NGOs risk all in standoff with Harper over civil society crackdown

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You have to admire the political logic. If there is no data to research, there will be no facts to account for. How perfect the Tories' ditching of the mandatory long-form census data collection is for themselves -- and how dangerous for the rest of us.

This crazily arcane little issue is just the latest example of how the government is craftily tearing down the foundational infrastructure of democratic accountability.

After four years of the same, we're close to a tipping point -- at least that is what an unprecedented number of NGO watchdogs (aka civil society orgs) are risking their necks to tell us right now.

The first public call, hosted by the Voices coalition, a surprisingly inclusive conglomeration of 153 organizations, from Inter Pares to the Canadian Environmental Law Association to the National Association of Women and the Law, was held a few days before the G20 weekend. But by then the big-picture view of a federal government willing to invest more than $1 billion to arm itself against its citizens was already in focus.

Since the groups took the leap and signed on to a most unusual common declaration, we have all been inundated with fresh evidence of the scary problems it so presciently highlights.

"Since 2006 the Government of Canada has systematically undermined democratic institutions and practices, and has eroded the protection of free speech, and other fundamental human rights," says the Voices statement.

This is just the opening shot of a statement that connects the dots over a four-year period, linking the de-funding of public policy partners critical of the feds (risk factor number one for many of the signatories), attacks on outspoken civil servants (including dismissed nuclear safety commissioner Linda Keen, derided Afghan detainee witness and diplomat Richard Colvin, and more), and the "unprecedented level of secrecy that now shrouds a long list of government activities and decisions."

Says the very low-key Gerry Barr, head of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC) and Voices spokesperson: "We're finding ourselves in a place where the weather has changed. What's happened is that a shift in degree has become a change in times that I think is unprecedented."

And he knows of what he speaks. The current de-funding of the CCIC itself, without explanation, is typical of a disturbingly destructive pattern going on across the NGO sector that extends far beyond the higher-profile cases of KAIROS and Rights and Democracy.

This includes MATCH International, the Canadian Arab Federation, the Climate Action Network, the Court Challenges Program, the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women and many more.

The CCIC itself has received government funding for 40 years. With more than 100 member organizations focused on global justice, fair trade and aid, and humanitarian emergencies, it is widely considered the heart of Canada's international development community.

It provides policy coordination and research support to its Canadian members and the government and acts as a communications bridge between them.

Or at least it did. The Council's most recent funding agreement with CIDA expired March 31, and beyond a now-expired three-month extension, it has heard nothing about its funding or why it isn't forthcoming. Since the CIDA money represents two-thirds of the CCIC's $2.6 mil budget, it has been forced to lay off two-thirds of its staff, liquidate assets and put its office up for sale.

"This is challenging stuff," says Barr, "but not only for us. Look at the Canadian Council for Social Development, which also had its funding cut dramatically. This is the organization responsible for the intellectual work that went into the Unemployment Insurance Commission in the old days. It is a remarkable and distinguished secretariat that services the needs of social planning councils all across the country."

The declaration continues: "Canadian democratic institutions, civil society organizations, and human rights defenders have been weakened, marginalized and silenced. Their capacity to monitor and safeguard the respect for democracy, free speech and other rights is in jeopardy. The quality and health of democratic life in Canada is under serious threat."

That's not the kind of language groups like the Business and Professional Women's Association of Cana-da or Oxfam tosses off lightly. Barr himself doesn't mince words. We are concerned "in particular with the kind of punishing, punitive approach now being taken to organizations that continue to rightly be engaged in public policy discussion and debate," he says.

We know the Voices movement was weaving its resilient young tendrils through Ottawa's civil society before the long-form census scandal, the latest and greatest example (this week) of the government challenging our right to know in ways we aren't usually even aware of.

But let's see. In these same few weeks, the Harper government has once again defied our own high court's order that the rights of former child soldier (just a fact) Omar Khadr be protected.

And achieving a much lower profile, a parliamentary report on the water impact of the tar sands was cancelled and its draft final copies destroyed. This despite the fact that taxpayers paid for the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development to hear testimony and collect 300 pages' worth of documents from dozens of scientists, bureaucrats, lobbyists, aboriginal chiefs and environmental groups.

What does it mean when the government invests heavily in increasing police and punishment power at the same time that it undermines groups' ability to independently monitor official policy?

"It is a really straightforward assault on human rights work and practice," says lawyer Leilani Farha, executive director of the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation and a major Voices advocate.

She cites our altered record as a proponent of women's rights internationally. "It's a joke," she says. The UN Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, she says, merely picking an example, is "extremely concerned about what's happening to women in this country," especially with respect to missing and murdered aboriginal women and the linked issue of poverty."

Meanwhile, she points out, Sisters in Spirit (a project researching these missing women), has not had its funding renewed. Left in limbo, like KAIROS and the CCIC, Sisters has not been told its funds have been cut either, she adds.

"There is a real chill factor right now," she says. "Organizations and individuals are unwilling to speak out because they fear losing their jobs or they fear their organizations' doors will close and that will mean no longer providing important services and programs."

Look for more action from the Voices-Voix coalition when Parliament resumes and groups begin a push for a parliamentary committee review of these issues. In the meantime, they are collecting individual and organizations' signatures on their declaration (voices-voix.ca). Go, go, NGO.

We are fortunate to have a courageous and vibrant civil society sector working to hold the line on our human rights. It's time to stand with them and turn back the toxic government tide.

Ditching democracy

2006

• Status of Women funding cut by $5 mil

• Court Challenges Program nixed

2008

• Linda Keen, president of the Nuclear Safety Commission, is fired hours before scheduled appearance at a House committee

2009

• Contract of Peter Tinsley, chair of Military Police Complaints Commission, not renewed amidst Afghan detainee inquiry

• Kairos de-funded

• Attempts to stop diplomat Richard Colvin from testifying on treatment of Afghan detainees

• Canada's Information Commissioner gives government a failing grade on access-to-info policy

• Canadian Arab Federation's language programs de-funded

2010

• Canadian Council on Social Development funding cut

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