Voices: The campaign against advocacy and dissent deepens

Voices:  The campaign against advocacy and dissent deepens

Remarks by Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada (English branch)

at the Voices-Voix Strategizing Meeting, Ottawa, May 11, 2012

Just over two years ago many of us who are here today gathered in this same room.  We had come together because of emerging concerns, a sense of deep and spreading disquiet, with some pretty strong descriptors attached:

            dissent under attack, opposition being silenced, civil society under siege, democracy in peril.

Assembled and on the phone were a diverse group of activists, lawyers, researchers, educators from a range of sectors.  And we had come together because we realized that there was a common story starting to play out on all of  our varied fronts.  And that we had to start to share those experiences and begin to build and deepen a common understanding of a very troubling new reality.

I went back to look at some notes I made at the time for opening remarks that day.  I framed the emerging concern, the dots that we were beginning to connect, in the following terms.  What was at stake, I suggested, was the freedom and the ability of Canadians to vigorously advocate for the protection of human rights and other fundamental elements to social justice and a sustainable society – of all rights and concerns of all people – both here within Canada and abroad, and to do so without political interference, intimidation or manipulation. 

And it was important to understand it in those terms.  What drew us together -  then and again today - was not the fact that we may disagree with or even be strongly opposed to some of the positions or policies the government itself adopts or advances with respect to many of these issues --- its position on Israel and Palestine, women’s human rights, the environment, the operations of Canadian mining companies, the rights of Indigenous peoples, or torture in Afghanistan.  Pick an issue, any issue.  Of course many who came together for that meeting in 2010 and many of us here today do actively respond to those and other pressing concerns, through the media, public education, outreach to parliamentarians and other strategies, actively seek to bring a strong human rights and justice message to the debates that swirl around those and other concerns.

But it was something even more fundamental that was playing out.  We had come together then and do so again today not because of that concern about the issues themselves.  That happens elsewhere.  Rather it was about being able to speak out about and debate the issues.  About being sure that Voices would be heard.  That there would be support, funding and space so that Voices could be heard.  All Voices. 

And it had become clear that many, a growing number, of Voices were at risk, were being punished for the message they bring.  Voices were being sidelined, defunded, intimidated derided, fired and more.  Not because they have wasted money or done their job poorly. Not because they have spread lies.  But simply because they speak out about things the government does not want to hear.

I shared a number of examples, including:

  • Status of Women funding rules changed so that groups advocating for protection of women’s human rights no longer supported.  This has had huge implications for programs and even the very existence of a number of hardworking women’s equality groups.
  • Court Challenges program discontinued, cutting off one of the most important avenues by which Charter of Rights court cases have been brought forward by and on behalf of society’s most marginalized and disenfranchised.
  • Outspoken heads of important oversight bodies, charged with monitoring and even adjudicating on government conduct in areas where human rights and the public interest are very much on the line, had been fired or not been renewed in their positions because they have stood up to or disagreed with government on a number of crucial issues.
  • Government employees who have spoken out and disagreed with the government about human rights issues and other important public policy matters had been intimidated and derided, and thus many have been silenced. 
  • Arbitrary and capricious funding decisions from CIDA, Status of Women and other government departments had devastated some organizations and left many others in a position of wholly untenable uncertainty about important programming.  One common thread … a solidifying government policy not to fund organizations engaged in what we would likely consider to be advocacy, as opposed to service delivery. 
  • Deeply concerning funding decisions had been made or loomed that risked curtailing incredibly important advocacy and research work with respect to a number of vital issues effecting Aboriginal Canadians: the National Residential School Survivors Society, the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, and NWAC’s Sisters in Spirit initiative all being very troubling examples.
  • And then, there was Israel and Palestine.  It had become clear that groups, large or small, independent or creatures of Parliament – who in any way carry out or provide financial support to programs seeking to defend and promote the rights of Palestinians, will face government repercussions.  It does not fit the government’s orthodoxy that the problems in Israel and Palestine cannot be laid at the feet of the Israeli government.  Israel will not be criticized on the government’s dime. 

Sadly, two years later, the pattern has only become more entrenched and wider in scope and reach.

Situations we were deeply concerned about at the time have worsened.  The crisis that had erupted at Rights & Democracy at the time, rooted in a conflict about low levels of funding provided to three well-respected Israeli/Palestinian human rights groups and with it the very tragic death of that agency’s respected president, Remy Beauregard, has of course come to a very sad conclusion, with the government’s announcement earlier this year of the closure of an organization that has made superb contributions to advancing rights and justice around the world.

With me at the front of the room at the time were two passionate and talented civil society activists, Gerry Barr – who headed up CCIC; and Leilani Farha – director of CERA and also at the time a member of the Board of FAFIA.  Both were worried at the time about moves being taken to undermine the advocacy work of their organizations, concerns that proved well-founded.  CCIC went on to lose all of its CIDA funding.  FAFIA too saw important funding provided through Status of Women come to an end.

We were all very concerned about the ideologically motivated denial of funding for some of KAIROS’ important rights-based programming.  Who would have imagined what a political fiasco and firestorm that would turn into, as the famous memo with the handwritten word NOT scratched in, reversing a recommendation that funding be granted.  But a fiasco with no accountability as the responsible Minister was not at all chastised for what was at best incompetence and at worst, blatantly punitive and crude politicization of decision-making in the realm of rights and justice.

