This is What “Chill” Looks Like as Charities Muffled and Silenced

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The gov­ern­ment is suc­ceed­ing in muz­zling the com­mu­ni­ca­tions of some char­i­ties that advo­cate on pub­lic pol­icy issues. These char­i­ties are chang­ing their com­mu­ni­ca­tion under the cur­rent fed­eral polit­i­cal cli­mate. The com­bi­na­tion of extreme rhetoric by gov­ern­ment min­is­ters (con­flat­ing char­i­ties with money-launderers, crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tions and ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions) and the fear, prepa­ra­tion for, and after­math of, polit­i­cal audits from Canada Rev­enue Agency are caus­ing them to change their communications.

My inter­views with 16 char­ity lead­ers and five char­ity experts found that char­i­ties are chang­ing their com­mu­ni­ca­tions in four ways: the con­tent (what they say), tone (how they say it), fre­quency (how often they say it), and the chan­nel (they kind of media they use to say it).

My research data shows that though there is much vari­a­tion from group to group in how com­mu­ni­ca­tions are muf­fled, almost all char­i­ties reported direct or indi­rect changes of vary­ing inten­sity. Two char­i­ties reported being very alert to ensure that they are not muf­fling them­selves, but one leader notes that other orga­ni­za­tions might notice a change in the leader’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions: “It’s pretty hard to be objec­tive with your­self. … Maybe other groups would see a difference.”

Sev­eral par­tic­i­pants have made what they char­ac­ter­ize as minor tweaks, such as not refer­ring to “the Harper gov­ern­ment” or “the Con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment” or “Joe Oliver,” but rather “the cur­rent fed­eral gov­ern­ment” and “the Nat­ural Resources Min­is­ter.” Another notes chang­ing the tone of their web­site and brochures to sound “more edu­ca­tional” than pre­vi­ously. This par­tic­i­pant also speaks of the psy­chol­ogy that has emerged in the workplace.

You know, we were sit­ting hav­ing cof­fee the other day. .. One of the staff peo­ple says, ‘I just assume my telephone’s tapped.’ So, I think there’s a psy­cho­log­i­cal thing there. I don’t think it affects day-to-day activ­i­ties, but it does affect the psy­chol­ogy in which we work. The impli­ca­tion is that peo­ple get more angry and more focused …. The other thing is that they’re much more thought­ful and care­ful about what they say and do in any pub­lic set­ting, what they say on the phone, and what they com­mu­ni­cate by email and texting.”

See­ing “chill” as the right descrip­tor for the “cau­tion” around com­mu­ni­ca­tions, this par­tic­i­pant adds, “It also brings an edge because it angers peo­ple. It isn’t right, it’s a jus­tice issue.”

Another par­tic­i­pant says, “We’re much, much more cau­tious than we used to be. We’re tak­ing on dif­fer­ent issues and we’re tak­ing them on in dif­fer­ent ways. … Some [orga­ni­za­tions are] more cau­tious than oth­ers but all of us are more cau­tious than is healthy.”

One orga­ni­za­tion has cho­sen to take the safest pos­si­ble route, avoid­ing media, not sign­ing on to sec­tor doc­u­ments, not crit­i­ciz­ing the gov­ern­ment or com­ment­ing pub­licly, and not allow­ing any crit­i­cism of the gov­ern­ment to remain on their social media or web­site. This orga­ni­za­tion believes the gov­ern­ment is deter­mined to decer­tify it and just wants to “lie low” and so has effec­tively silenc­ing itself in the cur­rent climate.

Lead­ers reported a cou­ple dozen spe­cific dis­cur­sive changes being made by their orga­ni­za­tions or that they notice other orga­ni­za­tions in their sec­tor mak­ing. They range from small tweaks to web­sites and brochures to hid­ing from pub­lic vis­i­bil­ity. I’m not going to list them, but I will note some of the gen­er­al­ized approaches:

  1. Being “much more cau­tious” discursively
  2. Being “self-censoring’ more than previously
  3. Chang­ing to a more “edu­ca­tional” tone
  4. Com­mu­ni­cat­ing less about government
  5. Avoid­ing pub­lic profile
  6. Lay­ing low” as much as possible
  7. Even” avoid­ing com­ments on issues with no gov­ern­ment policy.

There are some pos­i­tive shifts also being made, which I will cover in a future blog.

Despite the large amount of media cov­er­age in the national con­ver­sa­tion trig­gered in part by my the­sis find­ings, and now with a life of its own, the fear of char­ity lead­ers appar­ently con­tin­ues. Reporters have been approach­ing char­ity lead­ers, try­ing to get them to share their sto­ries pub­licly, but so far only three have cho­sen to do so.

