When a law firm advises its clients to be ‘very careful’ about something, the wise client will pay close attention. So it was for Canadian foundations and charities following introduction of the federal government’s recent budget. In a post-budget analysis, a prominent Canadian law firm concluded by saying: ‘given the political climate and these new rules, foreign charities funding advocacy in Canada and Canadian charities funding or doing advocacy (particularly environmental advocacy) should be very careful.’
The measure that prompted this warning was tucked away in a short section of the budget entitled Enhancing Transparency and Accountability for Charities tabled in Parliament on 29 March. In it, the government announced its intention to restrict the political activities of charities. In particular, it telegraphed its opposition to such activities being ‘funded by foreign sources’. In a budget devoted primarily to spending restraint, it was noteworthy that the government committed $8 million to the task of ‘enhancing its education and compliance activities with respect to political activities by charities’.
The budget provision caught many people off guard, but it wasn’t a complete surprise. For the previous two months, the federal government had been raising the bogeyman of ‘foreign funding and influence’ of the ‘political’ activities of ‘radical’ Canadian charities.
The ‘radical’ charities being targeted are Canadian environmental organizations. And the nefarious sources of ‘foreign’ funding in question? They are US foundations including the Hewlett Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Tides Foundation and other environmental funders.
The government has these particular groups in its crosshairs because of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. If built, the multi-billion dollar pipeline would transport bitumen from the oil sands of northern Alberta through the mountainous terrain of British Columbia to a west coast port. From there, it would be shipped by ocean tanker for export to Asia.
Development of both the Alberta oil sands and an energy market in Asia are key economic priorities of the federal government. During current regulatory hearings about the pipeline, however, many environmental groups expressed reservations or outright opposition to it. In what a Globe and Mail editorial described as a witch-hunt, the response of the Canadian government was to fear monger and sound alarms about foreign funding and political activities by charities, both of which are complete red herrings.
Non-partisan political activities by Canadian charities are permissible but already very limited and circumscribed. Criticism of ‘foreign’ funding is especially disingenuous. The Alberta oils sands have been developed with huge amounts of foreign investment. And many non-Canadian corporations with a vested interest in oil sands development have been actively lobbying Ottawa politicians in support of the pipeline.
The government’s position also reeks of hypocrisy. There are numerous examples of the government gladly accepting U.S. foundation funding. In fact, Prime Minister Stephen Harper hosted a 2007 media conference with Bill Gates to praise the Gates Foundation for its $28 million commitment to Canada’s HIV/AIDS vaccine initiative.
The most troubling aspect of the budget is that it reflects a consistent pattern of behaviour by this government. It has adopted a ‘take no prisoners’ approach to critics and never misses an opportunity to demonize those who don’t share its views. And, where it can, it will stifle and silence criticism.
International aid and development NGOs were among the first to experience this government’s wrath. KAIROS, a respected ecumenical development organization, received word two years ago that it was going to lose funding that had been provided by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) for 35 years. KAIROS had been raising questions about the activities of Canadian mining companies in Latin America – inconvenient for a government promoting free trade agreements in the region.
Shortly after coming to the defence of KAIROS, the NGO umbrella group, the Canadian Council on International on Cooperation, learned that it, too, would lose all of its federal funding after a 40-year relationship with CIDA. A recent survey confirmed this process described as the defanging of development NGOs.
The demonization of its critics by the government isn’t limited to environmental or aid groups, however. Earlier this year, the Public Safety Minister accused critics of a bill regulating online surveillance as ‘siding with child pornographers’. And on it goes.
The primary impact of the budget measure will be domestic. The Canada Revenue Agency has already told Canadian charities that it will be seeking more information about their political activities. The advocacy chill already experienced by charities is fast becoming a deep freeze.
The greater fear, however, is that the ‘Canadian’ approach may be cited as a model by far more repressive regimes bent on stifling civil society advocacy and dissent in their own countries. After all, Canada is a full-blown democracy. No one would question the commitment of the Canadian government to free speech and pluralism as fundamental democratic principles.
They wouldn’t dare.
Shortly after this post was written, the Canadian government announced the closure of the Montreal based International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, popularly known as Rights and Democracy (R & D). The organization had provided a small grant to an Israeli based NGO that criticized human rights in that country. This annoyed the government which has aggressively advanced a very pro-Israel position. After a failed, ham-fisted attempt by the government to muzzle R & D, it ultimately decided to kill it.
Patrick Johnston is Principal of BOREALIS Advisors and former President and CEO of the Walter and Duncan Gordon foundation in Toronto.