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Silencing Dissent: The Conservative Record
Over the past five years, exercise of the fundamental freedom of speech in Canada has been curbed and discouraged by a federal government increasingly intolerant of even the mildest criticism or dissent. Particularly affected have been organizations dependent on government funding which advocate for human rights and women’s equality. Their voices have been stifled, some completely silenced, by cuts to their budgets. Also financially throttled have been individuals and groups that speak out for reproductive rights, humanitarian immigration policies, and for changes in Canada’s foreign policy in the Middle East.
The Harper government’s now lengthy record of silencing – or attempting to silence – its critics also includes the removal of heads of government agencies, commissions, and tribunals who insist on making independent decisions. Academics who have spoken against government actions or policies have also been targeted.
This blatant suppression of basic human rights by a government constitutionally responsible for guaranteeing their expression is unprecedented in Canada’s history.
Human Rights Advocacy Organizations
The Harper government has systematically eroded the ability of equality-seeking groups to exercise their Charter rights by dramatically defunding human rights organizations advocating on behalf of such groups. An early indication of the government’s stance on advocacy came in 2006 when it discontinued the Court Challenges Program. For over 20 years, that program had been advancing the rights and equality of women, immigrants and refugees, gays and lesbians, and other disadvantaged groups by funding the costs of challenging discriminatory laws in court.
Even those CCP-funded challenges which were lost at the Supreme Court often led to changes in legislation because the legal issues they highlighted were so seminal. The cancellation of the program has greatly compromised the ability of equality-seeking groups to challenge discrimination, leaving only a few of them still having the necessary financial means to bring lawsuits to the Supreme Court.
In response to wide-ranging protest, the government in 2008 partially reinstated the Court Challenges program, but only for claims dealing with language rights.
Another assault on human rights advocacy came in March 2010, when the government withdrew so much funding from the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) that it was forced to close its Toronto, Vancouver, and Halifax offices. These three offices had received 70% of all complaints to the CHRC in 2008. The Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents CHRC employees, notes that the closures have especially raised a barrier to individuals from racialized and immigrant groups in those three cities, who had launched 60% of previous human rights complaints. In fact, Vancouver residents now have no access to any human rights commission, since the province closed the B.C. Human Rights Commission a few years ago.
John Gordon, National President of PSAC, says the CHRC office closures are part of a dangerous trend by the federal government toward self-regulation, which places reliance on employers to voluntarily meet employment equity obligations and address discrimination, while the government abandons its responsibility to promote the protection of human rights.
The past several years have also seen the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) make severe funding cuts to several long-standing international development and human rights advocacy organizations. While the cuts have challenged these groups’ ability to advocate on behalf of underprivileged individuals in the developing world, they have also contributed to the steady erosion of Canada’s reputation as an international development leader. Most recently, the government cut funding for the Teacher’s Federation Program, which for the past 50 years had allowed Canadian teachers sent to Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean to assist at least 1.4 million students and teachers in the developing world.
Also defunded was the Canadian Council on International Co-operation (CCIC), an umbrella group that represents over 90 organizations which engage in Canadian voluntary aid efforts overseas, and which often criticizes foreign aid policy. Even though previous governments had been funding the CCIC for the past 40 years, the Harper government in July 2010 withdrew its funding, forcing the CCIC to lay off 17 of its 25 employees.
In May 2010, CIDA also cut all federal funding to MATCH International, a Canadian aid organization that supports women’s rights in the developing world. The organization, which works to prevent violence against women, facilitates the availability of reproductive choices, and helps women gain leadership and business skills in developing countries, had been receiving federal funding for more than 30 years, and had relied on it for two-thirds of its budget. Kim Bulger, executive director of MATCH, is convinced the cuts are part of a pattern of “ideologically driven” punishment against women’s groups which advocate for reproductive rights.
The government’s ideological intolerance also wreacked havoc at the highly respected Rights and Democracy Agency, which since 1988 has been monitoring human rights and facilitating democratic transitions around the world. In 2009, the Harper government appointed to the organization’s board new members who had opposed the organization’s decision to provide three small grants to Middle East groups that had been critical of Israel’s human rights record. The resulting discord led to then-president Remy Beauregard’s death from a heart attack in the middle of a contentious board meeting, and caused almost all of the agency’s staff to publicly state their non-confidence in the Harper-appointed board members.
