Team Ford = Team Harper: Stephen Lecce

Team Ford = Team Harper: Stephen Lecce
Former Harper spokesperson, Stephen Lecce, pictured with Stephen Harper and ex-UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

Earlier this year we started a series we call “Team Ford = Team Harper”, looking into individuals closely associated with Stephen Harper who now make up Team Ford. Part one focused on Kory Teneycke, Harper’s former communications director, former head of Sun News Network, and owner of “strategy firm” Rubicon, a hub of lobbying and influence peddling in Canada.

This part turns attention to former Harper wunderkind, and current Ontario Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce. 

Stephen Lecce is a son of Vaughan, Ontario. He was born in 1986 to Italian immigrants, Ray and Theresa, who came to Canada in the 1950s. By the age of thirteen, Lecce already had his first taste of politics, volunteering for the provincial reelection campaign for Conservative Al Palladini in 1999. 

Lecce’s political leanings were firmly established by the time Lecce graduated St. Michael’s College School, a private Catholic boys’ high school in midtown Toronto, known for a history of violent sexual abuse amongst students. The commentary next to his yearbook photo (presumably in his graduating year) includes this as the closer: “To leave you with a taste of my experience at St. Mike’s, ‘right is right, left is wrong.’”

Image from Stephen Lecce's yearbook from St. Michael's college school

Stephen Lecce is a lifelong friend of Alana and Alexandra De Gasperis, daughters of Silvio De Gasperis, founder of TACC Group, which includes TACC Developments, TACC Construction, DECAST and DECO Homes. (Not to be confused with relation Fred De Gasperis, billionaire founder of Condrain, one of the largest sewer and watermain companies in North America, and Metrus Development.) Alana’s Facebook profile includes photos of Lecce at events related to the Burgundy Brick Foundation, an initiative founded by the sisters circa 2007.  

Stephen Lecce pictured with the children of Silvio DeGasperis, from Alana Degasperis' Facebook page in 2008.
Lecce at a "Burgundy Bricks" fundraiser in 2008

After St. Michael’s College School, Lecce attended Western University, where he was the president of Sigma Chi fraternity’s Epsilon Omicron chapter in the late 2000s. Western’s chapter of the fraternity includes Edward Rogers, Chairman of Rogers, as corporation president. Sigma Chi “brothers” are regularly invited to events at the Albany Club, which describes itself as “the premier private club for leaders in Canada’s business and Conservative political spheres.”

As fraternity president, Lecce participated in “slave auctions”, fundraising events which have since been outlawed at that fraternity and elsewhere. As reported by PressProgress, during Lecce’s time running the fraternity, its website also promoted an award named after the group of Confederate soldiers who founded Sigma Chi’s Constantine chapter. Lecce never denied the allegations, and has remained close ties with the frat - in 2019, he used his constituency office for a Sigma Chi promotional video.

Screengrab from the website of Sigma Chi fraternity featuring a message from fraternity president, Stephen Lecce, and a reminder about the upcoming slave auction

There have been other allegations made regarding Lecce’s time as fraternity president. A 2019 article by Gillian Sisley outlined allegations made by “Kyle” in a series of now deleted tweets, recounting his experience pledging for Sigma Chi while Lecce was president. It included this description.

“Beer showers. Sensory deprivation. A jail cell in our house. Degradation. Kidnapping. All happened under his watch while he lived in the house and was the leader. Oh and being told at some point we’d have to f*ck a goat (for weeks on end as a joke) only to be handed a condom, un-blindfolded, and a goat before your feet and each pledge during initiation week. And being told f*cking that goat was a step to being accepted in the frat. Yes, these are my allegations. Yes, I will appear before a camera to defend what happened to me and other pledges. No, I won’t retract my tweets. This happened. It affects my every living day.”

After Western, Lecce briefly put his messaging chops to use as press manager and campaign manager for Julian Fantino, former Toronto “top cop” and OPP commissioner turned Conservative MP for Vaughan. (Fantino, who has faced accusations of corruption and bigotry his entire career, later had Lecce serve as his interim chief of staff, a position Lecce held at the same time as his role in the Harper PMO.)