The over­all approach of lead­ers I inter­viewed was one of much greater care not to offend the gov­ern­ment or attract atten­tion of com­plainants or the CRA. In some of the dis­cus­sions, I found the fear pal­pa­ble, while in oth­ers the lead­ers were more san­guine, and one or two had found an oppor­tu­nity to make lemon­ade from lemons to bal­ance out the damage.

Though the char­i­ties may adapt, the impact of the muf­fling and diver­sion is not really about the char­i­ties any­way. It’s about the dam­age to the con­ver­sa­tions we need to have about impor­tant issues to ensure the best poli­cies are cho­sen. Char­i­ties are experts in their Mis­sion issues. We need to hear their per­spec­tives to get the full pic­ture about the deci­sions we need to make at this time of major eco­nomic shifts, envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges, health care, the increas­ing num­ber of home­less, and so on.

That many char­i­ties have dif­fer­ent pol­icy ideas on these issues than are favoured by the cur­rent cab­i­net appears to be the core of the dam­ag­ing polit­i­cal cli­mate that they are now try­ing to negotiate.

Mean­while, please check out my Master’s the­sis and feel free to for­ward and tweet it. And you can fol­low me on Twit­ter: @GarethKirkby

 

I am a for­mer jour­nal­ist and media man­ager who recently com­pleted my Master’s the­sis for Royal Roads Uni­ver­sity and now work as a com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­fes­sional. I have been awarded the Jack Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among oth­ers, for my report­ing and editing.

Categories: Uncategorized

Shutting Alternative Ideas Out of Discussions

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My last blog post­ing reviewed the his­tory since the 1950s of the rise and fall of rela­tions between the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and civil soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing char­i­ties. Let’s look at how input to pub­lic pol­icy options has changed in recent years.

  • In the 1970s, some orga­ni­za­tions were funded for core costs by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment because they were viewed as rep­re­sent­ing groups of often low-influence minori­ties. Gov­ern­ment min­is­ters and admin­is­tra­tors invited them to dis­cuss pub­lic pol­icy ideas, often in early stages of pol­icy formation;
  • The fund­ing shifted to project fund­ing through the 1980s and 1990s and they were still often invited to dis­cuss pub­lic pol­icy, not always at the for­ma­tion stage but rather com­ment­ing on pol­icy ideas that were nearly finalized;
  • Through the Chre­tien years, there were many oppor­tu­ni­ties for inter­ac­tions with admin­is­tra­tion and the Prime Min­is­ter was often per­son­ally curi­ous about hear­ing about alter­na­tive perspectives;
  • In the 1990s in British Colum­bia, pow­er­ful NDP cab­i­net min­is­ter and then Pre­miere Glen Clark was known for pub­licly denounc­ing envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions as “ene­mies of British Colum­bia” and yet also meet­ing with the groups to nego­ti­ate over policies;
  • Since com­ing to power in 2006, the Harper gov­ern­ment has largely treated civil soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions as the “vested inter­ests” that its pre­de­ces­sor, the Reform Party, pub­licly con­sid­ered them. They have shut­tered some, and defunded many, orga­ni­za­tions, par­tic­u­larly those work­ing on women’s, and inter­na­tional devel­op­ment and human rights issues. The accu­mu­lated actions and impact on dis­sent are cat­a­logued at the activist Voices Voix website;
  • The Harper government—and the bureaucracy—rarely invite input, or pos­i­tively respond to requests from orga­ni­za­tions that for­merly had sig­nif­i­cant access to dis­cuss pol­icy ideas or com­ment on gov­ern­ment proposals;
  • Some 2000 fed­eral sci­en­tists have been laid off and remain­ing sci­en­tists largely muz­zled from mak­ing pub­lic state­ments. Mul­ti­ple fed­eral sci­ence pro­grams, par­tic­u­larly those related to cli­mate change and related petro­leum issues, have been reduced or defunded, reduc­ing the input of experts and remov­ing evi­dence from pol­icy making;
  • Provin­cial and fed­eral envi­ron­men­tal assess­ments have been merged into a sin­gle process to speed up project approvals, but again remov­ing evi­dence from pol­icy mak­ing. Some 2970 project reviews were stopped by 2012 leg­is­la­tion that also weak­ened other envi­ron­men­tal laws—678 involved fos­sil fuel energy and another 248 involved a pipeline;
  • My the­sis found that the rhetoric of cab­i­net min­is­ters, 2012 changes to reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing char­i­ties, and a spe­cial pro­gram of char­ity audits muf­fled com­mu­ni­ca­tions and dis­tracted char­i­ties from their Mis­sions, reduc­ing national con­ver­sa­tions about impor­tant issues;
  • The RCMP and CSIS spied on envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions and First Nations groups in advance of the National Energy Board (NEB) hear­ings into the North­ern Gate­way pipeline project, despite the com­mit­ment to peace­ful protest repeat­edly expressed by the orga­ni­za­tions. The infor­ma­tion was shared with NEB staff and security;
  • RCMP, CSIS, Depart­ment of National Defence, and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Secu­rity Estab­lish­ment (CSEC) and the NEB have also been meet­ing with the energy indus­try to dis­cuss secu­rity issues, includ­ing offi­cials from energy com­pa­nies in the oil, nat­ural gas, pipeline, petro­leum refin­ery, and elec­tric­ity sec­tors, the Van­cou­ver Observer has reported;
  • The NEB hear­ings into the pro­posed Kinder-Morgan pipeline is restric­tive, not allow­ing those with offi­cial inter­vener sta­tus to orally cross-examine wit­nesses. It is through cross-examination that project weak­nesses are often brought to life, help­ing ensure that project eval­u­a­tion includes sci­ence and the best evi­dence. Under reg­u­la­tions imple­mented by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, only those “directly affected” by the pipeline will be allowed to make pre­sen­ta­tions to the board, and com­ments will be writ­ten and not oral. The cred­i­bil­ity of the hear­ings is questionable;
  • The NEB hear­ings into the Kinder-Morgan pipeline pro­posal will not con­sider envi­ron­men­tal and socio-economic impacts of “upstream” activ­i­ties, the devel­op­ment of the oil­sands, or the down­stream use of the oil trans­ported by the pipeline. The Kinder-Morgan deci­sion from the NEB will be delayed until after the 2015 fed­eral election.

