Voices-Voix: Remarks from Pearl Eliadis at the CCIC Annual Forum 2012

Remarks by Pearl Eliadis[1] at the CCIC Annual Forum: Changing realities, changing roles and the future of Canadian CSOs, Concluding Plenary, Ottawa, May 25, 2012

 

Thank you to Julia Sanchez and the organizers for inviting me to be a part of this event.  

I have been asked to talk about the Voices Coalition, its work and its relevance to the international development community in Canada.

Canadians think of themselves as champions of human rights, leading the way in the international community, forging a strong consensus for human rights and tolerance at home.

There are serious doubts today about whether this description is still accurate: it is true that there has been a long-standing and nonpartisan consensus in Canada about the importance of human rights and tolerance, but in 2006, Ray Pennings and Michael Van Pelt published a signal article in the journal Policy Options, called “Replacing the Pan-Canadian Consensus”.   They argued that tolerance and the “aggressive” human rights polity of the past are giving way to an agenda that is less interested in both. Torstar’s Thomas Walkom  dubbed it the “new, grim consensus”. 

The “new, grim consensus” is being implemented at the federal level through the takeover and transformation of Canadian democratic institutions, through attacks on independent or dissenting voices and a crackdown on civil society.

In the spring of 2010, a group of us came together to share our growing unease that something more was going on than a new government’s growing pains and new policies. And that something needed to be done.

Voices-Voix www.voices-voix.ca came together, a non-partisan coalition of NGOs, lawyers, human rights activists and civil society in response to these developments.  One of the key projects coming out of that meeting has been the online documentation project that has sought to trace the narrative arc of these developments and that illustrates the trends identified by Pennings and Van Pelt.

Through the documentation project, we have identified four fronts in the assault on voices, democratic dissent and civil society:  

  1. interference with independent arm’s length organizations and neglect of independent parliamentary agents;
  2. the defunding and civil society organizations and attacks on their leaders and their staff;
  3. The systematic marginalization of human rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 
  4. The elimination of knowledge, research and data, and the public infrastructure that supports them.

Each one will be dealt with briefly in turn.

 

  1. Independent Parliamentary Agents

Several independent Parliamentary agents, including former Auditor General Sheila Fraser, have been complaining that their work is simply ignored by this government; but there are worse things than being ignored. Outspoken heads of important oversight bodies have been fired or sidelined when their messages have become controversial or inconvenient.

  • Paul Kennedy was removed as head of the Commission for Public Complaints (CPC) regarding the RCMP, after he advocated a more powerful and independent Commission
  • RCMP Chief Superintendent, Marty Cheliak who headed the Canadian Firearms program was removed from his functions.
  • Linda Keen at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission was fired for shutting down a nuclear reactor for safety reasons.
  • Munir Sheikh resigned from StatsCan following a reckless misrepresentation of his position to the Canadian people.
  • In 2012, StatsCan's high-profile chief economic analyst Phil Cross resigned too, saying that internal debate at Statscan was being suppressed in relation to questions about the long form census.
  • The first, outspoken Veterans Ombudsman, Pat Stogran, was fired for being a strong advocate for veterans. 

And let us not forget Rights and Democracy - left in tatters after what some commentators describe as a hostile takeover in 2010 and the tragic death of Remy Beauregard in January of that year. It limped along for a further two years in a spectacular parade of bureaucratic bungling, incompetence and tens of thousands of dollars spent in vain to attack Beauregard’s reputation after his death, until the organization was put out of its and our collective misery by the Harper government in April 2012.

 

  1. NGOs, civil society organizations, and women’s equality-seeking groups

Women’s groups that are engaged in research, advocacy, pay equity and international work have experienced serious cuts. This is due in part to Status of Women funding rules being changed so that groups advocating for protection of women’s human rights from the perspective of research and policy are no longer supported.  The cuts prompted the closure of regional offices and the elimination of programs that support research and advocacy on women's rights.

Seemingly arbitrary funding decisions from CIDA and other government departments have crippled many organizations, including Kairos, Alternatives and many others.  I don’t need to tell you about the impact of CIDA cuts on CCIC.  The Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, CERA, and Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, also saw their funding affected.

Organizations working on human rights in Israel and Palestine have found themselves targeted.

Individual leaders and development workers have been attacked and derided. Environmental activists are now described as eco-terrorists or money launderers. Those who oppose an entirely counterfactual criminal law bill that imposes unworkable mandatory minimum sentences are accused of supporting child pornography.

Shockingly, leaders like Cindy Blackstock have found themselves under government surveillance because of their advocacy for the rights, safety and equality of First Nations children.

