Note: A shorter version of this blog ran in Huffington Post October 15, four days before the national vote that turfed Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. I claim no impact on the voting results.
Forget the election debate over budget deficits and tolerance of the veil. We have another deficit in Canada and it is neither looming nor veiled. We’re in the midst of an incrementally created democratic deficit that after nine years of accumulated budget cuts, abuse of power, and muzzling diverse voices has now arguably put at risk our democracy’s health and vigour.
Scientists, academics, and non-governmental organizations have recently demonstrated on Parliament Hill, published reports, and created websites detailing damage to national evidence-gathering and public conversations about ideas and policies.
Charges a 2015 report of the nonprofit leaders comprising Voices-Voix:
The government is dramatically impairing Canada’s diverse knowledge base and eroding the ability of public servants, civil society and the general public to oppose or even simply debate government policies and hold it to account.
Democratic governance is kept honest and vital by the vigorous debate over ideas and approaches triggered by civil society groups—charities, nonprofits, grassroots groups, minority organizations, churches, media, unions, academics, think tanks, scientists, business umbrella groups, social movements and more. As the very people immersed in these issues, the groups are experts by education, training, and real-world experience. Their vigorous participation helps ensure a healthy, wealthy, and wise future for all Canadians.
In past decades, these groups forced national conversations on issues that led seatbelt laws, smoking restrictions, national parks, an acid-rain treaty, minimum wages, paid holidays and other policies and programs that most of us see as highly beneficial. In a democracy, we’ve all got a stake in promoting the widest possible conversations
Several reports in the past year have critiqued accumulated government actions and their impacts. My own MA thesis, An Uncharitable Chill, triggered a national conversation in the summer of 2014. Media picked up my findings that the Harper government abused its power and caused an advocacy chill affecting some of Canadians’ favourite charities. The government abuse was mainly through two processes: demonizing rhetoric aimed at damaging reputations rather than discussing issues, and using Canada Revenue Agency to fight the government’s policy battles by harassing certain charities that favored different economic, environmental and social policies and options than the government.
The rhetoric and tax audits succeeded in diverting the attention of charities away from participating in public debate. Instead, they diverted resources to prepare for audits—at the very time that society is immersed in pivotal and contentious issues that require their expert input.
The audits are just one in a series of federal actions since 2006 that deprived our democracy of the input of civil society organizations. Starting in 2006 organizations, including those often representing large constituencies or disempowered sectors of society, were defunded and shut out of advance input in policy development. Input to early stages of policy had been in place through Liberal and Conservative governments since the 1970s.
The government again turned to CRA to fight their policy battles again with Bill C-377, which (unless reversed by the newly elected government) will require unions to post on their websites volumes of detailed financial information that could be used by employers to give them an advantage in contract negotiations. The government pushed the bill through over objections of seven provinces and the Quebec and Canadian Bar Association which argued it was unconsitutional and illegal.
The prime minister insisted the bill was about making unions transparent and accountable because their members could deduct dues from their income taxes. This paralleled the argument given for stepped-up audits and tracking requirements of charities. Critics rejected the argument for both unions and charities, noting that businesses are given far more extensive tax write-offs, including for lobbying and advertising, without any requirement of transparency. Tellingly, the bill was passed on its second journey through Parliament and the Senate, the latter including unprecedented manipulation of process to ensure its passage before last summer’s recess and the election call.
Other organizations and experts have also raised their voices to warn of recent damage to democracy. Voices-Voix, a coalition of civil society organizations including charities, reviewed actions of the Harper government through the lens of human rights and the legal framework needed for a healthy democracy. Their downloadable 64-page report, Dismantling Democracy: Stifling debate and Dissent in Canada, documents “silencing” in four categories: the public sector, “knowledge” (i.e., evidence-gathering), the voices of marginalized communities, and voices through national security and foreign policy.
The Voices-Voix website boasts detailed documentation of the firing and attempted discrediting of government employees doing their jobs too effectively, layoffs and muzzling of federal scientists (particularly in environmental and fisheries departments), shuttering of research projects, and elimination of the long-form census that benefitted business and tracked social trends so that government could respond to upward-trending problems.
“In response to these extensive audits, a new climate of fear and self-censorship has arisen in Canada’s charitable sector,” notes the June 2015 Voices-Voix report.
Dismantling Democracy explores shuttering of 16 government libraries and destruction of records, funding reductions that jeopardize the collection of Library and Archives Canada, and other measures that reduce government transparency and compromise the public’s right to access information. The report also discusses government’s actions muzzling government watchdogs, reprisals against whistleblowers, and cancelling the program that helped finance Charter challenges on behalf of upholding citizen rights.
The government’s attack on knowledge appears aimed at the creation and publication of research and information that is inconsistent with, or critical of, the government’s narrow political and economic agenda. Ultimately, the government is dramatically impairing Canada’s diverse knowledge base and eroding the ability of public servants, civil society and the general public to oppose or even simply debate government policies and hold it to account.
We’re losing our collective memory as programs and information sharing are shut down, internal experts fired, and opportunities for citizen input to policy reduced.