Thus, we come to a trou­bling moment in Canada’s his­tory of cit­i­zen par­tic­i­pa­tion in impor­tant pub­lic pol­icy deci­sions. Expert orga­ni­za­tions are now rarely invited to par­tic­i­pate in the early stages of pol­icy for­ma­tion, nor are they often involved in later stages, nor are their phone calls con­sis­tently returned. Sci­en­tists, experts in their field, are laid off or largely silenced and their projects shut down and even their libraries closed.

Some orga­ni­za­tions with dif­fer­ent ideas about pol­icy direc­tions than the fed­eral gov­ern­ment are called money-launderers, con­flated with crim­i­nal and ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tion, and added as a poten­tial secu­rity threat in the nation’s ter­ror­ist strat­egy. They’re put under threat of audit and thus muf­fled and distracted.

Impact assess­ments are tele­scoped with result­ing reduced cred­i­bil­ity of the deter­mi­na­tion, pub­lic hear­ings are cur­tailed to speed up approval and reduce the oppor­tu­nity of incon­ve­nient facts emerg­ing. And cit­i­zen groups are spied on by the enforce­ment arm of gov­ern­ment, with find­ings shared with pri­vate sec­tor vested interests—despite their com­mit­ment to peace­ful par­tic­i­pa­tion in a nation where the Char­ter of Rights and Free­doms rec­og­nizes their rights to free­doms of expres­sion, speech, and assembly.

How, it must be asked, are those indi­vid­u­als and mem­bers of cit­i­zen groups, includ­ing char­i­ties and their sup­port­ers, with dif­fer­ent pol­icy ideas than the gov­ern­ment in power, sup­posed to par­tic­i­pate in national con­ver­sa­tions? What does a gov­ern­ment expect of cit­i­zens when it closes off so many avenues of demo­c­ra­tic participation?

I shall fin­ish with the provoca­tive words of a char­ity leader I inter­viewed for my the­sis, an ele­gant sum­ma­tion of var­i­ous com­ments made by many other participants:

We have a gov­ern­ment with a very explicit agenda which they are advanc­ing with clear deter­mi­na­tion. It is a mul­ti­fac­eted agenda where we are on the one hand vil­i­fy­ing and demo­niz­ing dis­sent and crit­ics in all posi­tions, try­ing to de-legitimize diver­sity of views and plu­ral­ity of pub­lic debate. At they same time they are defund­ing evidence-building and analysis-building orga­ni­za­tions. We’re liv­ing in this evidence-free zone, where research, where sci­ence, and libraries, and facts, are incon­ve­nient and unwel­come because they want to frame pol­icy around val­ues and ide­ol­ogy. And they want to ensure that the state is not con­tribut­ing fund­ing to the cre­ation of evi­dence or the pur­suit of legal strate­gies that in any way con­strain their agenda.

Mean­while, please check out my Master’s the­sis and feel free to for­ward and tweet it. And you can fol­low me on Twit­ter: @garethkirkby

I am a for­mer jour­nal­ist and media man­ager who recently com­pleted my Master’s the­sis for Royal Roads Uni­ver­sity and now work as a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sional. I have been awarded the Jack Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among oth­ers, for my report­ing and editing.