A Deloitte and Touche audit conducted into the agency’s operations concluded that the Harper government had engaged in an “ideological hijacking” of the agency. Despite the report and criticism by all the opposition parties, the government in February 2011 renewed its partisan appointments to the agency’s board, continuing to politicize the agency’s human rights work.
Disregard for the rule of law and democratic process has also characterized the government’s handling of its now infamous decision to cut funding to KAIROS in late 2009. The organization, which represents 11 Canadian church groups engaging in human rights, poverty reduction, and education advocacy across the developing world, had its overseas budget slashed after it publicly criticized Israeli Defence Forces’ bombing of a Gaza City health clinic.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney first told an Israeli audience that the cut was in response to KAIROS’ views on Israel, while the government insisted the funding cut was not related to the organization’s views. In April and October 2010, Bev Oda, the minister overseeing CIDA, told Parliament that her department had made the decision to cut KAIROS’ funding because the group’s work no longer fit with CIDA’s objectives. Then a document surfaced in which it appeared CIDA had approved continued KAIROS funding, only to have the recommendation reversed by the insertion of a handwritten “not”. Oda thereupon stated that the document had been altered at her own direction.
The KAIROS controversy is a clear example not only of the government’s use of funding cuts to punish organizations espousing views contrary to the government’s, but also of the fact that transparency and accountability in such decision-making may be seriously undermined.
Women’s Rights Advocacy
Since its election in 2006, the minority Conservative government has had a well-defined stance towards state support of women’s advocacy. It has demonstrated that it is not interested in funding organizations that explicitly advocate for women’s equality and rights protection. At best, the safeguarding of women’s equality has been subjected to market efficiency considerations, as exemplified by the quiet introduction, in 2009, of the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act. This legislation allows public sector employers to consider “market demand” in setting compensation levels, thereby preserving the discriminatory policy of paying men more than women for equal work.
The Harper government’s priorities, however, have been reflected most clearly in its 2006 decision to cut funding to Status of Women Canada by 37%, compelling the closure of 12 of its 16 regional offices, and to redraft SWC funding criteria so that advocacy groups and women’s service providers such as rape crisis centres have become ineligible for funding. The spillover effects of these changes have led to funding cuts to the following organizations, among others: Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, Womenspace, the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada, the New Brunswick Coalition for Pay Equity, le Conseil d’intervention pour l’accès des femmes au travail, the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, Réseau des tables régionales de groupes de femmes du Québec, and Action travail des femmes.
The fiscal and ideological restructuring of Status of Women Canada has also necessitated the closing of the National Association of Women and the Law’s office, which for more than 30 years had been involved in precedent-setting legal work on behalf of women, such as winning amendments to the Criminal Code regarding sexual assault laws, improvements to the Divorce Act, and adoption of equality rights in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The government’s disinterest in women’s rights advocacy has also recently threatened the existence of the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Sisters in Spirit project, a national database that tracks cases of missing and slain Aboriginal women in an effort to expose such violence. When the project’s initial five-year $5 million funding expired in March 2010, the federal government stalled any extension of new funding for eight months. When the new funding of $500,000 was announced, it came with a specific prohibition: NWAC could continue to improve awareness of the missing women, but it was forbidden from continuing to compile the Sisters in Spirit database. Instead, the government claimed it is providing support for victims of such violence by allocating $4 million for a general RCMP missing persons’ information centre, and $10 million for programs to address risky behaviours and violence on reserves. As some MPs have pointed out, the government’s allocation of funds reflects a preference for increasing enforcement instead of dialoguing with and empowering Aboriginal communities. Opposition critics have also seen this latest funding allotment as part of a “tough-on-crime” agenda masquerading as support for the combatting of violence against Aboriginal women.
