Shutting Alternative Ideas Out of Discussions


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

1 comment

  • S. Law

    Re: your com­ment on Harper administration’s view of women’s organizations.

    the Reform Party … have shut­tered some, and defunded many, orga­ni­za­tions, par­tic­u­larly those work­ing on women’s, and inter­na­tional devel­op­ment and human rights issues.”

    I was a board mem­ber with the her­land fem­i­nist film fes­ti­val from 2000–2007. The orga­ni­za­tion was orig­i­nally a project of the Cal­gary Sta­tus of Women Action Com­mit­tee (CSWAC) which had char­i­ta­ble sta­tus. The board of the fes­ti­val never dis­banded CSWAC even when it became inac­tive while the fes­ti­val con­tin­ued. Based on a tax return sub­mit­ted in 1998 CSWAC received notice in 2003–2004 that they had par­tic­i­pated in polit­i­cal activism when they pub­lished a pam­phlet called “Water­ing down the milk: Women Cop­ing on Alberta’s Min­i­mum Wage”. Although Harper’s regime does seem more hos­tile to women’s orga­ni­za­tions the events that led to CSWAC los­ing its char­i­ta­ble sta­tus occurred prior to his elec­tion. I don’t think any fed­eral gov­ern­ment has been entirely sup­port­ive of women’s issues. It is not accu­rate to say that the cur­rent gov­ern­ment alone is hos­tile to women’s orga­ni­za­tions — most Cana­dian gov­ern­ments in the lat­ter 20th cen­tury were some­what hos­tile to women’s organizations.

Leave a Reply