Meeting: The State and Health of Democracy in Canada
You may already be a member or supporter of the Voices-Voix Coalition or aware of our work. Perhaps you are not aware of Voices-Voix but you are deeply concerned about the state and health of human rights advocacy, democracy and dissent in Canada. If so, we hope you will be able to join us for a meeting on May 11th to discuss these concerns and help craft a strategy for responding to the many ways that democratic principles and human rights institutions and organizations are being undermined and weakened in the country.
The meeting will review the many reactions and responses from civil society to these deeply troubling developments over the past several years, with a focus on the numerous concrete steps announced of late (through the March 2010 budget and other measures) to restrict the space for voices of dissent in Canada. We will review the impact and discuss anticipated challenges arising from measures such as defunding and targeting programs, projects and organizations involved in advocacy and social justice.
We will discuss a proposal for an important, substantive conference in the fall of 2012 to look at these issues and consider in greater depth both short and long-term strategies for responding. We hope that individuals will come prepared and interested in joining us in organizing that conference as well as taking part in the ongoing work of the Voices-Voix Coalition.
Voices-Voix, and the community of human rights, environmental, labour and other progressive organizations in Canada now find themselves at a crucial crossroads, largely because of the results of the May 2011 federal election and the measures targeting charitable organizations and others that were announced as part of the March 2012 budget. With a majority government in place, it is likely that this pattern of attacks against advocacy and dissent will be consolidated and may spread.
The issues at stake are of fundamental importance, and go to the very fabric of what Canada is as a nation: a country of diversity and debate; freedoms and rights.
The Voices-Voix Steering Committee: Alex Neve, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada (English branch); Robert Fox, Executive Director, Oxfam Canada; Sarah Bélanger, Public Service Alliance of Canada; Julia Sanchez, President-CEO, Canadian Council for International Cooperation; Leilani Farha, Executive Director, Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation (CERA); Michel Lambert, Director General, Alternatives; Pearl Eliadis, Principal, RightsLaw; and Rita Morbia, Executive Director, Inter Pares.
Where: PSAC Building, 1st floor, 233 Gilmour Street, Ottawa. (There will be a telephone hook-up for individuals outside Ottawa.)
When: Friday May 11th, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Cost: Attendance is free of charge. There will be a break for lunch, which is provided.
RSVP: If you plan to join us for the meeting on May 11th please notify Sara Korajian at firstname.lastname@example.org, indicating whether you will attend in person or intend to participate by phone.
Who can attend? This meeting is open to members of Voices-Voix member-organizations, and their citizen allies. News media are also not permitted to attend. Voices-Voix remains non-partisan. Those who wish to attend must RSVP as stated above.
Media inquiries: As this meeting is not open to news media, journalists curious about the Voices-Voix Coalition are encouraged to contact us via our website, here.
Note: Participants who cannot attend in person are invited to join by phone between 10h and 12h and between 13h and 14h45. A report on the outcome of the small group discussions will be made available to Voices members and others who register their email addresses.
While participants are welcome to intervene in the official language of their choice, formal translation will not be available and most of the presentations will be offered in English. Informal translation can be offered to those present, but not to those participating by phone. If there is interest, a French-language follow up call will be arranged to review the highlights of the presentations and the proposals for follow up.
10h Welcome and review of agenda Facilitators: Alex Neve (Amnesty International Canada) and Julia Sanchez (CCIC)
10h15 Overview of attack on human rights and democracy in Canada: Alex Neve
10h30 Overview of what Voices has done: Pearl Eliadis (RightsLaw)
10h45 Key elements of the attack:
- Attack on Advocacy
- Attack on Evidence-based Public Policy: David Macdonald, senior economist (CCPA)
- Attack on Parliamentary Democracy: Gerry Caplan
- Attack on Right to Information: Bob Carty (journalist)
11h30 Other examples of attack
12h Lunch and networking
13h Key elements of Response
Extra-parliamentary response to anti-democratic agenda:
- Organizations’ responses
- Grassroots initiatives: Judy Rebick (journalist, political activist, feminist)
- Legal strategies Paul Champ (Champ & Associates)
- The Media’s role
13h45 Proposal for a conference/forum in the autumn
14h15 Other initiatives and ideas
14h45 Break out into smaller groups based on interest to consider next steps:
- Conference organizers
- Voices – Role, means, ways of working
- Animation and activism
- Solidarity and mutual support action network
15h30 Report backs from groups
15h50 Wrap up and next steps
In early 2010 it became apparent that the federal government was engaged in a pattern of punitive funding cuts and other measures against a range of Canadian civil society organizations that have openly opposed or criticized its positions and policies. The pattern had persisted for several years, and was intensifying. These cuts and other measures were having a dramatic, detrimental impact on the health of civil society in Canada, on advocacy and dissent, and on the transparency of government on several important human rights and social justice issues.
Some of these cases received considerable media and political attention. Most notable perhaps was the government’s decision to deny funding to the long-established and widely-respected ecumenical organization, KAIROS, because of their work on such topics as the rights of Palestinians and the human rights responsibilities of Canadian mining companies. Another high profile instance was the debilitating struggle between government-appointed Board members and staff at the parliamentary agency Rights & Democracy over low levels of funding provided to three well-respected Israeli and Palestinian rights groups, leading to the government’s decision in April 2012 to close the agency. But most instances attracted little media or political interest. As a result, awareness of the nature and extent of what was happening was slow to build.
As organizations began to discuss and compare experiences, we realized that this was a pattern that had been unfolding since 2006, when the government had changed funding guidelines at Status of Women Canada, denying funding to organizations specifically involved in advocacy for women’s equality. It became clear that over the past six years dozens of organizations working across a wide range of human rights, environmental and other social justice sectors have suffered the same consequences through actual or anticipated funding cuts.
It also became clear that the pattern was not limited to funding decisions, or to civil society groups. We noted numerous examples of government watchdogs and civil servants, for instance, who were threatened, undermined, fired or not renewed in their positions, after having disagreed with the government. We saw that there was a troubling overall pattern of punishment, in which voices of dissent and advocacy, particularly with respect to issues about which the government had strong political and even ideological views, were targeted: silenced, defunded, threatened, fired or faced with other consequences for having spoken up. Knowledge organizations that generate inconvenient information that is not aligned with the government’s agenda have experienced similar treatment.
In April 2010, an invitation to groups to join an informal meeting to explore this concern resulted in some 100 people, representing organizations from virtually every sector of civil society across Canada, meeting in person and by phone in Ottawa. Out of that, we decided to come together in a new coalition, which we called Voices-Voix, to respond to what everyone agreed had become a deeply disturbing government campaign to curtail human rights advocacy and undermine freedom of expression in Canada. Voices were being silenced.
Since that time, the Voices-Voix Coalition has grown. More than 200 organizations across the country have signed on to the coalition’s Declaration (www.voices-voix.ca/en/about/
The initial work has been made possible through a core group of volunteers and through the funding that was provided by a small number of organizations, led by the Public Service Alliance of Canada and several other unions and civil society organizations. We have also benefited from the hard work of an impressive group of student interns. The funding allowed the coalition to have staff support for a year, through a Montreal-based communications coordinator, and covered the costs of setting up the web-site and of researching and documenting the project.
We hope you will join us for this important discussion on May 11th.