The combined effects of the Harper government’s funding cuts have been reflected in international gender equality rankings. In 2004, the World Economic Forum gender gap index had ranked Canada in seventh place, but in 2009, Canada had dropped to 25th on the list of countries in terms of their gender equality records. By slashing support for so many women’s advocacy organizations, the Harper government has also contravened Canada’s obligation to maintain and improve domestic human rights, as it is obliged to do under the UN and other international treaties it has signed.
Since its first election, the Harper government has taken a deceptive stance on immigration issues. In public speeches and reports, the government has lauded Canada’s traditionally open immigration policies, acknowledged the importance of immigrants in boosting Canada’s economy, and made an apparent commitment to immigrant settlement and integration. The actual policy on immigration, however, has been indicative of an entirely different set of attitudes.
In 2008, the government amended the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act so as to free Citizen and Immigration Canada from the obligation to process all applications, and allow it instead to return unprocessed applications that don’t fulfill the government’s economic objectives. The new applications process now reflects the government’s discriminatory privileging of economic immigrants over immigrant families and refugees. Indeed, Bill C-49, currently before Parliament, is a blatant example of the government’s hostility towards humanitarian cases. On its face, the bill aims to address human smuggling. But the bill’s mechanisms – most notably, the proposed mandatory detention without independent review – would result in unfair targeting and treatment of refugees, and is generally contrary to Charter rights and international law. The numbers are a further reflection of the government’s policy: acceptance of refugee claims from applicants already in Canada has fallen sharply, from 16,000 in 2006 to just over 9,000 in 2010. The number of successful applicants on compassionate and humanitarian grounds has also fallen to 8,848 in 2010 from the 10,000-11,000 a year previously accepted.
Also in the past decade, and most rapidly since 2006, Canada has greatly increased its dependence on temporary foreign workers while decreasing reliance on new immigrants. While temporary workers quickly meet the temporary needs of employers, they are not the future citizens needed to facilitate sustainable economic growth. The dramatic $53 million cuts to immigrant settlement programs announced in December 2010 are just the latest indication that sustainable immigrant integration is not the government’s actual policy.
More than $43 million of the total cuts will come from Ontario settlement programs, most of which serve racialized immigrant communities. Some of the organizations that have been affected include Northwood Neighbourhood Services, Elspeth Heyward Centre for Women, Tropicana Community Services, Davenport-Perth Neighbourhood Centre, Community Action Resource Centre, South Asian Women’s Centre, Eritrean Canadian Community Centre of Toronto, Ethiopian Association in the Greater Toronto Area and Surrounding Regions, Afghan Association of Ontario, and Bloor Information and Life Centre. The South Asian Women’s Centre, which has served Toronto immigrants for over 20 years, has said that its likely closure will cause “a vacuum” in the availability of settlement services to the 14,000 clients the centre has been serving annually.
The effect of the federal cuts to these programs has been so obviously deleterious that, in February 2011, the Ontario government announced a one-time bailout fund of $500,000 to support the hardest-hit agencies and give them time to come up with long-term alternatives to federal funding. On March 2, 2011, a motion to reverse the funding cuts was carried in the House of Commons. The Ontario Council for Agencies Serving Immigrants, which represents 200 settlement organizations across the province, has said that, if not reversed, the cuts severely threaten “the long-term integration outcomes for immigrants.”
Perhaps as distressing as the cuts themselves has been the government’s attempt to conceal their effects. In January 2010, the York South-Weston Local Immigration Partnership, which coordinates newcomer programs, received a mass email from Citizen and Immigration Canada, forbidding it from discussing the cuts at internal meetings, and requesting that the organization’s meeting agendas be forwarded to the CIC as evidence that the cuts were not being discussed. The 26 member organizations which received the email complied with the order, but have been outraged by what appears to be a government attempt to silence communities speaking out against the cuts.