By age 23, Lecce was working for Harper in the Prime Minister’s office, as chief spokesperson. According to Lecce himself, in a 2019 Toronto Life interview, this opportunity came about as a result of his involvement with the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, an “advocacy group for post-secondary affordability.” 

Our executive director was able to get a meeting with the prime minister, in which a few of us were deputized to inform him about our priorities. As I understand it, he was at least modestly impressed with how I articulated my values. He also saw, in my instance, a socially moderate, fiscally conservative young student leader—and there aren’t many of those on campus.

However, other Harper staffers of the era report that Lecce’s installment within the PMO had more to do with Lecce’s close connections to the “development and construction industry” in York Region, as well as a recommendation from John Baird, who was Foreign Affairs Minister at the time and was allegedly sexually interested in Lecce. (Lecce has often named Baird as a “mentor.”)

Tweet from Stephen Lecce in January 2018
Undated photo of Stephen Lecce and John Baird

Lecce joined the Harper PMO in the final years of the Conservative government. As spokesperson, Lecce was involved in two noteworthy incidents that arguably helped end Harper’s long reign - the Barbaric Cultural Practices Hotline and the Mike Duffy scandal.  

Although Harper’s election strategy of demonizing and fear mongering about the “barbaric” cultural practices of immigrants was roundly criticized as racist (even by some other Conservatives), spokesperson Lecce used the same tactics he uses today to deflect criticism - he doubled down. From an October 2005 article in Vice:

Asked for comment about the letter criticizing his party's campaign strategy, Conservative spokesperson Stephen Lecce instead provided a statement decrying "honor" killing, polygamy, female genital mutilation and forced marriage — all of which are illegal in Canada, and were so long before the Harper government passed the "Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act." On Tuesday, Harper doubled down on his stance on the niqab in an interview with CBC host Rosemary Barton, saying that his government is considering barring public employees from wearing the face covering.

Lecce’s role in the Mike Duffy affair has been reported less frequently. Duffy, a senator and former Ottawa editor for CTV News, was accused in 2012 of improperly claiming a primary residence outside Ottawa in order to claim living expenses for working in Ottawa. A Senate committee announced that Duffy (alongside senators Pamela Wallin, Mac Herb and Patrick Brazeau) would be subject to a forensic audit on their expenses. After several weeks of negative press, Duffy volunteered to pay back the expenses. However, the money to repay the expenses came via a personal cheque for $90,000 from Harper’s then Chief of Staff, Nigel Wright. 

Though Harper had insisted at the time that no one but Wright was aware of the payment to Duffy, the subsequent trial indicated at least five other people in the PMO were aware of the payment and the strategy to make the issue go away. One of them was Stephen Lecce. 

Screengrab from CBC News article, Aug 17, 2015

By the end of 2015, the Harper era was over and Lecce was out of a job. Lecce’s LinkedIn profile has no entries between the end of his gig as Harper’s official mouthpiece in November of 2015 and his election to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario as MPP for King-Vaughan in June 2018. However, in July of 2016, Lecce and three other directors incorporated Northern Narrative Inc., registered in Thornhill. 

Incorporation details for Northern Narrative, from Corporations Canada

According to Northern Narrative’s LinkedIn page, the company is “staffed by public affairs specialists who made differences on Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park.” The company offers strategic planning in “real estate, energy, technology, and healthcare”, “narrative development” and government relations. 

Screenshots from Northern Narrative's website

On the government relations front, Northern Narratives markets a partnership with Terrance Oakey and Hamish Marshall of One Persuasion. Oakey, a former Harper staffer and former VP of government affairs for the Retail Council of Canada, is touted for his skill at developing public opinion questionnaires. Oakey is also a registered lobbyist, who has recently lobbied for Merit Canada (an association of construction companies trying to pass anti-labour legislation) and the Vaping Industry Trade Association. 

Oakey bio from One Persuasion website

Hamish Marshall was national campaign manager for the Conservative Party of Canada from 2017 and 2019, and former research director at Angus Reid Strategies. He is also an ex-Harper staffer, having overseen public opinion research for the Prime Minister as well as research activities of the central departments of the government. 