Categories: Uncategorized

Thirty Years of Declining Influence by Civil Society

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My Master’s the­sis found, among other things, that the cur­rent fed­eral gov­ern­ment has abused its power by treat­ing char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions as ene­mies of Canada and of the gov­ern­ment and this threat­ens the vigor of our democracy.

But it didn’t start with the rhetoric and politi­cized audits now tar­get­ing char­i­ties. It didn’t even begin with this gov­ern­ment, though it has been esca­lated into a whole new cat­e­gory, both qual­i­ta­tively and quantitatively.

Here’s how we got here:

  • In the post-war years, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment began to acknowl­edge a role for civil-society orga­ni­za­tions to help develop new pol­icy ini­tia­tives and began ten­ta­tively to reach out;
  • In the 1970s, the Trudeau gov­ern­ment markedly expanded the process, reach­ing out for pol­icy input to orga­ni­za­tions that could claim to rep­re­sent groups of peo­ple with­out much power or influ­ence, includ­ing minor­ity groups. In par­tic­u­lar, the Trudeau gov­ern­ment wel­comed input from women’s orga­ni­za­tions, lin­guis­tic minori­ties (par­tic­u­larly Franco-Canadian), abo­rig­i­nals, and ethno-cultural groups. The gov­ern­ment con­tributed sub­stan­tial fund­ing to these orga­ni­za­tions and invited them to make direct input to social policy;
  • This input was rolled back to some extent in the lat­ter years of the Trudeau gov­ern­ment, as it chose to pare back social-justice pro­grams in a declin­ing econ­omy and shift its pol­icy focus;
  • In the 1980s, with groups oppos­ing mul­ti­ple pol­icy ini­tia­tives of the Mul­roney government—a neo-liberal shift, free trade, dereg­u­la­tion, reduced gov­ern­ment sup­port for social programs—core fund­ing was pared back, but project fund­ing con­tin­ued for groups. Groups were still viewed as rep­re­sen­ta­tive, but the idea was being challenged;
  • In the 1990s, the Chre­tien gov­ern­ment moved toward reduced recog­ni­tion of the role of civil-society in policy-making. Fund­ing of orga­ni­za­tions con­tin­ued to atro­phy in the Chre­tien years, but they were still often con­sulted, par­tic­u­larly at the final stage of pol­icy for­ma­tion rather than in the early stages as was more com­mon in the Trudeau years. The gov­ern­ment was influ­enced by the “new-right” Reform Party stance that civil soci­ety groups were “vested inter­ests” rather than rep­re­sen­ta­tive, a dis­tinc­tion it did not make for busi­nesses and their rep­re­sen­ta­tive orga­ni­za­tions. Polit­i­cal sci­en­tist David Lay­cock saw this as “the pol­i­tics of resentment”;
  • Unlike in the United States, national Cana­dian orga­ni­za­tions were not eas­ily retooled from a rep­re­sen­ta­tive policy-input func­tion to deliv­er­ing gov­ern­ment pro­grams at lower cost than could gov­ern­ment employ­ees. This has, how­ever, hap­pened much more at the provin­cial level;
  • When the cur­rent gov­ern­ment came to power in 2006, they quickly moved to shut down some orga­ni­za­tions, defund oth­ers, and make other changes that hurt rep­re­sen­ta­tive groups. A 2012 study of 26 national vol­un­tary orga­ni­za­tions by aca­d­e­mic Rachel Lafor­est found six had to shut down oper­a­tions com­pletely and 14 expe­ri­enced fed­eral fund­ing cuts. Some highly acclaimed orga­ni­za­tions were par­tic­u­larly hard-hit: The Cana­dian Coun­cil for Social Devel­op­ment (CCSD) lost all fund­ing despite its national lead­er­ship for 90 years on social pol­icy. The Cana­dian Coun­cil for Inter­na­tional Co-Operation lost 70 per­cent of fed­eral fund­ing despite a 40-year part­ner­ship with gov­ern­ment; it sur­vives as a shadow of its for­mer self;