Internal Individual Dissent
Since 2006, the Harper government has also shown itself to be intolerant of open challenges to its policies by its own ministers and civil servants. Garth Turner, a Conservative MP who eventually left the caucus, was one of the first to test the government’s stance on this issue. Turner had started a blog in which he criticized the government’s appointment of David Emerson as Minister of International Trade, since Emerson had been elected a Liberal but was now serving as a Conservative. Turner was ordered to take down the blog and, when he refused to be censored, he was suspended from the Conservative caucus. There have been numerous other examples of the government’s intolerance of dissenting views:
- In December 2006, Adrian Measner, Canadian Wheat Board president, was fired by Federal Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl after criticizing the government’s plan to dismantle the board’s monopoly on marketing wheat and barley, which would have crippled the board and resulted in lower prices for most farmers.
- In the fall of 2010, after becoming a vocal critic of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in the last six months of his term, Pat Storgan, Canada’s first Veterans’ Ombudsman, was told his appointment would not be renewed. Storgan had criticized the department and implied that it was being deceptive and obstructionist in handling injured soldiers’ claims.
- In August 2010, Marty Cheliak, head of the RCMP’s Canadian Firearms Program, was let go, after supporting the federal long-gun registry, a program the Conservative government was trying to abolish.
The most recent example of the government’s intolerance of criticism has upset the international community. In February 2011, Earl Turcotte, Canada’s lead weapons treaty negotiator, was removed from his position, after he allegedly criticized the Canadian government’s interpretation of Canada’s obligations under the International Convention on Cluster Munitions. The Convention, which Canada has signed and is now in the process of ratifying, makes the use of cluster munitions illegal.
The Convention does allow joint military operations between countries that have signed the Convention, like Canada, and those who have not, such as the United States, as long as cluster bombs are not used in such a joint military operation. Turcotte allegedly objected to the way the federal government is interpreting this particular obligation, and has since stated that he will be resigning from the Department of Foreign Affairs in order to independently advocate for the Convention. Human Rights Watch in Washington has publicly stated that Turcotte’s removal is symptomatic of “Canada’s recent foreign policy setbacks in multilateral diplomacy and the demise of Canada’s strong moral voice on some key international issues.”
Since 2006, the federal government has also exerted unprecedented supervision and control over administrative tribunals, commissions, and agencies, often overturning these arms-length bodies’ decisions on major issues. As early as December 2008, the Competition Bureau’s ability to conduct independent evaluations of mergers and acquisitions became a contested issue. Then-federal Industry Minister Jim Prentice openly criticized Sheridan Scott, then head of the Competition Bureau, for not obtaining his approval for certain actions the Bureau was taking in its review of a proposed Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd.’s takeover of the Lakeport Brewing Income Fund. Consequently, Scott’s term was not renewed. Later, an independent review found that the Competition Bureau had been acting within its power.
In December 2007, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission found its decision to close the Chalk River nuclear reactor for safety reasons overturned by an emergency measure passed through the House of Commons, despite the Commission’s warning that the continued operation of the facility could constitute a public safety risk. Linda Keen, then head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, accused Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn of interfering with the Commission’s decision-making. Keen was then promptly fired, hours before before she and Lunn were to appear before a Parliamentary committee.
Public inquiries into the RCMP have also become the subject of heightened government supervision. First, in December 2009, the government removed Paul Kennedy, head of the RCMP Public Complaints Commission, who had been critical of RCMP handling of in-custody deaths, Taser use, and self-investigations during his term. Kennedy was let go just before he was due to release his report on the RCMP’s actions that led to the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski. After Kennedy’s removal, the government also initiated Bill C-38 (Ensuring the Effective Review of RCMP Civilian Complaints Act) which would create a new civilian oversight agency for the RCMP. Significantly, the legislation will not permit the new agency’s chairperson to initiate investigations before receiving ministerial approval – oversight that is bound to erode the agency’s independence. Two former RCMP heads have complained that the new agency is to be responsible to the minister instead of to Parliament and to the public.
Accountability to Parliament was also at issue during the delay and obstruction of the contentious Afghan prisoner hearings held by the Military Police Complaints Commission over the course of some months in 2009. Peter Tinsley, chair of the Commission, had openly disputed the federal government’s claim that he had no authority to conduct a wider-scope investigation into allegations that Canadian military police knew that some of their prisoners faced probable abuse if put in Afghan jails. In December 2009, while the Commission was still in the middle of hearings, Tinsley’s contract was not renewed. This was contrary to established federal commission convention for the government to extend members’ terms if they are in the middle of investigations.
