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Since 2010, Voices-Voix has been documenting the federal government’s treatment of civil society groups, Indigenous organizations, public institutions, and science.
On June 16, 2015 Voices-Voix released a report synthesizing more than 100 case studies, entitled Dismantling Democracy: Stifling debate and dissent in Canada. The report received widespread public attention and was raised by Liberal and NDP MPs in the House. Conservative Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney responded by alleging that Voices-Voix “supports a terrorist group.”
Voices-Voix itself now joins a list of more than 30 groups and individuals targeted by similar official government statements designed to publicly vilify and smear those who express their right to dissent in Canada.
Voices-Voix is a national volunteer-based coalition created in 2010 to respond to a troubling trend of systematic “defunding” of both progressive civil society organizations (including those working in anti-poverty, international co-operation, immigrant and refugee protection, human rights, and women’s equality) and of Indigenous organizations. By June 2015, we had published 110 case studies not only on defunding, but also on political activities audits, surveillance and privacy violations, interference with independent watchdogs, and rhetorical attacks on non-profit groups as “radicals,” “security threats” or “terrorists.”
No other organization in Canada has been systematically documenting and publishing these cases across such a wide cross-section of areas of vital interest to Canadians.
Voices-Voix Reports on the Government’s Lack of Democracy and Transparency
On June 16, 2015, Voices-Voix released Dismantling Democracy: Stifling debate and dissent in Canada, a report documenting the Canadian government’s pattern of abusing parliamentary rules, intimidating public servants who oppose its views, silencing critics through funding cuts and policy changes, and evading accountability. The case studies developed by Voices-Voix over five years provided the evidentiary basis for the report.
The report also includes instances of government failing to protect whistle-blowers, compromising public access to information, undermining unions, surveilling Indigenous and environmental groups, and using national security measures to justify human rights abuses. The report further documented the instrumentalization of political activities’ audits by the Canada Revenue Agency and the muzzling of scientists, public servants, and non-profit groups, in order to suppress dissent.
The House of Commons: Q&A Period and Steven Blaney’s Statements
During the June 16, 2015, House of Commons’ debate, the Prime Minister was asked to account for the government’s opposition to open government.
Referring to the Voices-Voix report, Dismantling Democracy, NDP House Leader Peter Julian deplored the many Canadian voices that have been silenced, asking the Prime Minister why he was “so opposed to democracy, transparency, and facts?”
Steven Blaney, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, replied in lieu of the Prime Minister, stating, “The fact is that the organization…supports a terrorist group. It is not a free and democratic Canada they want.”
Peter Julian pointed out that the Prime Minister had not answered a question directly put to him, and noted that his attendance was the worst in modern history.
Julian referred again to the Voices-Voix report, and restated his question for the Prime Minister to answer.
Once again, Steven Blaney responded instead of the Prime Minister, stating:
…the group in question is defending IRFAN-Canada, a listed terrorist organization in Canada. We will not take lessons from this organization nor from the opposition. Why are the NDP and the Liberals siding with terrorist organizations and organizations that are supporting them?
Neither Stephen Harper nor Steven Blaney answered Peter Julian’s concern about the government’s lack of democracy and transparency. The statements were widely reported.
Steven Blaney’s Statements and the Allegation against Voices-Voix
By linking Voices-Voix to terrorism, the federal government used the same “vilification/smear” technique which Voices-Voix has documented and spoken out against for five years.
Organizations and individuals have been labelled as “radical ideologues,” “liars,” “extremists,” “security threats,” “enemies of the state,” or “supporters of terrorism.” Examples include a wide range of environmental and Indigenous groups opposing northern and eastern pipelines, as well as other organizations like ForestEthics, Sierra Club Canada Foundation, Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, and Palestine House, to name a few.
Such inflammatory statements serve to prime the Canadian public to believe that the targeted organizations are suspect or at least anti-Canadian. The wager appears to be that the public will be more likely to support—or at least not oppose—measures taken against such groups, like defunding, enhanced scrutiny, and surveillance.
To date, Voices-Voix has documented over 30 official statements incorporating the government’s use of the vilification/smear technique to silence organizations and individuals who oppose it.
The Voices-Voix Case Study on IRFAN-Canada
Steven Blaney’s accusation refers to IRFAN-Canada and the case study on that organization.
IRFAN-Canada is a Toronto-area charity that worked in the Palestinian territories. Its charitable status was revoked in April 2011 as a result of its work. IRFAN-Canada challenged the revocation and was scheduled to have its appeal heard before the Federal Court of Appeal in May 2014. Days before the scheduled hearing date, the government added IRFAN-Canada to the list of terrorist groups.
