The demonization of dissent – Canadian style


Patrick Johnston


Patrick JohnstonWhen 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.

Tagged in: budget Canada Government funding

Comments (12)

Peter H. Peters

I continue to be surprised that many Canadians did not see this coming in view of all the appalling and statements Harper had made before and during his involvement in the Canadian Alliance Party. Canada's stature on the world stage has really been diminished since the advent of this Conservative government. It is not a co-incidence that "Progressive" has been dropped as their Part's descriptors. I'm very afraid that Canadian society's attitudes are going to shift toward being less generous as a result of this government's policies.

Kathryn Langley

Join the Council of Canadians to speak out. They do not have "charitable status" and are not beholden to Government of Canada for their funding. They are found at


The most upsetting part of all this is that Harper, being the wily strategic un-statesman that he is well understands the "boiling frog" methodology whereby you do things a little bit at a time in a low-key and under-handed manner so that we the Great Unwashed don't really notice and then by the time we do - it's too late. We have been boiled and are now dead. That is the approach taken to the CBC also. it is all in the service of controlling the message and of selling out the Canadian ethos and the environment to the Great god of Profit (oil, mining companies and other corporate interests). Why else would the CBC budget have been reduced by another $115 million and corporate tax rates from 25 to 18%. Hence poverty rates are increasing, the degradation of the environment continues exponentially and the special character of Canada is being destroyed systematically.


We have to bring the "Progressive" back to Conservative Party of Canada, and out with "Oppressive".


This government has been quashing dissent, or just basic difference, since it took power in 2006, even as a minority. Gone is the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, the Canadian Environment Network, the Court Challenges Program, and many, many other civil society groups representing ordinary Canadian citizens. These voices are not to be tolerated in Harper's view of Canada, some are calling him a fascist. These changes happen incrementally, according to Tom Flanagan, U of Calgary professor, current campaign coordinator for the Wildrose Alliance, and open advocate for the assassination of Wikileaks founder Julien Assange. No, voices of dissent must be silenced at any cost. The question I have for my fellow citizens is will we become afraid, will we be silenced? Is it in us to put up a fight to maintain the open nature of our democracy?


Harper is the man who said something like 'when I get through with this country you won't recognize it' Not a direct quote but close enough. It hasn't occoured to him to just emigrate to the USA and join the Republican party. Though I wouldn't want to see him inflicted on the decent citizens of that country either, at least he would be constitutionally barred from being president! Perhaps it is time to start focusing private donations to those very organizations that are having their funding cut. And more letters of course (that's you I'm talking to, Rose).


The idea here is to prevent lobbying for economically challenging rules. It's all about money, no thinking in the long term or worrying about the health of people. Speaking of which, I'm slightly worried about car exhaust polluting the air, seems like a health risk. We should probably be doing some research on that.


I agree. Harper truly is a wannabe dictator, I wouldn't be surprised at this point if he's got his own 50 cent party trolling the net.

Andrew Noble

The policy contributions that the charitable sector have made in Canada are tremendous. Without the charitable sector speaking about 'political' topics: Would there be any regulations of toxic substances? Would BPA still be in baby bottles? Would there be smoking in offices and other public spaces? This approach is designed to silence charities and make them think twice about suggesting policies that might prevent disease or damage to the environment.


Dissent .. such a loaded word, or action. I'd guess that Tim DeChristopher made that short step forward from dissent.. to action. And landed, demonized.. in a Utah prison. Seems he had a dissenting view about certain Utah oil and gas leases. In hindsight it has been proven his perspective was timely and correct, tho he has since been moved into solitary confinement. So clearly, not all see him in a very positive light. I suspect we will soon begin to see Canadian dissenters following a similar pathway, usually described as civil disobedience. I'm sure The Honorable Mr Harper will stickhandle away from any direct involvement and let the evolving or slippery slope legal landscape he is playing on, specify the crime and appropriate punishment & rehabilitation. I understand that Canadian politics have a long and very rich history in these matters. After all, it would be Canadian politicians like him that signed treaties with the First Nations.. and dealt with the details or revisions or violations thereof. Funny isn't it, that today it will probably be left to those same First Nations to end the petro evangelicalism with little talk or hand waving .. That will be dissent matched with action (warpath) .. Is that what Civil Activism might be defined as ? I wonder (with a great deal of dissent and anger in my heart) how bravely the leader of our Canadian country and his chosen 'minister's will step up for our fellow Canadians in Fort Chipewayn, downstream of the tar sands. I don't want to hear reports, or conclusions, or bluster or talk of 'smears' .. I need to hear Mr Harper himself is ensuring those folks safety, as well as ensuring the environmental health of their surroundings. I mean.. that is his job.. right ? If not, perhaps he will offer a dissenting view.

kate dyson

This reprehensible behaviour by the Harper government will hopefully result is a crushing defeat next election...that is if we are still holding elections...and Mr Harper hasn't crowned himself dictator and decided that we are too 'radical' to be allowed to vote any more...

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