr. Kinsella have recently expressed public support for each other.
In an Oct. 19 post on Twitter amid the controversy over Daisy’s Bernier campaign, Ms. MacLeod said Mr. Kinsella had devoted his career to standing up against racism and misogyny and defending acceptance over intolerance.
At an Oct. 21 event at the legislature related to a small cabinet shuffle involving Ms. MacLeod and a few others, Mr. Kinsella told Queen’s Park Today he was there to support Ms. MacLeod, describing her as “the sister I never had, basically.”