Other watchdogs decry threats to democratic health. The 2015 annual report of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) a major national organization of journalists is also highly critical. The review of free expression in Canada, warns that “Canadians have less access to crucial public information than ever before” before noting that on the flip side, government intrusion into our privacy has “grown exponentially” in recent years.
Sums up CJFE’s report:
Years of government neglect and political interference have left our Access to Information system an antiquated, ineffective shell of what it is supposed to be. When combined with our total lack of effective protection for whistleblowers and a pervasive culture of secrecy in Ottawa, we are left with a perfect storm buffeting the strength of our democracy.
As as our access to information declines, the government’s access into our personal lives has grown exponentially. If you use a file sharing service, surveillance agencies know. If you email government officials, those communications are stored, tracked and likely shared. Your cellphone can be used to monitor where you’ve been, whom you’ve spoken with and when—without you even knowing you’ve been a target of surveillance. What else does the government monitor? Without any meaningful oversight of government security agencies, we just don’t know.
Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault’s 2015 report makes 85 recommendations for reform. Legault found that only 21 percent of access requests resulted in information released in 2013–14, compared to 40 percent in 1999–2000, and the length of wait increased substantially.
In an essay in the CJFE report, Internet activist David Christopher points out that individual privacy is a pillar of democratic health. Tackling the old “If I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear” misunderstanding, Christopher notes the accumulated research showing that people who think they are being watched are less likely to speak their minds, to speak out about important issues, to participate in democratic processes.
Christopher goes on to call for a united push-back against government trends: “It’s never been more important for people to work together” addressing issues of privacy and access to information “before our democratic values are hollowed out yet further.”
Christopher’s plea echoes the critique of Bill C-51—so-called security legislation—by renowned national security law academics Craig Forcese and Kent Roach last spring. Their well-reasoned blog entries dissecting the bill’s many failings kicked off a massive attempt to stop this bill by academics, experts, think tanks, civil-liberties and human–rights groups, unions, leading tech entrepreneurs—an almost unprecedented cross-section of Canada’s civil society. The bill eventually passed with the federal NDP strongly denouncing it and the federal Liberals voting for it.
Bill C-51 gives extraordinary powers to Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to run counter-subversion campaigns, including infiltrating and using “dirty tricks” to disrupt activist groups. In testimony before the Senate, Forcese and Roach warned of major danger ahead given the bill’s empowerment of CSIS to break the law and violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms after a single, secret, one-sided judicial hearing with no possibility of appeal and no public disclosure of the event.
BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) warned the Senate that Bill C-51’s broadly sweeping offence of advocacy or promotion of terrorism offences is likely to lead to human-rights abuses and interference with the perfectly legal and peaceful opposition to government or corporate proposals or actions.
Another BCCLA submission, this one to Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, warned that vague wording, lacking clear definitions of “advocacy” and “promotion of terrorism” will lead to future politicization and abuse. Whether the conduct of politically active citizens “would be considered as undermining Canada might turn on whether their cause is politically popular and in line with the views of the government in power. This is dangerous for freedom of expression and the right to dissent.”
In fact, pointed out BCCLA in their submission, the right to dissent is already being abused in Canada:
We know that CSIS and the RCMP—institutions responsible for ensuring public safety and national security—have monitored non-violent protests undertaken by First Nations and environmental groups opposed to the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline project. Last year, the federal Government Operations Centre called on all federal departments to compile information on every single protest happening in Canada, ostensibly to build and share ‘common situational awareness at the national level related to all hazards of national interest, emerging or occurring.’
This is not new to Canada, though experts expect it will get worse under Bill C-51. Sociologist Gary Kinsman and other researchers have detailed, acting mainly through the RCMP, Canada’s embarrassing history of surveilling, infiltrating, and disrupting individuals and organizations erroneously framed as national security threats. Documented surveillance and harassment has included feminists, gays and lesbians, environmentalists, Aboriginal leaders, immigrants, refugees, peaceful Quebec separatists, union leaders, socialists, communists, and even Canadian healthcare icon Tommy Douglas and former federal NDP leader David Lewis.
Our history includes police acting as agents provocateurs, goading peaceful organizations into property damage that then retroactively justifies the “dirty tricks” and frames the activists as threats. Ironically, public anger at revelations in the 1970s of these RCMP excesses and human-rights violations led to the creation of CSIS—and now under Bill C-51 CSIS is being handed a “get out of jail free” card to repeat the mistake.
Spying on and disrupting peaceful Canadians exercising their Charter rights will no doubt disturb many of us. But it is demonstrably just the latest in a downward projectory of Canadian democracy, one of the many ways since 2006 that the Harper governments have defunded, prorogued, shut out, harassed, demonized, vilified, slandered, distracted, and muffled employees, watchdogs, whistleblowers, evidence-gatherers and archivists, charities, citizen groups, and opposition parties.
Is this the approach to governing that Canadians deserve? Luckily, while much of democracy is undergoing a downsizing, citizens still have the ballot box to register their opinions.
Gareth Kirkby is a communications professional and occasional journalist. The opinions expressed here are his own. Check out his thesis on the government’s use of Canada Revenue Agency to harass your favourite charity.