«Introduction Voices-Voix, a national volunteer-based coalition, was created in 2010 in re- sponse to a troubling trend of “defunding” Canadian ...»
Stifling debate and dissent for civil society
and Indigenous peoples
Voices-Voix, a national volunteer-based coalition, was created in 2010 in re-
sponse to a troubling trend of “defunding” Canadian civil society organizations
(csos) working in the areas of anti-poverty, international co-operation, immigrant
and refugee issues, human rights and women’s equality.2 More than 200 Canadian
organizations and 5,000 individual Canadians have subscribed to its declaration in favour of free expression and transparency in government. Over the last five years, Voices-Voix has documented the suppression of debate and dissent by re- cording incidents and case studies brought to its attention by affected organiza- tions, the media, and through legal and scholarly communities. No other organiz- ation in Canada has been systematically documenting and publishing these cases.3 Since 2010, Voices-Voix published more than 110 case studies on the dismant- ling of democratic rights and institutions and the narrowing space for debate and dissent in this country. All the case studies are available on its website and are clas- sified according to the federal government tactics that are used and their targets.
The first main category deals with the undermining of civil society, as well as In- digenous groups and First Nations; the second examines the erosion of the Can- 37 The Harper Record 2008–2015 | Democracy adian public service and interference with independent officers and agents of Par- liament; the third is the use of retaliation and reprisals against whistle-blowers and advocates; the fourth category describes the savaging of federal departments working on environmental protection; and, finally, the last category records the dismantling of basic science and knowledge, including the suppression of statis- tical tools such as the mandatory long-form census.4 This chapter focuses only on the first of these issues, namely the federal govern- ment’s undermining of Canadian csos and advocates, drawing on 70 case studies (Annex 1) involving 108 organizations and advocates (Annex 2).5 The case studies were developed based on information obtained from the organizations themselves, including personal interviews, as well as from court documents, research reports, and media sources. Voices-Voix has also created a video series, available online, that provides personal testimony about the organizational and personal impacts of the federal government’s actions.6 Civil society organizations The terms “non-profit,” “civil society organization,” and “charitable organiza- tion” (or charity) are used extensively throughout this chapter. They mean differ- ent things, and the terms have important implications for how the government has interacted with the organizations in question. The Canadian non-profit sec- tor is the second largest in the world and includes not only non-governmental organizations (nGos) and grassroots organizations, but also larger non-profit enterprises, such as hospitals. This sector contributes approximately 8% of Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP).7 Civil society organizations are non-profits, but as referred to in this chapter they
include a narrower subsection of organizations that:
Have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations. Civil Society Organizations (csos) therefore refer to a wide array of organizations: community groups, non-governmental organizations (nGos), labour unions, Indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations.8 csos in Canada provide much of the “social infrastructure” that binds together our communities, our cities, our workplaces, and our country.9 Whether we are talking about veterans, faith groups, international development bodies, scientific institutions and facilities, environmental protection advocates, unions, cultural instituThe Harper Record 2008–2015 | Democracy tions, sports associations, or Indigenous organizations, they enhance the quality of our lives, the health of the built and natural environment, and the vitality of our communities and neighbourhoods. They strengthen our cultural heritage, encourage people to connect, and protect our collective interests.
Charities are a specific type of non-profit organization recognized under the federal Income Tax Act. Charities must be non-partisan, and are acknowledged by law and the courts as being in the public good because they engage in the small number of activities that qualify as “charitable purposes” or “charitable objects.” Once an institution is legally recognized as charitable, there are considerable financial and reputational benefits flowing from that status.
csos, whether they are charitable or not, contribute to a rich and diverse Canadian society that values human rights and encourages participation on a wide range of issues of public concern.
Indigenous organizations Many Indigenous organizations in Canada are set up as non-profit corporations and some have charitable status under the Income Tax Act. Indigenous peoples — whether they are organized as First Nations governments or social justice organizations — are treated as a distinct subset for the purposes of this article. They transcend the definitions of “civil society organizations.” Their status and their missions derive from unique political, economic, and social structures, including treaties and modern land claims agreements, and from Indigenous cultures, spiritual traditions, histories, and philosophies, especially with respect to rights to their lands, territories, and resources. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that governments must respect and promote these rights. As the previous chapter explains, many of the tactics used by the federal government have been deployed in spades against Indigenous peoples, despite the UN declaration.
csos represent an important vehicle by which we express our views and seek to influence public policy and discourse. And yet the relationship between csos and the federal government is at an all-time low as a result of sustained and concerted efforts to undermine science, environmental work, anti-poverty work, international co-operation, environmental protection, Indigenous groups, and the people who
work with them. One consequence has been a decline in the capacity of csos in Canada to make a difference for vulnerable communities and equality-seeking groups:
The influence of civil society advocates for the economic interests of lower-income Canadians has also weakened in recent decades…. Antipoverty groups, women’s organizations, advisory bodies and think-tanks, the traditional champions of the 39 The Harper Record 2008–2015 | Democracy interests of the disadvantaged, have lost public funding and literally disappeared from the public forum…. Charitable civil society organizations that advocate egalitarian policies have been harassed by tax officials for their political activities.10 Those csos that have survived government attacks now live and work with the “chilling effect” created by such attacks on individuals and collectives with aims and policies that do not align with Canada’s federal government.11 A word about what the research says (and what it does not say) This chapter discusses research that synthesizes five years of case documentation involving advocates, csos, and their champions. It does not purport to analyze all Canadian non-profits or charities. Nor does it assert that the sector as a whole is under attack or at risk. It does take stock of what Canadian society may be losing and what it has already and definitively lost under the current government. Sadly and worryingly, the research is not comprehensive. Incidents involving ideologically motivated funding cuts, cRa scrutiny, public vilification and intimidation, privacy invasions and surveillance have been brought to our attention at a rate much higher than Voices-Voix is capable of documenting. In addition, several groups have asked us not to publish information about them out of concern for their reputations and future funding from government and private foundations.