Blaney had recommended that IRFAN Canada be listed as an entity associated with terrorism following allegations that it had transferred “resources to various organizations with links to Hamas.” Under the Criminal Code, a listed entity is considered to be a “terrorist group.”
Because Canada had declared Hamas to be a terrorist entity in 2002, the transfer of resources to groups alleged to be associated with Hamas would itself be considered an act in support of terrorism under the Criminal Code.
Significantly, lawyers for the Minister of National Revenue took the extraordinary position before the Federal Court of Appeal that a listed terrorist entity may be simultaneously registered as a lawful charity in Canada. The argument was rebuked by the Federal Court of Appeal.
The process for listing terrorist entities under the Criminal Code has yet to be tested before the courts, but it has been criticized as being unconstitutional. The accused group is given no right to be heard, and the process criminalizes the group without regard to the ususal requirement in criminal law of establishing intent to commit a crime.
Voices-Voix published a case study on IRFAN-Canada, highlighting the unfairness of the revocation of its charitable status and its subsequent listing as a terrorist group. The case study emphasized the unfairness of a procedure that lists organizations as terrorist groups and then makes it impossible for the listed organizations to pay for legal representation to defend themselves. Section 83.08 of the Criminal Code makes it illegal to knowingly:
(a) deal directly or indirectly in any property that is owned or controlled by or on behalf of a terrorist group;
(b) enter into or facilitate, directly or indirectly, any transaction in respect of property referred to in paragraph (a); or
(c) provide any financial or other related services in respect of property referred to in paragraph (a) to, for the benefit of or at the direction of a terrorist group.
The case study did not confirm or deny the allegation that IRFAN-Canada had transferred resources, but focused on the lack of procedural justice inherent in the process.
Voices-Voix also highlighted the violation of the constitutional right of presumed innocence: Steven Blaney accused Voices-Voix of being “guilty” of supporting terrorism because IRFAN-Canada is alleged to be “guilty” by association with Hamas. “Guilt by association” at two removes is, or should be, contrary to basic principles of international law and Canadian constitutional law.
IRFAN-Canada is not a Voices-Voix member.
Accusations of Terrorism: a Familiar Pattern
Steven Blaney’s statement echoes a similar statement made by Jason MacDonald, the Prime Minister’s spokesman, on January 16, 2014. MacDonald crafted a media statement about the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), announcing: “We will not take seriously criticism from an organization with documented ties to a terrorist organization such as Hamas.”
The statement was in response to an open letter sent by the NCCM on January 14, 2014. The letter urged the Prime Minister to rescind an invitation to Rabbi Daniel Korobkin to accompany him to Israel. Korobken was controversial because of his praise for anti-Muslim campaigners.
MacDonald publicly declared that the NCCM, an independent, non-partisan and non-profit civil advocacy organization that has worked for 14 years on promoting Canadian Muslims’ human rights, was linked to a group that Canada deemed to be a terrorist organization.
The Prime Minister and his spokesman have yet to present evidence to support this claim.
With no apology from either Jason MacDonald or Stephen Harper, the NCCM filed a libel notice on January 28, 2014, maintaining that the statement was malicious and uttered to discredit the NCCM for criticizing the Prime Minister’s decision. The libel action is pending before the courts.
Steven Blaney Follows Diane Ablonczy’s Footsteps: Parliamentary Privilege
During the Bill C-51 Parliamentary Committee hearing on March 12, 2015, Conservative MP Diane Ablonczy referred to the Jason MacDonald statement, questioning NCCM about "a continuing series of allegations" of its ties to groups that support "Islamic terrorist groups."
NCCM’s executive director, Ihsaan Gardee, responded by stating that “McCarthyesque-type questions protected by parliamentary privilege are unbecoming of this committee.”
New Democratic Party MP Craig Scott affirmed that Ihsaan Gardee was “correct to point out that parliamentary privilege was behind those questions being put the way they were put, knowing that if they were said outside this room, there might be other consequences.”
Steven Blaney’s comments about Voices-Voix were made during question period and are protected by parliamentary privilege. Jason MacDonald, on the other hand, uttered his January 2014 statement outside of Parliament and is not immune from civil and/or criminal liability.
Responses to Steven Blaney’s Statements
The Huffington Post gave prominent coverage to Steven Blaney’s statements about Voices-Voix, although most major news outlets have been silent. BuzzFeed Canada confirmed that Blaney stands by what he said in Parliament.
