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Defending Bev Oda - but not for the reasons you think

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Okay. Admittedly that may be the most unpopular title of a blog I have ever tapped out on my laptop.

I can't and won’t explain or defend the $16 orange juice or the limo, but why people focus on that and not the fact that every single day Stephen Harper moves within Ottawa with a motorcade of two black sedans (front and rear) with three smoky-glassed, bullet proof SUVs in between -- FIVE vehicles -- is beyond me. The reality of our outrage levels are such that $16 orange juice grabs headlines and $20 million a year on the PM’s personal security (more than double previous PMs) rolls right by without notice. It’s the way people freak out over a few pennies increase on a litre of gasoline, but, without a whimper, purchase completely unnecessary bottled water at a higher price per litre than gas. It’s just one of those human nature things that defy rational explanation.

Where I think we need to give our collective head a shake (and here I am looking directly at the national news media reporters) is the forgery of the KAIROS approval documents. The story line from the mainstream press seems to be that Stephen Harper has been putting up with a Minister who makes mistakes and gets into trouble. The inserted “NOT” in the KAIROS document gets remembered as a mistake by Oda for which Stephen Harper defended her.

I wrote the following column in February 2011 for a local community paper, Island Tides.

Please read it to refresh our collective memory. The very most logical conclusion of the train of events is that Bev Oda approved KAIROS funding and someone higher up, someone in the Prime Minister’s Office being the most likely suspect, ordered the Minister’s approval be reversed -- resulting in the crude forgery. Harper has not been covering for Oda. She was covering for him. And, in true form, he just threw her under the bus.

KAIROS -- a scandal that matters

Scandals in “Harperland” (as Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin has dubbed current day Ottawa) are increasingly disturbing. The mystery of why the aid group KAIROS was denied CIDA funding -- and how critical documents were forged -- is now occupying the Speaker of the House, Parliamentary committees, and a fair amount of media ink. The fact that it happened at all is an outrage.

“Kairos” is a Greek word with a number of meanings, all related to time. In its theological meaning, it suggests the appointed time. It suggests opportunity within crisis. It is a moment that is critical.

Nearly all the major Christian denominations in Canada are core groups in KAIROS -- the United Church, Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, Society of Friends, and more. Back in my Sierra Club days, I had the pleasure of working closely with KAIROS. We were partners in climate work and advocating for social justice in international trade deals. The group has a superb record.

It was a shock when, in late November 2009, after thirty five years of CIDA support, CIDA funding for KAIROS projects overseas was cancelled. KAIROS had been expecting a $7 million grant for the next five years of its work. The Green Party issued a press release within days of the loss of funding (December 3, 2009), calling for CIDA support to be restored. Political interference seemed likely, as through its climate work, KAIROS had been critical of the oil sands. There were protests across Canada, including in Ganges where Salt Spring Island clergy and multi-faith parishes held a protest, calling for KAIROS funding to be restored.

In the House, throughout late 2009 and into 2010, International Development Minister, Bev Oda, denied that there were any political motivations. She stated that the programmes no longer fit CIDA’s current priorities.

It was even more shocking when the minister for Immigration, Jason Kenney, claimed that the reason KAIROS had been denied expected continued support for its programs was that the group was anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. Kenney made the charge in a speech delivered two weeks after the funding was cut at the Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism in Jerusalem (December 16, 2009). KAIROS reacted quickly, proving it had no involvement in Israeli boycott campaigns.

Anyone tracking this issue now had two Cabinet ministers (three if you count Oda’s Parliamentary Secretary Jim Abbott) with very different stories. Oda (and Abbott) claiming it was routine CIDA decision-making; Kenney claiming a clamp-down on anti-Semitic, anti-Israel groups.

In late October 2010, an Access to Information request revealed the CIDA documentation. CIDA had recommended that the $7 million be approved. Senior CIDA officials, first V-P Naresh Singh, and then President Margaret Biggs, had signed off on the advice to the Minister to approve the funding. Her signature appeared on the document, but inserted crudely, with a hand-drawn carrot, was the word “NOT” (in capitals.). CIDA officials had signed a document approving funding. Testifying to the parliamentary committee investigating the matter, Minister Oda told the committee she had no idea how the word “NOT” was inserted.

Thanks to Liberal MP, John MacKay, the Speaker of the House was asked to investigate the whole mess. His findings were released February 10th. Speaker Milliken found that the document was “doctored” and that it raised “disturbing questions:”

Any reasonable person confronted with what appears to have transpired would necessarily be extremely concerned, if not shocked, and might well begin to doubt the integrity of certain decision-making processes.”

Now, Minister Oda has changed her story. She now claims the document was changed at her direction, although she still does not know who did it.

Of course, the Opposition members of the Committee have pointed out that she misled the Committee. NDP MP Paul Dewar says the minister lied to the Committee when she said she had no idea how the “NOT” appeared.

None of this washes. If the Minister did not want to fund KAIROS, the solution was easy enough. There are a number of tried and true ministerial responses to advice they don’t like (even when the advice is solid, as the CIDA approval of KAIROS). Send the unsigned document back downstairs to CIDA officials, leave it on the desk to gather dust, ignore it.

The only plausible explanation for the state of the document is that Bev Oda signed the approval and the “NOT” was inserted subsequently.

This is where long-standing attacks against KAIROS from Harper Cabinet members, Stockwell Day and Jason Kenney, as well as right-wing Christian lobbyist Charles McVety, are highly relevant. In particular, Jason Kenney’s speech in Israel and its timing seem pivotal. People like right-wing Evangelical leader Charles McVety, of the Canada Family Action Coalition, was a KAIROS detractor. Targeting KAIROS for the speech in Jerusalem would explain PMO interference. Someone, and I am willing to bet, not someone directed by Oda, inserted the “NOT” after funding was approved.

We now have a case of fraud. It is part of a pattern of abuse of the essence of Canadian democracy and our foundational principles of “peace, order and good government.” The victims of this fraud are not just in Canada. They are the people in developing world whose projects were not supported. In a larger sense, we are all victims of this fraud. Will it be like so many other abuses of power, of contempt for Canada’s historical record in the world of peace-keeping and development assistance, that are just swept under the rug? Or will this be a moment of “kairos” that allows Canadians to wake up to the crisis and seize the opportunity to fully explore this act of fraud and forgery.

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