Most recently, Statistics Canada was portrayed by the government as having supported the government’s decision to replace the mandatory long-form census questionnaire – a decision the agency did not in fact approve. StatsCan’s chief statistician, Munir Sheikh, then resigned to protest the government’s specious claim that the agency had endorsed scrapping the long-form census.
In the past few years, academic scholarship and scientific research has been subjected to unprecedented government scrutiny, especially when it has involved subject matter on which the government has taken a particular stand.
Academic scholarship on the subject of Canadian federal politics has been closely scrutinized. University of Windsor political scientist Heather MacIvor, who is known for engaging in open critical analysis of government decisions, has faced so many rebukes for her views that she has recently decided to “become self-censoring on the subject of the Conservatives.” She has said that her academic right to speak her mind on political issues has been questioned by members of the Conservative party, who have been particularly sensitive to, and intolerant of, her views.
Professors Errol Mendes and Amir Attaran, law professors at the University of Ottawa who are frequent critics of federal policies - immigration issues and the government’s handling of the Afghan detainee issue, in particular - have consistently found themselves attacked on Conservative websites and by party spokespersons. In February 2011, both professors were notified of two conspicuous freedom-of-information requests at the University of Ottawa requesting details of the professors’ employment, expenses, and teaching reviews and records. While legally the requesters remain anonymous, the professors say they have reason to believe that the requests are part of a larger intimidation tactic carried out by the Conservative government aimed at silencing them.
The government’s apparent discouragement of academic discourse has extended to its own scientists and academics. Natural Resources Canada scientists were told in spring 2010 of a new government policy which would require them to get “pre-approval” from the minister’s office of their “media lines” before speaking with media. National Resources Canada scientist Scott Dallimore, who co-authored a study about a large flood that swept across northern Canada at the end of the last ice age, waited for clearance from the government for so long that his originally scheduled media conference had to be postponed for a week.
As early as the spring of 2006, Mark Tushingham, an Environment Canada scientist who had written a fictional book about global warming and was going to give a reading from it at the National Press Club, was told by Environment Canada that he could not do so. Then-Minister of Natural Resources Gary Lunn was in the middle of dismantling government programs as part of an anti-Kyoto Protocol stance, so Tushingham’s message was likely seen as contrary to the government’s own position.
There are countless further examples of critics who have been silenced, advocacy efforts that have been weakened, and human rights organizations that have been disempowered. The patterns are clear, however, and the point here has already been made: during the past five years, the Harper government has expressed its intolerance of dissenting views, independent decision-making, and critical discourse in ways that have come to threaten basic democratic values.
Further, the government’s chosen stance on women’s rights, immigration policy, and domestic and international human rights advocacy has also not been without consequences:
- In a 2010 report on aid transparency conducted by a U.K.-based international advocacy group, the Canadian International Development Agency ranked 23rd out of the 30 institutions assessed – a shameful ranking considering Canada’s former reputation as a humanitarian aid leader.
- In 2004, the World Economic Forum gender gap index ranked Canada seventh, while in 2009 Canada was ranked 25th.
- Human Rights Watch says that Canada’s recent foreign policy is characterized by “setbacks in multilateral diplomacy and the demise of Canada’s strong moral voice on some key international issues.”
In disempowering those who have supported unpopular causes, spoken on inconvenient topics, or made dissenting statements, the government has not only stifled the vibrant critical discourse needed to promote a healthy democratic community, but has also been shrugging off its public responsibility to safeguard a space in which such discourse can take place. As journalist Susan Delacourt has aptly stated:
No one expects politicians to be non-partisan. But running the Government of Canada is a great honour and responsibility. All those ceremonies and oaths and seals of office revolve around the idea that we’re entrusting our government to act in the interests of all Canadians, not just friends of the party in power.
Maria Gergin is a third-year law student at the University of Ottawa and an intern with the CCPA’s National Office. A detailed list of organizations subjected to government funding cuts may be found below. Sources and references for all statements in this article may be obtained by request at firstname.lastname@example.org).