And the recent targeting of Tides, one of the more influential and innovative charities in Canada appears to be an ideological campaign by the Canadian Revenue Agency, which has been given $8 million to crack down on charities at a time of government cutbacks and massive public sector layoffs.

Two years ago Voices, identified 74 NGOs and civil society organizations that saw their funding come to an end or be reduced significantly. The numbers have grown since then. We continue to document these developments.

 

  1. Human Rights and the Charter  

This year is the 30th Anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But you would never know it to look at the government’s public agenda for the year or the Justice Department’s public awareness programs.  

In 2006, the federal government shut down the Court Challenges Program which had spearheaded successful Charter cases against discriminatory laws and practices.  

There has been a full-on assault against human rights commissions, tribunals and their staff not only by right-wing bloggers gone ballistic, but also by legislatures.  Critics have been questioning the role or even the need for the human rights architecture that has been built up across Canada over many decades now and there have been attacks on the Alberta, B.C., federal, Ontario and Saskatchewan systems. Human rights staff and Members have been subject to threats in the first four jurisdictions.

In 2009, Kenneth Roth, head of Human Rights Watch, told a Montreal audience that Canada’s international foreign policy record had declined in stature.  Canada's ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2010 was a welcome relief but it was the exception, not the rule. Our standing in the Global Integrity Report index dropped in 2010, largely as a result of weaker accountability and conflict of interest factors.   In 2011, Amnesty International released a report urging Canada to get “back on track.”

 

  1. Attacks on knowledge, research and data

Knowledge organizations that provide research and evidence-based policy have also suffered.

The Law Commission of Canada has disappeared (again).  Canadian Policy Research Networks, one of Canada’s leading non-partisan think tanks closed its doors in 2009. The Canadian Council on Learning is gone. Statistics Canada’s mandatory long-form Census, once Canada’s main source of reliable and robust statistical data, was abolished.  The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, the National Council on Welfare and the First Nations Statistics Institute were chopped in 2012.  Sisters in Spirit’s documentation project on missing and murdered women was cut.

Without good research, policy is overtaken by what Daniel Kahneman would call the “fast thinking” of impression, cognitive ease and intuition.  The federal government’s omnibus Bill C-10, the Safe Streets and Communities Act is a prime example. Despite a consistently high margin of Canadians who feel that criminals get inadequate sentences, mandatory minimum sentencing frameworks have failed in other countries. Experts have predicted that Bill C-10 will also fail the needs of the fastest-growing prison populations in Canada – women with mental disabilities and Aboriginal persons – running contrary to Canada’s traditions of fairness, compassion and equality.

The result, as one researcher recently put it, has been a shift from evidence-based policy making to decision-based evidence making.

In the last couple of months, the federal government announced that it was closing some of its largest departmental libraries, including the Public Service Commission’s and the huge library at Human Resources and Social Development Canada, both of which are – or were - precious resources not only for public servants but also for the public. 

 

CONCLUSION

A healthy respect for human rights depends on a lot of things that international development experts like those in this room well understand: it is not only about human rights, the rule of law, good governance, a robust civil society or the political will to sustain the institutions that protect them.

IT IS ABOUT ALL THESE THINGS.

These critical ingredients are nourished by an informed, independent and balanced media and by governments that both understand and champion human rights.

If dissent is indeed under attack, if opposition is being silenced and if civil society is in fact under siege, then modern democracy is in peril as we move away from an enabling environment.

Voices-Voix came together because many of us realized that there was a common story starting to play out on all these varied fronts.  And because we had to start to share those experiences and begin to build and deepen our common understanding of this new and very troubling new reality, this “new, grim consensus”.

What is at stake is the ability to protect human rights and to promote social justice and a sustainable society – both here within Canada and abroad, and to do so without political interference, intimidation or manipulation.

Sadly, two years later, as Alex Neve noted recently at a VOICES meeting here in Ottawa a couple of weeks ago, the pattern has only become more entrenched and wider in scope and reach.

As Neve did then, I also urge you to take a tour through the Voices website if you have not already done so – 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. Although we all have our different perspective, we stand for a Canada where voices need to be supported, nurtured and encouraged as part of a country when participation is enabled, not discouraged.

We believe that something can be done about this, and documenting what is happening is a necessary beginning.  We are still developing the narrative though VOICES, and invite you to become part of both the narrative and the solution.  

Contact information is available at:

www.voices-voix.ca

 

Thank you.




[1]     This paper draws on several sources, including the Voices website, www.voices-voix.ca, earlier remarks by Alex Neve, which can be found online on the Voices web site, and original material from a book that I am currently writing.