Lululemon founder gives $380,000 to boost B.C.'s right

Lululemon founder gives $380,000 to boost B.C.'s right-leaning candidates, asks others to donate

Exclusive: Vancouver entrepreneur Chip Wilson has been urging other wealthy individuals to donate to new organization seeking to help B.C.'s right-leaning "pro-business" candidates defeat "socialist" opponents, starting with this October's municipal elections.

Author of the article:

Dan Fumano

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Vancouver billionaire Chip Wilson has urged some of his deep-pocketed contacts to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece to a new organization that aims to help right-leaning candidates in this year’s municipal elections, Postmedia News has learned. Wilson has kicked in $380,000 of his own money.

Wilson, founder and former CEO of apparel giant Lululemon, recently sent a letter to some contacts in the business community, titled “A Political Stake in the Ground.”

In the letter, which is not public but was provided to Postmedia by several sources, Wilson urged businesspeople to consider donating $50,000 to $200,000 each to a new organization called Pacific Prosperity Network.

He said he had provided initial funding of $380,000 to let the organization “build software to run a successful campaign, to gather big data, empower grassroots and be an effective full-time voice for the right.”

The “NDP have done a masterful job of setting up a structure so the voice of entrepreneurs, hard workers, or dreamers have become mute,” his letter said, passing laws “making it difficult for any party not supported by unions to succeed.”

The current system discourages business-savvy candidates from running, Wilson’s letter says, adding “the right-leaning taxpayer has little chance of being heard from again.”

Wilson is one of B.C.’s most successful entrepreneurs. Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index pegs him as one of the 500 wealthiest people in the world with a $7.11 billion fortune, and his $73 million beachfront Kitsilano mansion has been consistently assessed as the most expensive in B.C.

He has also been an outspoken commentator on various matters and a vocal critic of the governments of the federal Liberals, B.C. NDP, and Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart. Since Wilson departed Lululemon in 2013, he has invested in real estate and apparel.

Wilson’s letter mentions B.C.’s campaign finance restrictions announced in 2017. Previously, the province had no limits on political donations, prompting the memorable New York Times headline in January 2017 calling B.C. “the ‘Wild West’ of Canadian political cash.”

Shortly after that year’s election, the then-new B.C. NDP government limited political contributions to $1,200 and banned donations from corporations and unions, proclaiming an end to the “era of big money” in B.C. politics.

But the Pacific Prosperity Network, also known as the Pacific Prosperity Foundation, is not a political party and therefore is not subject to the same limits and transparency requirements. The organization’s website states it “can accept contributions from both individuals and corporate entities,” and “there are no limits to the amount that you can contribute, nor does Pacific Prosperity Network have any requirement to disclose the names of individuals or organizations that make contributions.”

“Contributions will be spent on educating and training proponents of free-enterprise who aspire to run for their local government, and on campaigning against bad provincial and municipal policies,” the website says.

Wilson confirmed to Postmedia he sent the letter, adding: “I think that it would be great to get some balance in our politics, and I think the Pacific Prosperity Foundation is a great group and really doing some amazing things.”

“It’s pro-business, and of course I would be pro-business. And I think it’s the right thing for the people of the province,” Wilson said.

Wilson pointed to the declining value of Europe’s currency, telling Postmedia: “This is because of socialist governments that believe voters are too stupid to know how to spend their own money. Socialist governments can spend but do not know how money is made.”

Micah Haince, executive director of the Pacific Prosperity Network, said he launched the organization last year to fill a gap for B.C.’s right-wing and centre-right candidates for municipal and provincial office.

B.C.’s left-leaning candidates benefit from the provincial and federal NDP’s alignment, Haince says, and the party has been able to support municipal candidates who go on to successful provincial and federal runs.

“That farm team system has worked quite well for the NDP out here,” said Haince, a former staffer in the Stephen Harper Conservative government and the Christy Clark B.C. Liberal government. After working in federal, provincial and municipal politics, Haince sad, he recognized “a big gap” in B.C. on what he called the “pro-business side, centre, centre-right, … which is exactly what led me to forming the foundation.”

The foundation, Haince explained, has developed software and education programs to help free-enterprise proponents starting with this October’s municipal elections, which they are selling at cost to right-leaning candidates.

Haince said he appreciated Wilson’s financial support when the Network was getting started, and was “very grateful” Wilson offered recently to ask others to consider also donating. Haince said the Network was initially supported by about half a dozen donors — the largest of which was Wilson — but declined to provide any names or donation amounts.

Since Wilson’s recent letter, Haince said, the Network has received a few new contributions.

Haince said the Network is following all relevant rules. If it was doing paid third-party advertising, it would be subject to limits and transparency requirements. But Haince said there is no plans to do so this year, so it will not need to register.

In an email, Elections B.C. said the legislation regulates contributions to political candidates, but not other kinds of organizations if those donations are not used for third-party advertising, adding: “there may be other rules outside of our jurisdiction that apply to donations to non-profit organizations.”

“We are familiar with Pacific Prosperity Network, but are not aware of them sponsoring election advertising at this time,” the statement said. “If they did so, they would be required to register.”

In B.C.’s 2018 municipal elections, the first under the new campaign finance limits, Haince was working as a political consultant and arranged for billboards around Vancouver supporting mayoral candidate Hector Bremner, which were funded with $85,000 from local developer Peter Wall.

That was also onside with the rules at that time. Because the billboards went up before the 29-day campaign period, there were no spending limits or requirements for the source of funds to register with Elections B.C. Wall’s financial contribution only became public after a report in The Globe and Mail.

In a 2020 report recommending legislative changes, B.C.’s chief electoral officer cited the 2018 case of the individual’s $85,000 contribution funding the billboards, noting: “While the individual did not break any of the current rules, this case illustrates how spending limits can be circumvented under the current legislative framework.”

In 2021, the B.C. NDP introduced further campaign finance reforms, including strengthening rules around third-party advertising.

Haince refused to say which candidates and parties the Network was supporting, but said they had been working since the spring with council and school board candidates in eight or nine Lower Mainland municipalities, although not in Vancouver or Surrey, B.C.’s most populous cities.

The Network announced its launch last November, issuing a press release to no apparent media coverage, and has operated since then without being widely known.

That could change though, as voters, candidates, and potential donors hear more about it in the weeks to come — especially if the network proves successful in October