Screenshot from Hamish Marshall's LinkedIn profile

Of the four original directors of Northern Narrative - Lecce, Ari Laskin, Victor Choi and Jeff Trinh - only Jeff Trihn is publicly affiliated with the company. Victor Choi, currently director of corporate affairs at Fidelity Canada, was briefly a senior policy advisor to Finance Minister Vic Fedeli in the first year of the Ford government and had a variety of “special assistant” roles in National Defence, Immigration and Employment in the Harper government. 

Screenshot from the LinkedIn profile of Victor Choi

Lecce’s other fellow director of Northern Narrative, Ari Laskin, served as press secretary for Kevin O’Leary’s leadership run, and worked in Premier Ford’s office as executive director of strategy from July 2018 to October 2020, before becoming chief of staff for Ross Romano and then Jill Dunlop at the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities. 

In an excellent example of the collusion and entanglement between the Ontario government and business, Laskin went straight from the Ministry of Colleges and Universities to become CEO of Career Colleges Ontario, representing the interests of 260 career college campuses across Ontario, many of which have been founded and expanded to exploit the significant increase in international foreign students coming to Ontario. His bio at Massey Advocates claims Laskin’s experience “promoting the work of the postsecondary sector and the need to ensure a stable labour workforce development strategy.” Laskin has also been a registered lobbyist in Ontario, working for clients like Rogers, big pharmaceutical companies and energy companies.  

Screenshot from Ari Laskin's LinkedIn profile

Whatever role Lecce currently plays in the operation of Northern Narrative, it didn’t come up on the campaign trail. In the 2018 provincial election, Lecce took 56.6% of votes in King-Vaughan, winning his seat with ease. After his election as an MPP, Lecce became Ontario’s Minister of Education in July of 2019, and from his seat in cabinet he kept on delivering for his old friends in the “construction and development” sector. 

As reported by The National Observer, shortly after the Ford government resurrected plans for Highway 413 in 2018, Michael DeGasperis hosted Ford and Lecce in a private luxury suite in Miami to watch the Florida Panthers. DeGasperis is one of eight powerful “land developers” who own thousands of acres of lands adjacent to the proposed route. (Lecce’s old friend, Alexandra De Gasperis, now VP of DECO Communities, part of her family’s TACC Group, was appointed by the government to the board of the Ontario Arts Council in 2019.)

Map of landowners who stand to benefit from Highway 413

Another beneficiary of Highway 413 is the Cortellucci family, which owns Zancor Homes, Fernbrook Homes and other development companies under the umbrella of Cortel Group. In 2019, the family donated $40 million to a new hospital in Lecce’s Vaughan riding, at a gala attended by Ford and Lecce. That year the Ford government relaxed the naming policy for Ontario hospitals, and in 2020 the new hospital was renamed Cortellucci Vaughan Hospital. The renaming of the hospital followed controversy in 2018, when Mario Cortellucci ran for a seat in the Italian senate alongside a coalition of far right parties calling for the closure of mosques in Italy and removing migrants from the country. Lecce and Ford recently attended the launch of York’s “innovative” new medical school, to be located at Cortellucci Vaughan Hospital. 

Mario Cortellucci campaign material for his run for the Italian senate
Exterior of Cortellucci Vaughan Hospital

The Ford government’s use of MZOs (minister’s zoning orders) has greatly benefitted Lecce’s donors/constituents/old family friends in York. Designed as a way for developers to skip the wait, three key MZOs cleared the way for projects adjacent to the 413 where it will join highway 400. An MZO issued in Vaughan permitted developers to demolish three protected wetlands where development was previously forbidden. The project, a massive Walmart distribution centre, broke ground in August of 2020. Photos of the event show Angelo DeGasperis standing alongside Ford and Lecce, the CEO of Walmart Canada, and president of development company, Muzzo Group. 

Lecce with John Mutton, identified only as "Mr. X" in a scathing report from the Integrity Commissioner related to the use of MZOs.

As Minister of Education, Lecce’s priorities are to deliver for the “construction and development community.” While repeating creative lies that the Ford government has increased funding for education (education funding is actually down $1,357 per student since 2018, when counting for inflation), Lecce takes great pleasure in announcing the construction of new schools. According to the government itself, since 2018 the Ontario government has spent over $3.6 billion on capital construction projects, while school boards cut teaching and support positions due to funding shortfalls. 