  • The women’s health and child-care move­ments have been par­tic­u­larly hard-hit by the government’s fund slash­ing and pol­icy shifts. The Mar­tin Lib­eral gov­ern­ment was in the process of imple­ment­ing a new national social pro­gram, a com­pre­hen­sive national child-care strat­egy, at the time that it called an elec­tion that the Con­ser­v­a­tives won. The new gov­ern­ment killed those plans and the move­ment pretty much shut­tered the shop in Ottawa, lay­ing of paid staff, and return­ing to grass­roots activism. The Mar­tin government’s Kelowna Accord, with provin­cial buy-in for a major step for­ward in address­ing First Nations self-government and social-justice, was also killed in 2006 by the Harper gov­ern­ment. One result of that is an increas­ingly alien­ated First Nations grass-roots, espe­cially among youth;
  • With sharp fund­ing reduc­tions to many national move­ment head­quar­ters, provin­cial and local orga­ni­za­tions have had to try to take up the slack, but they have lacked the resources. The result has been dev­as­tat­ing to some legit­i­mate and impor­tant issues and causes, while oth­ers have adapted and are shift­ing to a provin­cial focus with some suc­cess. Some aca­d­e­mics argue that the Harper gov­ern­ment is delib­er­ately sac­ri­fic­ing a half-century of increased federal-government involve­ment in social and health issues due to an ide­o­log­i­cal bent to leav­ing these issues to the provinces. Cer­tainly, our Con­sti­tu­tion des­ig­nates these as provin­cial jurisdiction;
  • With the elec­tion of the Harper gov­ern­ment, many organizations—including charities—that had a his­tory of being invited in to dis­cuss pub­lic pol­icy options found them­selves shut out. Invi­ta­tions vir­tu­ally stopped, requests for meet­ings got fewer responses, and phone calls were much less often returned;
  • My research found that, due to the above trend, some char­i­ties have aban­doned their lob­by­ing reg­is­tra­tions. Oth­ers have shifted their com­mu­ni­ca­tions away from tar­get­ing gov­ern­ment to moti­vat­ing mem­bers, sup­port­ers, and aver­age Cana­di­ans through web and social media. Some have shifted from try­ing to influ­ence fed­eral pol­icy to influ­enc­ing cor­po­rate actions. There are dis­turb­ing indi­ca­tions that this gov­ern­ment sees itself as the only essen­tial source of input on pol­icy devel­op­ment. It’s drink­ing its own bath­wa­ter rather than con­sult­ing widely and deeply about impor­tant pol­icy options;
  • Lafor­est and fel­low aca­d­e­mic Susan D Phillips argue that Canada’s fed­eral gov­ern­ment, along with most in the West­ern world, largely reject claims of “legit­i­macy” com­ing from the rep­re­sen­ta­tive nature of many civil-society orga­ni­za­tions. In par­al­lel with this, at least in Canada, many orga­ni­za­tions have inter­nal­ized the demo­c­ra­t­i­cally dan­ger­ous idea that “advo­cacy” on pub­lic pol­icy issues is no longer the val­ued thing it was in the 1960s to 1980s, but is some­how an unac­cept­able, indeed “wrong,” activ­ity. I see these shifts as a pro­found threat to the notion that gen­uine democ­racy requires an under­stand­ing that elected gov­ern­ments are NOT the only legit­i­mate par­tic­i­pants in demo­c­ra­tic decision-making (and I will write about this in more detail in an upcom­ing post);
  • We’re now at the stage where the gov­ern­ment is treat­ing those with dif­fer­ent pol­icy ideas than its own as ene­mies of the gov­ern­ment and of the nation. Wit­ness the shut­ting down of huge swaths of our sci­en­tific com­mu­nity. Wit­ness the rhetoric con­flat­ing char­i­ties and civil-society orga­ni­za­tions with money-launderers, crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tions, and ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions, and list­ing envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions in our offi­cial ter­ror­ism plan as poten­tial threats to the nation’s secu­rity. Wit­ness the fun­nel they cre­ated to drive Canada Rev­enue Agency toward political-activity audits of orga­ni­za­tions that dif­fer with them on key policies.

