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Comox Valley chapter critiques threats to democratic participation

Comox Valley chapter activist Alice de Wolff.The Council of Canadians Comox Valley chapter has issued a critical analysis of ‘advocacy in the time of Harper’. Chapter member Alice de Wolff highlights numerous instances of federal and provincial legislation, as well as corporate actions, that are intended to stop or distract community opposition and local mobilization. She writes, “Several of these measures are explicitly intended to disrupt, discredit, divert and disorganize advocacy groups, particularly those that are concerned about the environment.”

Among her examples, de Wolff notes:

1. Bill C-639. This federal private members bill introduced by Conservative Member of Parliament Wai Young, and supported by justice minister Peter MacKay, makes it a Criminal Code offence to ‘obstruct, interrupt or interfere’ with critical infrastructure. The concern is that a community blocking the construction of a controversial pipeline would be criminalized by this legislation. Individuals could face prison sentences of two to ten years and fines up to $3,000. The MP who introduced this legislation represents the riding next to Burnaby Mountain where community members came together this past November to try to block Texas energy giant Kinder Morgan from drilling bore holes in a public park for the expansion of the Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline.

2. RCMP report on environmental activism. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police critical infrastructure intelligence team has written, “Environmental ideologically motivated individuals including some who are aligned with a radical, criminal extremist ideology pose a clear and present criminal threat to Canada’s energy sector. …The Canadian law enforcement and security intelligence community have noted a growing radicalized faction of environmentalists who advocate the use of criminal activity to promote the protection of the natural environment.” This appears in keeping with a letter from three years ago by then natural resources minister Joe Oliver who criticized groups for receiving funding from “foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest.”

3. CRA audits. The Canada Revenue Agency has been given a budget of $13.4 million by the Harper government to conduct political activity audits. These audits investigate charitable organizations to assess if their political activities are limited to 10 per cent of the group’s budget and if they are non-partisan. These audits have focused on progressive environmental, anti-poverty, international development and human rights groups. They are time consuming for those subjected to the audit, they can result in the loss of the ability to issue a tax receipt for a donation, and it can create a ‘chill effect’ for community organizations wanting to avoid this distraction from their ability to do their work. One result, Oxfam has now been told that ‘poverty prevention’ is not an acceptable goal, only ‘poverty alleviation’.

4. BC Society Act. The provincial government of Christy Clark wants to update the current Society Act that governs small community groups, environmental non-profits and churches. Section 99 of the proposed legislation would allow a court to issue an order against a society considered to be carrying out activities ‘detrimental to the public interest’. Many societies in British Columbia oppose harmful resource extraction projects like the Trans Mountain and Northern Gateway tar sands pipelines, as well as Clark’s agenda to promote Liquefied Natural Gas terminals and pipelines. West Coast Environmental Law says the new legislation “invites harassment of societies by any deep-pocketed and litigious opponents.”

5. BC Election Act amendment. The province’s Election Act requires individuals or groups to register with Elections BC before engaging in a wide range of activities considered to be third party advertising, regardless of how little money is spent. Third party advertising is defined broadly in the Act as a “message that promotes or opposes, directly or indirectly, a registered political party or the election of a candidate, including an advertising message that takes a position on an issue with which a registered political party or candidate is associated.” This could include a Facebook post or tweet. The government also wanted this law to apply for a period of 40 days prior to an election, but the B.C. Court of Appeal concluded that was unconstitutional.

De Wolff says, “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.”

She concludes, “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.”

To read her full analysis, please click here.

Photo: Comox Valley chapter activist Alice de Wolff.