Harper’s record of gutting dissent gives whole new meaning to “bully pulpit”

No 151 Posted by fw, April 10, 2011

Harper at his bully pulpit

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.” Maria Gergin, from the introduction to her paper, Silencing Dissent: The Conservative Record, which dissects and documents, in considerable detail, the Harper government’s record of silencing Canadian voices of dissent.

Maria Gergin is a third-year law student at the University of Ottawa and an intern with the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), a treasure trove of research and publications concerning social and economic justice, two areas of concern frequently ignored by a morally and ethically challenged Harper government and its supporters.

What follows is a bulleted list of voices of dissent that Harper’s government has silenced. These are pulled from Gergin’s April 6, 2011 paper, and, for the most part, written in my own words. Maria’s original paper can be read in full by clicking on the above title link. As mentioned, Gergin’s introduction appears above.

Silencing Dissent: The Conservative Record by Maria Gergin

1. Human Rights Advocacy Organizations

  • 2006 Harper government shuts down Court Challenges Program (CCP) – for over 20 years, this 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;
  • Equality-seeking groups lost ability to challenge discrimination through CCP — result was loss of changes in legislation because of the significance of the legal issues that CCP highlighted in cases brought to the Supreme Court
  • 2008 Harper government partially reinstates CCP — but only for claims dealing with language rights; and he only did that because of wide-ranging protest
  • 2010 Harper government slashes Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) funding — CHRC forced to close Toronto, Vancouver, and Halifax offices, effectively raising a barrier to individuals from racialized and immigrant groups in those three cities and abandoning its responsibility to promote the protection of human rights.

2. International Development

  • Severe cuts by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to its client groups — cuts have challenged client groups’ ability to advocate on behalf of underprivileged individuals in the developing world, contributed to the steady erosion of Canada’s reputation as an international development leader, and cut funding for a half-century old program that had allowed Canadian teachers to assist 1.4 million students is Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean
  • Defunded was the Canadian Council on International Co-operation (CCIC) — CCIC represents over 90 organizations engaged in Canadian voluntary aid efforts overseas, and which often criticizes the government’s foreign aid policy
  • 2010 CIDA also cut all federal funding to MATCH International – MATCH supports women’s rights in the developing world; 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
  • 2009 Harper appoints new board members to Rights and Democracy Agency — the new members opposed the agency’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
  • 2011 Harper government ignores criticism and renews partisan board appointments – an audit 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 opposition parties, Harper continued to politicize the agency’s human rights work
  • 2009 Harper government’s infamous funding cuts to KAIROS — it is not coincidence that its funding was slashed after it publicly criticized Israeli Defence Forces’ bombing of a Gaza City health clinic
  • 2010 the Bev Oda scandal — “Oh, what a web we weave . . .” First,  Immigration Minister Kenney told an Israeli audience that the cut was in response to KAIROS’ views on Israel. The government quickly back-pedaled, insisting the cut was not related to the organization’s views. Then 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. Subsequently, 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,” forcing Oda to clarify her early clarification, stating that she directed the revision.
  • KAIROS scandal illustrates Harper government’s punishment of organizations espousing views contrary to government’s – also reveals that transparency and accountability in such decision-making may be seriously undermined

3. Women’s Rights Advocacy

  • Since 2006 Harper government demonstrates opposition to funding organizations that explicitly advocate for women’s equality and rights protection — this bias is exemplified by the quiet introduction, in 2009, of the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act, allowing 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
  • 2006 Harper government cuts funding to Status of Women Canada (SWC) by 37% — cuts compelling 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
  • SWC fiscal and ideological restructuring forces closing of the National Association of Women and the Law’s (NAWL) office — for more than 30 years NAWL 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
  • 2010 Harper government attaches conditions to renewed funding for the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Sisters in Spirit project – first the government stalled new funding for eight months and when new funding was announced, it came with a specific prohibition: NWAC 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 to the RCMP to fund a missing persons’ information centre, and 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
  • Canada’s international gender equality ranking plummets from 7th in 2004 to 25th in 2009 — 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.