My above analy­sis owes much to the wide and deep jour­nal and book research on civil soci­ety and vol­un­teer orga­ni­za­tions by pro­fes­sors Rachel Lafor­est and Susan D. Phillips, and other resources. I apol­o­gize to them for any over-generalizations and shifted nuances in inter­pre­ta­tions aris­ing from my adapt­ing their research to my research needs and par­tic­u­larly for this blog post­ing. For those inter­ested in more details on the his­tor­i­cal rela­tion­ship of rep­re­sen­ta­tive orga­ni­za­tions and gov­ern­ments regard­ing pol­icy for­ma­tion, I sug­gest a close read­ing of the works of pro­fes­sors Lafor­est and Phillips as did I.

Mean­while, please check out my Master’s the­sis and feel free to for­ward and tweet it. And you can fol­low me on Twit­ter: @garethkirkby

 

I am a for­mer jour­nal­ist and media man­ager who recently com­pleted my Master’s the­sis for Royal Roads Uni­ver­sity and now work as a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sional. I have been awarded the Jack Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among oth­ers, for my report­ing and editing.

 

Fur­ther Resources

Lafor­est, R. (Ed.). (2009). The new fed­eral pol­icy agenda and the vol­un­tary sec­tor: On the cut­ting edge. Kingston, ON: School of Pol­icy Stud­ies, Queen’s University.

Lafor­est, R. (2011). Vol­un­tary sec­tor orga­ni­za­tions and the state: Build­ing new rela­tion­ships. Van­cou­ver, BC: UBC Press.

Lafor­est, R. (2012). Rerout­ing polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion: Is Canada’s social infra­struc­ture in cri­sis? British Jour­nal of Cana­dian Stud­ies, 25(2), 181–197. doi:10.3828/bjcs.2012.10

Lafor­est, R. (2013a). Shift­ing scales of gov­er­nance and civil soci­ety par­tic­i­pa­tion in Canada and the Euro­pean Union. Cana­dian Pub­lic Admin­is­tra­tion, 56(2), 235–251. doi:10.1111/capa.12016

Lafor­est, R. (2013b). Dig­ging wells or build­ing fences: Ana­lyz­ing fed­eral gov­ern­ment dynam­ics. The Phil­an­thropist, 25(1), 33–36. Retrieved from http://thephilanthropist.ca

Lafor­est, R., & Phillips, S. (2013). Input and out­put legit­i­macy in gov­er­nance regimes. Paper pre­sented at the Cana­dian Polit­i­cal Sci­ence Asso­ci­a­tion Con­fer­ence, Vic­to­ria, Canada. Retrieved from http://www.cpsa-acsp.ca/past-conference.shtml

Lay­cock, D. (2002). The new right and democ­racy in Canada: Under­stand­ing Reform and the Cana­dian Alliance. Don Mills, ON: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press.

Phillips, S.D. (2010). Canada: Civic soci­ety under neglect. The Phil­an­thropist 23(1), 65–73. Retrieved from http://thephilanthropist.ca

Phillips, S.D. (2013). Shin­ing light on char­i­ties or look­ing in the wrong place? Regulation-by-transparency in Canada. Vol­un­tas, 24(3), 881–905. doi:10.1007/s11266-013‑9374-5

Phillips, S., Lafor­est, R., & Gra­ham, A. (2010). From shop­ping to social inno­va­tion: Get­ting pub­lic financ­ing right in Canada. Pol­icy and Soci­ety 29(3), 189–199. doi:10.1016/j.polsoc.2010.06.001

Pub­lic Safety Canada. (2013). Build­ing resilience against ter­ror­ism: Canada’s counter-terrorism strat­egy. Gov­ern­ment of Canada Queen’s Printer. Retrieved from http://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/rsrcs/pblctns/rslnc-gnst-trrrsm/index-eng.aspx

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Will All Parties Support Finance Committee Hearings on Audits?

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Cana­dian Press and the Toronto Star yes­ter­day ran reports that the fed­eral NDP wants to recall Parliament’s finance com­mit­tee this sum­mer to dis­cuss politi­ciza­tion of the ‘polit­i­cal activ­i­ties’ audits of char­i­ties by Canada Rev­enue Agency.

The CP report para­phrased NDP finance critic Mur­ray Rankin say­ing pub­lic hear­ings before the finance com­mit­tee “would give besieged char­i­ta­ble groups a safe venue to speak out with­out appear­ing to pro­voke the tax agency.”

Said Rankin in a direct quote: “It wouldn’t be as if they’ve gone to the press and spilled the beans. … We can’t let this fes­ter much longer. We’ve got to clear the air. It’s bad for the rep­u­ta­tion of the CRA and it’s bad for the envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions and other char­i­ties that are some­how under a shadow.”

Rankin has a point and I hope that other polit­i­cal par­ties are lis­ten­ing. In my MA the­sis research, I inter­viewed 16 char­ity lead­ers (in five provinces and five dif­fer­ent char­ity sectors—environment being only one) and five charity-sector experts (lawyers, for­mer bureau­crats, umbrella orga­ni­za­tion staff, aca­d­e­mics, fundrais­ing experts).

The large major­ity, includ­ing to my sur­prise three of five experts, required com­plete con­fi­den­tial­ity in order to speak to me. That’s because they are afraid that if their name, or that of their orga­ni­za­tion, can be deduced they risk draw­ing the ire of the tax­man or the gov­ern­ment. In my the­sis analy­sis using grounded the­ory, and in inter­views with media and my own pub­lic writ­ings, I have done my best to rep­re­sent their expe­ri­ences, shared facts, emo­tions, and opinions.

It also bears not­ing that some inter­view par­tic­i­pants were very happy to be directly iden­ti­fied or deducible to some­one who knows their orga­ni­za­tions very well, because they con­sider the rhetoric and actions of the cur­rent fed­eral gov­ern­ment extreme and bad for Cana­dian policy-making and the vigor of democ­racy itself. In any case, it was dif­fi­cult find­ing 16 char­ity lead­ers will­ing to take a chance on a Master’s stu­dent pro­tect­ing their orga­ni­za­tions, and hence their mem­bers, sup­port­ers, donors and, most impor­tantly, Missions.