The research is consistent with the thesis that has been advanced by both conservative and progressive writers that the Conservative government is actively and consciously seeking to dismantle the pan-Canadian consensus in favour of social progress, tolerance, and human rights. The claim that progressive organizations have been selectively targeted by the federal government for defunding, or that the audits of the Canada Revenue Agency are politically motivated, has been met with either flat denials or with the argument that such decisions fall within the legitimate purview of a duly elected government. These responses deserve closer scrutiny before analyzing the cases in more detail.
The research discussed in this chapter provides 108 examples of progressive organizations and advocates documented in 70 case studies and the cases speak for themselves. For the vast majority of organizations, this treatment at the hands of the federal government is unprecedented. A growing body of research supports the thesis that progressive organizations are being specifically targeted, either because of their focus on environmental protection, equality and human rights, their opposition to key Conservative policy planks such as the development of the oil sands, or because of their support for Indigenous rights.
40 The Harper Record 2008–2015 | Democracy The Harper government is democratically elected, albeit with a plurality of the popular vote, and it is arguably doing what it set out to do, or at least what it might have been expected to do. As Canadians, we may not all agree with the policy directions of the government of the day, but our constitutionally protected rights and freedoms should provide a platform to express our dissent without fear of reprisal.
It is only fair to point out that the withdrawal of funding (especially core funding) from the non-profit sector began with the Liberal Party of Canada, years before the Conservatives took power, and has also taken place under provincial governments of various political persuasions, including the New Democratic Party (nDP). For those csos that find themselves under siege or enhanced scrutiny today, there is something qualitatively different and more troubling about the current environment. The reasons go well beyond the legitimate policy choices of a democratically elected government.
First, while defunding (one of the government’s primary tactics) may not be illegal, the courts are looking carefully at decisions that appear to be politically motivated and at whether they are being made with an open mind.12 The most egregious funding cuts have targeted the very people who most need the protection of the state, including people with HiV/aiDs, immigrants and asylum seekers, children, veterans with disabilities, and members of Indigenous organizations. In one case, the consequences were so serious that the Federal Court of Canada told the government that cuts to health care constituted cruel and unusual treatment, referring to a section of the Canadian Charter generally reserved for torture cases (the Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care case is discussed in greater detail below).
Second, there is mounting evidence that defunding is but one of a series of cascading and interdependent strategies designed to strip csos, advocates, and Indigenous organizations of their fundraising capacity, charitable status, reputations, and privacy. Charitable organizations enjoy a relatively high degree of trust among Canadians.13 Despite such confidence — or perhaps because of it — the Harper government has sought to undermine their reputations and credibility, characterizing them as liars, propagandists, radicals, or threats to national security.
Non-profits that receive funding from foundations in other countries have been targeted as well. While the Canadian government actively courts external investment in Canadian business and views international investment in the private sector in a positive light, the same cannot be said for the non-profit sector. csos that receive funding from non-Canadian sources have been branded as unpatriotic, seditious, or working against Canadian interests.14 Finally, the combined impact of these strategies has been considerably more damaging than any one of them in isolation. As noted earlier, researchers have found that the relationship between the federal government and non-profits has created a “chill” on advocacy.15 In many instances, organizations have simply disThe Harper Record 2008–2015 | Democracy appeared. The consequences can be worse than advocacy chill and other forms of direct or indirect prior restraint. In a small number of cases, groups have been accused of money laundering, or of posing a threat to national security. Several have been placed under surveillance or had their personal and health information disclosed inappropriately. Others have been accused of money laundering and supporting terrorism, leading to serious concerns about the criminalization of dissent.
These attacks have taken place against the backdrop of systemic marginalization of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by the federal government.16 The Conservative government has instructed its own lawyers to ignore the Charter in a significant number of cases, allowing manifestly unconstitutional draft legislation to make its way to Parliament.17 There have been multiple Supreme Court of Canada decisions that have highlighted serial shortfalls in compliance with the Charter.
Organizations and advocates that defend human rights and freedoms are considerably more vulnerable in such an environment. iRFan Canada is the organization that was listed as a terrorist organization on the eve of a hearing challenging the cRa’s decision to strip the organization of its charitable status. One immediate consequence of the listing was that the organization is no longer entitled to hire and pay a lawyer to defend it in court.
Disenabling civil society Hostile or invasive regulatory environments, including those leading to penalties, create a chilling effect on fundamental freedoms. According to a 2001 Supreme
Court of Canada decision: