In the past six years, civil society in Canada has witnessed a broad and deep decline in the space afforded to organisations working on the progressive side of the policy agenda. Since 2010, Voices-Voix, a Canadian civil society organisation (CSO) coalition has been documenting this phenomenon, and has published one hundred case studies, about half of which are about civil society organisations, activists and human rights defenders.
While each is its own distinct story, there is a common thread: the ability to protect human rights and to promote social justice and a sustainable society both within Canada and overseas is being compromised by the deliberate creation of a disabling environment for civil society organizations, characterized by funding cuts, political interference, intimidation or manipulation.
The targets have been individuals and organisations working in development, environment, faith-based, human rights, labour, immigrant and refugee organisations, as well as in scientific research and policy communities. Nor have independent government agencies been immune from this crackdown. In this context, Canadian civil society finds itself in a situation in which difference and dissent are being systematically silenced. This contribution presents some of those stories. It begins with a general overview of the situation facing civil society in Canada, and follows with two case studies that go into more depth on the challenges and impact of these changes on environmental and international development CSOs in Canada.
The state of civil society in Canada – democracy in decline
Voices – Voix
In the spring of 2010, a number of Canadian CSOs concerned about the shrinking democratic space for dialogue on public policy and for dissent in Canada came together. The result was a new broad-based civil society coalition called Voices-Voix. Voices-Voix was responding to what appeared to be drastic, politically-motivated funding cuts and diminished commitments by the federal government to human rights and international development.
The vast majority of organisations affected have a politically progressive orientation to Canadian policies. They promote human rights, rights-based development, refugee rights, access to the legal system, equality and environmental rights or environmental science.
The different case studies highlight how the Canadian federal government has systematically employed a number of common tactics to silence dissenting voices, all the while marginalising human rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms:
- Demonising advocacy and dissent;
- Constricting access to funding sources and the legal and public space in which CSOs operate;
- Defunding and suppressing research and data.
1. Demonising Dissent
The pattern of demonising activist and advocacy organisations working from a progressive position on the policy and legal agenda has taken several forms.
First, organisations and human rights defenders who advocate on issues that are contrary to the government agenda have been accused of being ‘terrorists’ operating under the influence of foreign agents and working against Canada’s interests, or have been placed under surveillance. Progressive CSOs and their leaders have found themselves being called liars and dissemblers in the public sphere by government officials. Activists and human rights organisations are losing their funding or having their charitable status removed specifically because they engage in activism and human rights. It is unprecedented in Canada for non-partisan advocacy and activism to be treated in this manner.
Aboriginal leader Cindy Blackstock was placed under government surveillance when the organisation she headed filed a human rights complaint about the rights of First Nations children with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. Blackstock has filed another human rights claim, alleging reprisal, because of this. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal is considering the claim.
…direct funding and the attribution of charitable status, reflect the longstanding belief that government, acting in partnership with the non-profit sector, can and should play a critical role in public policy and public services.
Another case is that of Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care (CDRC), an association of medical doctors that spoke out against significant and discriminatory cuts to health services for many potential refugees that have arrived in Canada. The government accused the doctors of being liars and activists when they reported on the impact of the cuts on ill people following the partial elimination of the Interim Federal Health Program. Among the alleged activist dissemblers, it bears noting, is the head of family and community medicine at one of Canada’s most reputed medical facilities, St Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. In February 2013, the CDRC and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL), along with three individual patients, petitioned the Federal Court to declare that the federal health cuts to refugee claimants are unconstitutional and illegal.
Rights and Democracy, an internationally prominent human rights organisation created by an Act of Parliament in 1988, was subjected to a forensic audit and plunged into turmoil when its former President, the late Rémy Beauregard, was falsely accused of, among other things, mismanagement and meeting with ‘terrorists’. In reality, Mr Beauregard had attended an official meeting in the Middle East where Lebanese government officials (part of a government coalition whose members include a group suspected of terrorist activities) were present in the audience. In 2012, Rights and Democracy was shut down.
On 9 January 2012, Joe Oliver, Minister of Natural Resources, responsible for promoting the expansion of oil production from the Alberta oil sands, issued an open letter claiming that ‘environmental and other radical groups’ were operating in Canada based on a ‘radical ideological agenda’.
|Reflections on a ‘Radical’ Year: life as an environmental NGO in Canada|
Forest Ethics Advocacy
Within 24 hours of the Conservatives winning a majority government in May 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that he was relieved he no longer had to deal with ‘regressive energy transportation policies’ for the west coast. He was referring to the momentum achieved in the previous parliament for private members’ bills by opposition parties toward securing a legislated oil tanker ban for Canada’s North Pacific coast. Environmental groups, First Nations and many British Columbians had been advocating for such a ban to stop the introduction of oil tankers through the Great Bear Rainforest, threatened by the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal to transport Alberta tar sands bitumen through British Colombia on the Pacific coast for shipment to Asian markets.Over the following months, the Harper government laid the legal and political groundwork for the massive changes they would make to environmental laws and civil society participation in environmental reviews. The framework for this work was one previously espoused by Ezra Levant, a conservative political activist and author, and maintained by current and former political staff members of the government, through their direct role in the organisation EthicalOil.org. The thrust of this organisation is that Canada is a democracy with strong environmental and labour laws, and therefore oil derived from Canada’s tar sands is more ethical than oil coming from places such as Saudi Arabia or Iraq.Building on this idea, in early 2012, EthicalOil launched an online campaign, OurDecision.ca, which alleged a foreign conspiracy among Canadian environmental organisations working to oppose tar sands expansion on the grounds that they received funds from US foundations. They argued that US ‘socialist billionaires’ were trying to keep Canada from being able to sell oil to other markets and that these funders were operating through ‘local puppets’.Government ministers and parliamentarians quickly echoed and frequently repeated these talking points. The day before the launch of the federal review hearings on the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver wrote an open letter claiming that environmental groups “…threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda,” using funding from “foreign special interest groups.”
Parallel to these political attacks, the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA), which regulates charitable organisations in Canada, was conducting its second audit of Tides Canada, one of the country’s largest funders of environmental and social justice work and the charitable home of nearly 40 leading social change projects, including ForestEthics. The Senate, in the federal Parliament, also held an inquiry on the issue of civil society advocacy and foreign funding of such advocacy, proposed by Conservative Senator Nicole Eaton. While this did not lead to anything, some viewed it as a further smear campaign against environmental CSOs. When the 2012 Federal Budget was released at the end of March, environmental-related government departments faced severe budget cuts, while an additional CA$8 million was granted to the CRA to further audit and monitor charities’ advocacy and political activities.