We were also on the cusp of the 2010 G8 and G20 Summits.  And who would have imagined the assault on that front.  First, of course, the very clear message to women’s equality and other rights advocates that they best “shut up” (and it of course was actually put less politely than that) about fundamental issues related to sexual and reproductive rights connected to the government’s showcase maternal and newborn health initiative.  And then, secondly, the stunning and unprecedented crackdown on freedom of expression on the streets of Toronto – so troubling in its own right, amplified though by the refusal of governments to ensure a full and proper inquiry into what happened, and the federal government’s complete denial that any of it was even their responsibility at all.

That is just with respect to what was already in front of and among us at the time of our meeting two years ago.

So much more has unfolded since.  So much, in fact, that I cannot even begin to take us through the list.  To do so would risk leaving out many individuals, organizations or situations that merit mention.

I do urge you to take a tour through the Voices website if you have not – as it has become a valuable, though obviously very disturbing, online compendium of the rapidly growing number of instances of individuals and groups who have been punished or singled out because of their advocacy and dissent.

So instead of taking us through what would be an inevitably incomplete list, let me note some of the patterns and trends that have become obvious.  Patterns we were concerned about at the time of our 2010 meeting most certainly continue, while others have emerged. 

Notably, hot button issues like Palestinian rights and women’s equality continue to be readily targeted.  And consider these additions to the list; not that these are all new over these past two years – but have become increasingly obvious and established patterns of clampdown and punishment.

  • There is what I often refer to the “you are with us or you are evil” orthodoxy.  You either obediently agree with government policy or initiatives or you risk vilification and near public flogging.  Prisoner transfers and torture in Afghanistan?  You are with the government or you are a passionate supporter of the Taliban.  Online surveillance legislation and privacy concerns?  You are with the government or you are an advocate for pedophiles and the abuse of children.  Northern Gateway Pipeline?  You are with the government or you are a traitor to your country, a virtual ecoterrorist, accountable only to the demands of your foreign funder and puppet master.   Increasingly, to be concerned about the environment is to be against Canada.
  • Charity means silence and compliance.  Recent statements and initiatives coming out of this year’s federal budget make that clear.  For charities, advocacy is a peril like never before.  Too feed the poor or to clean up an environmental mess is charity.  To ask challenging questions about the roots of poverty, or question the economies and political decisions that cause environmental disasters in the first place is not.  The backdrop here of course is government threats to re-examine and possibly revoke the charitable status of groups who too vigorously question government policy, particularly with respect to hot button issues like the tarsands, pipelines and environmental protection.  The wider implications are enormous.
  • Most at risk, the most marginalized.  The brunt of this siege is not felt by the business community, or the middle class.  It has fallen squarely on the shoulders of those living in poverty, Indigenous peoples, women, the homeless, people living with disabilities, children, the elderly.  Witness the staggering cuts to funding in the recent budget for a range of Indigenous health promotion and advocacy programs run out of pretty well all of the national aboriginal organizations.  Witness also the astounding campaign of stalking and retaliation that the indomitable Cindy Blackstock has endured because of her advocacy for the rights, safety and equality of First Nations children.
  • Human rights commissions are increasingly in jeopardy.  For several years now, from many quarters, critics have been questioning the role or even the need for the tremendously important human rights architecture that has been built up across Canada over many decades now -- human rights codes, statutes, commissions, investigators, tribunals.  That has moved out of the margins into the mainstream – witness the assault on Saskatchewan’s provincial system.  The human rights tribunal abolished, the commission itself dramatically slashed.  The prospect that human rights complainants there will now have to turn to the cumbersome, expensive court system almost inevitably means elusive human rights remedies for the most marginalized will now become entirely beyond reach.  Federally, funding constraints have led the Canadian Human Rights Commission to make difficult decisions to close some of their regional offices, including the office in Toronto, and with it, making access more difficult for some.
  • Then there is the attack on information, facts and evidence.  The long form census – certainly didn’t see that coming when we were here together two years ago.  The wider deep funding cuts to Statistics Canada and with that, the emerging news of the surveys and types of information that will no longer be conducted or compiled.  What we lose of course is the reliable information we need to build an understanding of the injustices we face across society, to develop the solutions needed to address those problems, and to sharpen our advocacy to achieve those solutions.
  • Oversight and review is ever more inconvenient and unnecessary.  Witness the treatment of the first, outspoken and determined, Veterans Ombudsman, Pat Stogran.  Or oversight is now portrayed as expensive and unnecessary.  In the wake of the Maher Arar Inquiry, for the past six years a crucial proposal from the presiding judge for a new and improved system of national security oversight in Canada has remained unimplemented.  Instead, we move backwards with news in the recent budget that one of the pieces of the existing, inadequate system of review – the Inspector General’s office over at CSIS – will be cut, to say $1 million.

We have never before seen or experienced something of this nature.  This isn’t just about shifting priorities and approaches as one government’s agenda gives way to the next.  What we are witnessing is a systematic onslaught against what I think is a bedrock principle that most Canadians believe – that it is in all of our common good to ensure that all voices are able to be heard on crucial issues. 

At our 2010 meeting I ended with a lament and call to action that remains current.  We are not a nation founded or built on some sense of orthodoxy and ideology; or on notions of compliance and conformity.  We are a nation of diversity and debate; with a core belief in rights and justice.  We cannot and most certainly will not stand by and watch as that is taken apart.