4. Immigrant Organizations

  • Huge gap between Harper government’s talk and its policies on immigration issues — publicly the government lauds Canada’s open immigration policies, acknowledging importance of immigrants in boosting our economy; however, the words are not reflected in its immigration policy
  • 2008 Harper government amends Immigration and Refugee Protection Act — the Act frees 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, reflecting the government’s discriminatory privileging of economic immigrants over immigrant families and refugees
  • Most rapidly since 2006, Canada has greatly increased its dependence on temporary foreign workers, decreasing reliance on new immigrants – temporary workers are not the future citizens needed to facilitate sustainable economic growth
  • Over $43 million of the total cuts will come from Ontario settlement programs – most of the impacted programs serve racialized immigrant communities
  • March 22, 2011 motion to reverse immigration funding cuts carried in the House of Commons — decision pending election outcome
  • 2010 Harper government muzzles immigration agencies from speaking of spending cuts — Citizen and Immigration Canada sent mass emailing to 26 agencies “forbidding them 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.” Although complying with the order, organizations were outraged by what appears to be a government attempt to silence communities speaking out against the cuts

5. 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 suspended from Conservative caucus for refusing to be censored — When Turner refusing to remove his criticism of Harper’s appointment of ex-Liberal David Emerson as Minister of International Trade, Turner was suspended from the caucus
  • 2006 Adrian Measner, Canadian Wheat Board president, fired — Measner dared to criticize government’s plan to dismantle the board’s monopoly on marketing wheat and barley
  • 2010 Pat Storgan, Veteran’s Ombudsman, ousted — Storgan had criticized the department and implied that it was being deceptive and obstructionist in handling injured soldiers’ claims
  • 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
  • 2011 Earl Turcotte, Canada’s lead weapons treaty negotiator, removed from his position — Turcotte allegedly criticized the Harper government’s interpretation of Canada’s obligations under the International Convention on Cluster Munitions

6. Administrative Tribunals

  • 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.
  • 2008 Harper’s Industry minister criticizes, later removes head of Competition Bureau – the head had failed to obtain the minister’s approval for certain actions the Bureau was taking. Subsequent independent review found that the Competition Bureau had been acting within its power
  • 2007 Harper government fires head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission —  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
  • 2009 Harper’s government removes Paul Kennedy, head of the RCMP Public Complaints Commission — Kennedy had been critical of RCMP handling of in-custody deaths, Taser use, and self-investigations
  • 2010 Harper’s government create a new civilian oversight agency for RCMP – oversight is bound to erode the agency’s independence; two former RCMP heads complained that the new agency will be responsible to the minister instead of to Parliament and to the public
  • 2009 Harper government delays and obstructs contentious Afghan prisoner hearings — while the Military Police Complaints Commission was in the middle of hearings, the contract of the Commission’s chair was not renewed, which was contrary to established federal commission convention to extend members’ terms if they are in the middle of investigations
  • Most recently, Harper’s government falsely portrayed Statistics Canada as having supported the government’s decision to replace the mandatory long-form census questionnaire – StatsCan’s chief statistician subsequently resigned to protest the government’s specious claim

7. Academic Freedom

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.

  • Harper government criticism forced one academic to become self-censoring — University of Windsor political scientist Heather MacIvor, has faced many rebukes for her open critical analysis of government decisions, claiming Conservative party has been particularly intolerant of her views
  • Conservative websites and party spokespersons employing intimidation tactics on two University of Ottawa law professors — the two are frequent critics of federal policies, immigration issues, and the government’s handling of the Afghan detainee issue. In February 2011, both 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
  • 2010 Harper government ‘s new policy requires own scientists and academics to get minister’s “pre-approval” — For example, a Natural Resources Canada scientists had to wait so long for clearance that his media conference had to be postponed for a week
  • 2006 Harper’s Environment Minister forbids a departmental scientist from giving a reading from his fictional book about global warming – the reason: then-Minister of Natural Resources Gary Lunn was in the middle of dismantling government programs as part of an anti-Kyoto Protocol stance — the fear was that the reading might be perceived as contrary to the government’s own position

Conclusion

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.

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.”

Please note: 1) Sources and references for all statements in this article may be obtained by request from ccpa@policyalternatives.ca) and 2) A list of organizations (2006-2011) which have been cancelled or defunded, and individuals who have been silenced or removed from their posts is appended to the original article.

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