The scrawled note that evaded the redactor’s pen – unlike so many Afghan detainee files – did more than to cast Kairos into the ever-growing pile of Canadian organizations and individuals that have been, to borrow Jason Kenney’s euphemism, “defunded.” It also cemented the realization, for many Canadians, that the crucial boundary protecting nonpartisan limbs of the state from the ideological zeal of the sitting government has been breached in a way that we have not seen before.
A legacy of distortion
The warning signs have been apparent for some time. Mr. Harper’s stacking of the Superior Courts with political partisans and Conservative Party donors; his scrapping of the office of the National Science Advisor and efforts to muzzle Environment Canada scientists; his public upbraiding of diplomat and whistleblower Richard Colvin; his sacking of the president of the Nuclear Safety Commission and chairs of the RCMP and Military Police complaints commissions: all of these point to a troubling disregard for the separation of ideologically-driven politics and the civil service.
Were it not so immediate, this shift might seem like the stuff of some bleak Dickensian satire. Among the cast of characters, some are more familiar than others: recall Bev Oda’s 2006 proclamation that “women’s equality has arrived,” a thinly-veiled bit of rhetoric that prefigured the gutting of women’s groups including the Canadian Council on Social Development, Action travail des femmes, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, and Status of Women Canada, whose mandate was changed to exclude “gender equality and political justice” and who were banned from undertaking any lobbying, advocacy, or policy research. Having axed plans for a national childcare program, the Harper Government moved to stamp out the forces behind decades of advocacy, cutting funding to the Canadian Child Care Federation, Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, and others.
Society and the courts
This peculiar brand of “democracy,” the export-grade stuff that we reserve for close allies like Haiti, is of course best left unmolested by meddling forces, which might not possess a sufficiently neoconservative bent. And so the Office of Democratic Governance has been disbanded by CIDA; the Democracy Unit of the Department of Foreign Affairs was absorbed by the Francophonie and Commonwealth division; and the Democracy Council, a forum coordinating Canadian government and non-governmental organizations engaged in “democracy support,” vanished into the ether despite the protestations of all involved.
The recent case of Manitoba Justice Robert Dewar notwithstanding, all is well within the increasingly politicized Canadian judiciary, judging by the casual briskness with which funding was revoked for the Court Challenges Program, Law Reform Commission of Canada, Sisters in Spirit, and the National Association of Women and the Law. And in the unfortunate event that the courts do not prove amenable? No matter, as the government’s willingness to engage in a protracted legal battle to drain the coffers of Vancouver’s Insite safe injection clinic makes clear. And let’s not even get started on Maher Arar.
A slippery slope
A disciple of the Tom Flanagan school of incrementalism, Mr. Harper has proven himself patient and savvy enough to largely avoid pairing funding cuts with new funding announcements for sources that could be perceived as ideologically driven. Thus has the narrative of federal “belt-tightening” dovetailed with the wider climate of austerity among industrialized nations and served to dampen unrest amongst voters and civil society organizations alike. This is not to say that the other side of the coin – those sites newly designated for federal funding – is unworthy of scrutiny. Though he has tempered his rhetoric significantly since his election as prime minister, Mr. Harper railed in a 2003 speech that moral relativism had replaced socialism as the “new threat.” And despite being maligned by some hard-line supporters for his refusal to revisit issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion (in Canada, anyway: witness the ill-fated “maternal health initiative”), elsewhere there is evidence to suggest that he has not strayed far from these ideological roots.
Testing the waters with stimulus spending
Traditionally the “big players” involved in the disbursement of federal funds to civil society groups have included the Canadian International Development Agency, Western Diversification, and Industry Canada. Under Mr. Harper, the latter has proven a major vehicle for issuing new funding, largely via the Knowledge Infrastructure Program (an apparatus of the federal stimulus package).
In 2009, roughly $26.2 million in federal grants was designated through KIP to 14 private Christian colleges. This included $2.6 million for Trinity Western, where PMO Policy Director Paul Wilson formerly served as Executive Director for the university’s Laurentian Leadership Centre in Ottawa, a veritable factory of Hill interns. Though it has attracted relatively little attention, the federal funding of private educational institutions marks a new precedent in Canada. Other substantial grants were designated for infrastructure projects at churches and religious institutions that furnish social services, suggesting, perhaps, a resuscitation of the venerable old Reform campaign plank that social welfare is better delivered by faith communities than by the government.
Sea change on the Hill?
A significant ideological shift is also occurring at the personnel level. High-profile appointments include Douglas Cryer, ex-director of public policy for the Evangelical Fellowship. Quietly named to the Immigration and Refugee Board on Reproductive Technology in 2009, he joined a panel laughably absent any experts whatsoever on fertility or stem-cell research, but possessing a number of high-profile opponents of both stem-cell research and abortion.
Garry Goodyear, who was named Secretary of State for Science, Research, and Development in 2008, caused a stir in the scientific community when he refused to confirm his belief in evolution in an interview with the Globe and Mail. Darrell Reid, the former president of Focus on the Family (noteworthy for having opposed the inclusion of sexual orientation among those groups protected from hate crimes), also served as PMO Policy Director before being named Mr. Harper’s Deputy Chief of Staff and Director of Regional Affairs in 2009. He presently serves as Executive Director of the Manning Centre.
The counterpunch: Voices-Voix
If this trend does indeed mark the beginnings of a culture shift, we can be heartened by the fact that those affected have begun to push back: the Voices-Voix project formed in April, 2010 with a mandate to compile a list of organizations and individuals who have been defunded, fired, forced out, or disparaged publicly by the Harper Government, or who have resigned in protest.
Currently endorsed by over two hundred organizations, the Voices-Voix declaration charges that the federal government has “systematically undermined democratic institutions and practices, and has eroded the protection of free speech, and other fundamental human rights. It has deliberately set out to silence the voices of organizations or individuals who raise concerns about government policies or disagree with government positions.” In this case Bev Oda may be the lightning rod, but the scandal is systemic. We are left to hope that someone is listening.
Dylan Roberts is an intern at Canadian Dimension.