Appear­ing before a Par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee to share their organization’s sto­ries could be just the ticket to ensure pub­lic pro­tec­tion. Yes, they would be putting it on the line and very pub­licly. But also, yes, the pub­lic and politi­cians would know who they are and, I sus­pect, sur­round them in a pro­tec­tive blan­ket for years, per­haps decades, into the future regard­less of which party is in power. Of course, that’s easy for me to say and hard for them to do.

But orga­ni­za­tions that step for­ward might per­haps become de-facto untouch­able after tes­ti­fy­ing before a Par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee. Woe to the audi­tor or politi­cian who strays over the line and tar­gets them in rhetoric or deed, or tries to re-interpret def­i­n­i­tions and reg­u­la­tions in order to threaten their char­i­ta­ble sta­tus, or to “muf­fle” and “dis­tract” them as my research dis­cov­ered is now happening.

In any case, it’s good to see the NDP take this on. Rankin had already called sev­eral weeks ago for an inde­pen­dent spe­cial inves­ti­ga­tion into politi­ciza­tion of the audit process, headed by a retired judge or sim­i­lar per­son of expe­ri­ence and stature.

I’m won­der­ing where the Lib­er­als are in all this? And the Bloc Que­be­cois? The Greens? Inde­pen­dents and the Inde­pen­dent Conservative?

For that mat­ter, where are the back-bench Con­ser­v­a­tives? The role of char­i­ties in soci­ety as providers of socially needed ser­vices, and as inde­pen­dent experts on pub­lic pol­icy, fits very tightly with tra­di­tional con­ser­v­a­tive thought and values.

It’s sum­mer, of course, and even politi­cians need a break, and we a break from them. But read­ing the com­ments from read­ers to news sto­ries tells me that Cana­di­ans care about how their char­i­ties are treated by gov­ern­ment, and about the government’s politi­ciza­tion of the nation’s admin­is­tra­tive arms to fight oppo­nents of its policies.

Mean­while, please check out my Master’s the­sis and feel free to for­ward and tweet it. And you can fol­low me on Twit­ter: @garethkirkby

 

I am a for­mer jour­nal­ist and media man­ager who recently com­pleted my Master’s the­sis for Royal Roads Uni­ver­sity and now work as a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sional. I have been awarded the Jack Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among oth­ers, for my report­ing and editing.

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Charity Confusion a Sign of Abuse of Power

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The last sev­eral days have seen mul­ti­ple news reports and edi­to­ri­als in which CRA offi­cials made claims, and later revised them, about how char­i­ties are selected for polit­i­cal audits (see my post­ing on the fun­nel that the gov­ern­ment con­structed that tar­gets cer­tain char­i­ties). And then we learned that CRA blacked out key details in response to a freedom-of-information request by Pen Canada that explained to its audi­tors how to eval­u­ate a charity’s “polit­i­cal activities.”

Pro­vid­ing infor­ma­tion about how we con­duct our gen­eral audit review could hin­der or impede our abil­ity to effec­tively carry out future audits,” CRA spokesper­son Philippe Brideau told Globe and Mail reporter Kathryn Blaze Carl­son., before claim­ing that the CRA web­site con­tains expla­na­tions of char­i­ta­ble, polit­i­cal, and par­ti­san activities.

Pen Canada exec­u­tive direc­tor Tasleem Thawar sug­gested to Blaze Carl­son that CRA should be less inter­ested in catch­ing char­i­ties break­ing the rules than in help­ing them under­stand what activ­i­ties are unac­cept­able so that they can fol­low the rules.

I think Cana­di­ans would expect that the CRA would pre­fer to share their advice to audi­tors if it helps char­i­ties stay within the roles. Seems com­mon sense to me.

In any case, the rev­e­la­tion is sadly con­sis­tent with what I found in my Master’s the­sis inter­views with 16 char­ity lead­ers and five experts. What the data sug­gests is that lead­ers are con­fused about the reg­u­la­tions and that this con­fu­sion has been going on for years. There are grey areas between char­i­ta­ble activ­i­ties and allow­able polit­i­cal activ­i­ties. And between polit­i­cal activ­i­ties and for­bid­den par­ti­san activ­i­ties. Lead­ers repeat­edly told me that they have tried using the infor­ma­tion on the web­site for guid­ance but the exam­ples that are used are “naïve” and con­fus­ing. And lead­ers told me that they have had no responses to the ques­tions they left in the sec­tion of the web­site where char­i­ties are encour­aged to ask CRA for just that.