Jeremy Laurin, spokesperson for Steven Blaney, maintained that “Minister Blaney made it clear that the group in question is defending IRFAN-Canada—a listed terrorist organization in Canada” and that the “Liberals and NDP need to explain why they are aligning with a group that is defending a listed terrorist organization.” Minister Blainey’s original statement, and subsequent confirmations of it, do not distinguish between “defending” a terrorist organization, and defending the right of any organization, or person, to the protection of established legal process to defend themselves, as Voices/Voix did with respect to IRFAN.
Tim McSorley, Voices-Voix Coordinator, stated that Steven Blaney’s comments are another example of the government’s tactics in punishing those who do not agree with it.
“It's ironic, although not surprising,” he said, “that the federal government would smear us with false allegations instead of responding to criticism about baseless attacks used to silence critics. It is alarming that these kinds of attacks have become so commonplace that they are barely considered to be newsworthy anymore.”
- January 16, 2014: Prime Minsiter’s spokesperson Jason MacDonald dismisses public concerns raised by the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) on the grounds that the group allegedly has ties to Hamas.
- January 28, 2014: NCCM commences defamation legal action against Jason MacDonald and the Prime Minister for falsely alleging associations to Hamas, which is now pending before the courts.
- March 12, 2015: NCCM executive director, Ihsaan Gardee, delivered a presentation to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Bill C-51 during which he was criticized by Conservative MP Dian Ablonzy alleging that the NCCM has ties to groups that have expressed support for "Islamic terrorist groups," including Hamas
- June 16, 2015: Voices-Voix publishes its Dismantling Democracy: Stifling debate and dissent in Canada report including reference to the case of IRFAN-Canada.
- June 16, 2015: During the June 16, 2015 House of Commons’ question period, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Steven Blaney responds to New Democratic Party MP Peter Julian’s reference to the Voices-Voix report, asserting that “the organization…supports a terrorist group” and questioning why “the NDP and the Liberals siding with terrorist organizations and organizations that are supporting them?”
- June 18, 2015: BuzzFeed Canada publishes an online article with a statement from Steven Blaney’s spokesman, Jeremy Laurin, maintaining that the Minister of Public Safety stands by his comments, and asks again for the NDP and the Liberals to explain themselves. Voices-Voix Coordinator Tim McSorley responds by pointing out these comments support the Voices-Voix argument that the government is punishing dissenting voices who criticize it.
Role or Position
Voices-Voix is a Canadian, non-partisan coalition of more than 230 organizations and 5,000 individuals who believe that both citizens and governments can encourage respect for our democratic rights and values, including free speech, transparency and equality.
Implications and Consequences
Democracy: Steven Blaney’s accusation and similar attacks undermine democracy. Criticism is silenced rather than properly acknowledged with an open and transparent response. Individuals and organizations are being deterred from criticizing the government and participating democratically, knowing they could be made the subject of false allegations of criminal activity which will be publicly recorded and protected by parliamentary privilege. The extension of the denunciation to include the NDP and the Liberal Party of Canada further demeans democratic process by using unfounded and scurrilous allegations for partisan political purposes.
Freedom of Expression: Steven Blaney’s accusation sought to discredit Voices-Voix and its report, Dismantling Democracy, which details the government’s pattern of silencing critics. It is also further evidence of the chill on advocacy and dissent that Voices-Voix has been documenting for years. Organizations are afraid of losing funding, chartable status, or being subjected to allegations of criminal behavior, and so self-censor.
Rule of Law: Statements made in Parliament are protected by Parliamentary privilege, which encourages frank debate in Parliament by ensuring that such statements do not attract civil and criminal liability. It is an abuse of Parliamentary privilege to use it to protect deliberately accusatory, baseless, and misleading statements which do not further open and free debate, but which are used to divert Parliamentary and public attention from government’s refusal to be accountable. The impunity of Steven Blaney from this abuse of Parliamentary privilege encourages others to abuse their privilege and is another demonstration of the government’s disrespect for the institutions of Parliament.
Procedural Fairness and Access to Justice: Voices-Voix’s case study on IRFAN-Canada highlights the loss of civil liberties and the right to equal participation and equal access to the justice system in a free and democratic society. This position has been mischaracterized by the government as a defence of the organization itself and its activities. The government has responded to Voices-Voix’ call for procedural fairness through rhetorical attacks on the coalition and its members by associating them with terrorism, a serious criminal offence.
Transparency: Steven Blaney’s comments intentionally obfuscate the fact that neither the Prime Minister nor the government directly answered the question posed during question period. His comments, along with the Prime Minister’s silence, demonstrate the government’s utter lack of accountability and transparency.
Published: 1 October 2015