Advocacy in the Time of Harper: Standing up to new constraints

Advocacy in the Time of Harper : Standing up to new constraints
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  • Alice de Wolff, Comox Valley Chapter, Council of Canadians

A federal private member’s bill was introduced this week that proposes to criminalize anyone caught damaging or blocking “critical infrastructure”. Bill C-639 singles out anyone who “obstructs, interrupts or interferes with the lawful use, enjoyment or operation of any part of a critical infrastructure.” It was introduced by Wai Young, Conservative, Vancouver South just after the protests on Burnaby Mountain (coincidentally?), and proposes fines and prison sentences of up to ten years for offenders. The government has been questioned about whether the Bill is constitutional, and whether it will be used to round up peaceful demonstrators, but is leaving it up to future courts to work out these finer points.

It is the latest in a string of moves that come very close to equating opposition to government policy with terrorism or criminal activity. Several of these measures are explicitly intended to disrupt, discredit, divert and disorganize advocacy groups, particularly those that are concerned about the environment. I am active with the Council of Canadians in the Comox Valley.   We regularly notice that, along with many other like-minded groups, our organization is both being recognized as effective and being put on notice that powerful interests are going to try harder to stop us.

The kind of democracy that we expect in Canada is not one where we engage as citizens only once every four years, at the ballot box. Our freedom to work together on common interests, to inform ourselves about issues and policy, and to advocate for changes that we think are needed, are cornerstones of a healthy democracy.

None of the new challenges to these freedoms are unmanageable – yet. They have not prevented our chapter or others across the country from pursuing the issues we care about. But we are increasingly concerned about the regulation, targeting and monitoring of groups like ours by governments and big business. We all need to be aware of the changes and to challenge them.

Here are the signs:

  • Christy Clark’s government has put forward the new BC Society Act.   It would make it more possible for corporations or individuals with enough money to take community groups that oppose them to court. The Act would allow private interests to sue environmental and community groups (27,000 groups across the province) for opposing their projects, tying the resources and energy of these groups up in expensive court battles.

The provincial NDP is fighting this legislation, and has started a petition to that end. You can sign the petition at .

  • TransCanada Pipeline hired the controversial public relations firm Edelman in an attempt to derail growing public opposition to its proposed Energy East tar sands pipeline. Edelman’s proposal to the company recommends a Tea Party-inspired set of strategies:
    • promote the pipeline (the TV stations are blanketed with them)
    • respond aggressively to any criticism
    • apply pressure on opponents by using “supportive third parties” to distract opponents and cause them to redirect their resources.

In order to accomplish this third strategy, they will research and profile key opposition groups by examining public records, traditional media sources and social media:

” We will begin with the Council of Canadians. Other possibilities include Equiterre, the David Suzuki Foundation, Avaaz and Ecology Ottawa.”

Andrea Harden and Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians have responded publicly, saying that any investigation will likely come up with little fodder for a smear campaign, that all the organization’s information is public, and that money the company is likely to spend investigating will take away from the public debate that should be happening.

You can find the Council’s Nov. 17, 2014 Media Release file://localhost/here. http/ .

  • Progressive foundations and charities across are being targeted by Canada Revenue with expensive, intrusive audits. They include:

The David Suzuki Foundation, Tides Canada, Equiterre, Environmental Defence, Ecology Action Centre, Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, PEN Canada, Canada Without Poverty, Amnesty International and the United Church of Canada’s Kairos.

They are among 52 charities undergoing audits of their political activities in a new $13.4-million program launched in the 2012 federal budget. The audits have targeted environmental, development/human rights, and charities that receive donations from labour unions. The auditors are looking for any evidence of partisan activity, such as endorsements of political candidates, which is forbidden, as well as any violation of a rule that limits political activity to no more than 10 per cent of a charity’s resources. The definition of partisan activity is sliding towards meaning any activity that opposes the current government. In a parallel story, Canada Revenue has told OXFAM Canada that “preventing poverty” is not an acceptable goal for a charity: “relieving poverty” is apparently an acceptable charitable goal.

  • A newly-released Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) report states that “environmental extremists” pose a “clear and present criminal threat” to Canada’s national security and the tar sands-dominated energy sector. The report treats environmental activism as a lethal threat. Organizations reported to be under the RCMP’s radar include Idle No More, ForestEthics, Sierra Club, EcoSociety, LeadNow, Dogwood Initiative, Council of Canadians and the People’s Summit.

More about the RCMP report can be found here:

A report in The Guardian states:   “Monitoring of environment activists in Canada by the country’s police and security agencies has become the ‘new normal’, according to a researcher who has analyzed security documents released under freedom of information laws”. “Security and police agencies have been increasingly conflating terrorism and extremism with peaceful citizens exercising their democratic rights to organize petitions, protest and question government policies”. See: Canada’s environmental activists seen as ‘threat to national security’.

  • The Government Operations Centre is the federal government’s intelligence clearing house. In June it sent an email to all federal department civil servants requesting that they document all demonstrations.   More detail: “Government Operations Centre to monitor all protests”.
  • The 2008 BC Election Amendment Act was intended to limit election spending by “third parties”, but it has created confusion and has limited the participation during elections of charities, non-profits, labour unions and citizen’s groups.

The Act requires all groups to register with the Chief Electoral Officer if they intend to make public statements about election issues during an election period. The broad definition of “election advertising”, and the inclusion of free and low-cost activities (newsletters, websites, facebook pages) means that many organizations have had to make decisions about whether their activities mean that they must register. Registering as an “election advertiser” could jeopardize an organization’s charitable status.   A number of organizations have pulled back from any communications about issues that are clearly “election issues”, and stopped their regular education and advocacy during election periods.   More about this: Election Chill Effect.

How does this affect us in the Comox Valley?

At the very least, it means that some organization is or will be monitoring our activities. We believe our actions are something to be proud of, and have no intention of backing down. But we also need to recognize that attacks on advocacy are not separate from the other issues that we care about and that they need to be challenged. And we must recognize that we may need to stand behind our actions in new ways.

It is in this spirit of pride in our actions that we have re-issued Coal Watch’s “Another Radical Canadian” T-Shirts. They were a response to Jo Oliver’s comment labeling those who opposed the Enbridge Pipeline as “radicals”. See them on our website! Proceeds will be donated to First Nations who are fighting against the Enbridge Pipeline.
Because the federal government can now require non-profits to make public their “members” names, the national Council of Canadians has changed the title of people who make financial contributions and receive newsletters to “supporters”. This doesn’t affect how we organize ourselves as a Chapter – we are a separate non-registered organization and cannot be required to disclose in the same way as the national organization. The Comox Valley Chapter has decided that the sense of ownership that comes with “membership” is very important, and wants anyone who is interested in our newsletters and events to be a “member”.

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