Vet­eran lead­ers and some char­ity experts (lawyers, aca­d­e­mics, for­mer bureau­crats in the know) give kudos to CRA for hav­ing made much progress in com­mu­ni­cat­ing some reg­u­la­tions and expec­ta­tions through the web­site and in bul­letins and other exter­nal mes­sag­ing. Things were much worse before the $95 mil­lion Vol­un­teer Sec­tor Ini­tia­tive con­sul­ta­tions between the non­profit and char­ity sec­tor and var­i­ous gov­ern­ment depart­ments, includ­ing CRA. Dur­ing those con­sul­ta­tions, CRA lib­er­al­ized some of its approach to reg­u­la­tions, loos­en­ing their choke-hold on polit­i­cal activ­i­ties in 2003, for exam­ple, and nego­ti­at­ing inter­pre­ta­tions of regulations.

So, CRA has improved its com­mu­ni­ca­tions and there were signs that inter­pre­ta­tions were becom­ing more con­sis­tent. But that was before 2012 and the cur­rent round of political-activities audits, politi­cized by the cur­rent fed­eral gov­ern­ment, and the belief that new, stricter inter­pre­ta­tions of the reg­u­la­tions are emerg­ing dur­ing this targeting.

And mean­while, the grey areas remain and attempts by char­i­ties to address them with the CRA, by use of freedom-of-information requests if nec­es­sary, are not work­ing. And char­i­ties are forced to seek advice from lawyers and accoun­tants at sub­stan­tial cost, with the accom­pa­ny­ing diver­sion from their Mis­sion activ­i­ties of money and human resources. Inter­est­ingly, I found that dif­fer­ent char­i­ties were get­ting slightly dif­fer­ent advice from their lawyers about those grey areas, so clearly there is no com­plete con­sen­sus out there. And it is, of course, CRA’s job to make sure that their inter­nal under­stand­ing of the reg­u­la­tions is everyone’s under­stand­ing. Mean­while, Imag­ine Canada, the umbrella orga­ni­za­tion of Cana­dian char­i­ties, has cre­ated a use­ful infor­ma­tion sheet address­ing some of the reg­u­la­tions; but grey areas remain.

My study found a high level of con­fu­sion among char­ity lead­ers and to a lesser extent among some experts. They are con­fused about var­i­ous reg­u­la­tions, they are con­fused about the grey areas regard­ing the var­i­ous activ­i­ties. They are con­fused, anx­ious and annoyed by the tar­geted audits and the attempt to muf­fle and dis­tract them from their socially ben­e­fi­cial Missions.

They are con­fused and angry at being labelled “money-launderers,” “crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tions,” and “ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions” by gov­ern­ment min­is­ters who ought to know better—and they’re almost uni­formly smart enough to know not to pub­licly make the denial because then they fall into the trap sim­i­lar to an inno­cent insist­ing, “I do not beat my part­ner.” They have to count on Cana­di­ans know­ing that they are none of crim­i­nals, ter­ror­ists or trai­tors, and hope that peo­ple blame the gov­ern­ment for its “smear cam­paign,” as sev­eral of them labelled it.

In any case, all this con­fu­sion, mixed with fear in vary­ing doses from leader to leader, pro­foundly points to the gov­ern­ment and its tax author­ity improp­erly using its power. In the case of the tax­man, the abuse is to allow the con­fu­sion over reg­u­la­tions to con­tinue, to allow grey areas to fes­ter, to not directly address the belief among char­ity lead­ers that the inter­pre­ta­tions are shift­ing dur­ing the cur­rent stepped-up audit­ing process.

The far more trou­bling abuse of power involves a gov­ern­ment that uses fierce rhetoric that treats cit­i­zen groups as ene­mies, and uti­lizes an arm of the admin­is­tra­tive func­tions to fight its pol­icy dis­agree­ments through the threat and real­ity of CRA audits. This bul­ly­ing in the form of rhetoric and audits muf­fles and dis­tracts the char­i­ties while the gov­ern­ment pushes through major poli­cies and pro­grams with­out proper pub­lic con­ver­sa­tions. And the lack of full pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion in debates, includ­ing the input of the char­i­ties that are experts in their Mis­sion top­ics, dulls the very vigor of our democ­racy as well as risk­ing our future through poten­tially poor pol­icy choices.

Mean­while, please check out my Master’s the­sis and feel free to for­ward and tweet it. And you can fol­low me on Twit­ter: @garethkirkby

 

I am a for­mer jour­nal­ist and media man­ager who recently com­pleted my Master’s the­sis for Royal Roads Uni­ver­sity and now work as a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sional. I have earned a Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among other awards, for my reporting.

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