Variety of tweets from Stephen Lecce boasting of building new schools

Many of the educational policies and programs introduced by Lecce are meant to enhance the ongoing viability and profitability of the construction and development industries. In 2022 the Ministry of Education announced a plan for “Preparing Students for the Jobs of Tomorrow”, meant to steer students towards skilled trades. Starting in September 2025, high school students participating in the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program will spend up to 80% of their time during grades 11 and 12 in their co-op course, which will mean most of the school days for these 16 and 17 year olds will be spent on a construction site. Labour Minister David Piccini, at the announcement, said the changes were made to meet the demands of industry.

Lecce has made no secret of his intention to steer education policy for the benefit of construction and development. Speaking at the convention of Ontario’s Road Builders’ Association (ORBA), Lecce spoke of the close links between the reforms his ministry is undertaking and industry: “In partnership with private industry and labour, education is going to be essential as we build roads and highways and subways and houses.”

From Daily Commercial News’s coverage of Lecce’s remarks to ORBA: 

He cited changes in Ontario’s curriculum to boost financial literacy, math skills and computer coding; new programming to introduce children to the skilled trades as early as Grade 1; a boost in the number of recruiters from the business world invited to speak to students; and the November 2022 expansion of the dual credit program for apprentices as examples of his government’s commitment to create value for employers such as roadbuilders.
“The number one way by which we can create value for your industry is making sure that the next generation of graduates in the province are talented, capable and ambitious young people who are ready to embrace opportunities in the skilled trades,” said Lecce.
“At the end of the day we just want more people entering into the skilled trades. I think our schools can play a critical role in helping connect the dots.”

Lecce repeated his intentions in remarks at the Canadian Club, as part of a speech titled “Generational Leadership: Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Jobs,” hosted by Adrienne Batra of the Toronto Sun. 

From Canadian Club website

Lecce’s devotion to the industry is not unrequited. When his mother died in 2019, four visitations were held to facilitate all those who wanted to show their respects. The Ontario Real Estate Association sent flowers. 

Image from funeral notice for Theresa Lecce

Last year, the Ford government passed Bill 98, titled the “Better Schools and Student Outcomes Act”, which made significant amendments to the Education Act, the Early Childhood Educators Act, and the Ontario College of Teachers Act. The bill granted the Minister of Education unlimited authority to establish provincial priorities for the public education system without the obligation to meaningfully consult with stakeholders. The bill, critics contend, largely eliminates the ability of school boards to respond to specific needs of the communities they serve. 

Much of the new education bill, perhaps unsurprisingly, deals with real estate and development. Amendments were made to address when a board may or must sell, lease or otherwise dispose of a school site, giving the Minister wide ranging powers over these “dispositions”, including the power to make regulations. 

In all, the bill significantly added to the Minister’s powers and regulation-making powers regarding: 

  • Review and revision of curriculum
  • Policies and guidelines for mandatory training of board members, directors of education, supervisory officers and superintendents
  • Charging of fees for the evaluation of textbooks, library books, reference books and other materials for selection and approval
  • Policies and guidelines respecting student mental health and communications with parents

That last point became salient last year, as Lecce publicly supported an initiative introduced in Saskatchewan requiring parental consent if students under the age of 16 want to use their chosen name or gender identity at school. Despite widespread criticism from human rights experts, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe insisted he would use the notwithstanding clause to enforce the policy. Lecce has since voiced support for similar policies in New Brunswick, under the leadership of another conservative premier. 

Lecce’s support for suspending the human rights of young people at school marked a full-circle moment from his time as spokesperson for the Barbaric Cultural Practices Hotline, and the Harper government’s attempt to bar woman from wearing a niqab during Canadian citizenship ceremonies. On a Federal Court of Appeal’s decision to deny the government’s application, spokesman Lecce, again, doubled down: 

“We believe that covering your face during a citizenship ceremony – at the very moment that you are welcomed into the Canadian family – is contrary to the Canadian values of openness and equality,” Conservative Party spokesperson Stephen Lecce said in an email.
“We are disappointed in the Court’s decision, especially as we were waiting on the Supreme Court to hear our appeal. We have committed to rectifying this matter going forward by introducing legislation that will require one to show their face while swearing the Oath of Citizenship. Legislation will be introduced within the first 100 days of a re-elected Conservative Government.”