Skip to content

‘Putin-esque’ government and our civil society

Broken Covenant

You’d be forgiven for thinking gotcha moments and clever memes are going to decide this election. Social media thrive on short bursts of stupidity, and this campaign is definitely turning out to be a spectator sport.

But hairdos and coffee cups aside, it might do well to remember what is at stake Oct. 19. Many of us are worrying about civil society. We’re not just talking manners — though manners wouldn’t hurt.

Civil society is the broad term for institutions and organizations that exist outside of government or business. They are the NGOs, non-profits, community groups and volunteer organizations in our communities. Yet, because the goals of many of these organizations were seen to be at cross purposes with the Harper government, they have been slowly but definitively dismantled.

The Harper government began tracking civil society in 2006. Through the Government Operations Centre, over 800 demonstrations and events were monitored, including university panels, meetings of environmental organizations, union rallies and First Nations protests. Between 2012 and 2014, Harper spent more than $20 million tracking journalists, critics and opposition parties.

In 2012, the government earmarked $13.4 million to the Canada Revenue Agency in order to audit civil society groups with charitable status, targeting 60 organizations. This included think-tanks such as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a host of environmental organizations such as the David Suzuki Foundation and Environmental Defence, anti-poverty groups such as Make Poverty History and international aid and development agencies such as Oxfam. Oxfam was told that its goal of “preventing poverty” is unacceptable for a charity.

Dying With Dignity and the Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists were targeted for “exercising moral pressure” on the issues dear to their hearts — the former for promoting a dialogue on patient choice and the latter for worrying about chemicals that cause bee deaths.

The website Voices-Voix has kept track of the over 100 instances of auditing, muzzling, loss of charitable status and loss of funding. This evidence, they say, “shows a pattern of silencing people, shutting out knowledge and narrowing the democratic space for those who engage in advocacy and dissent in Canada.”

In 2010, the Harper government killed the long-form census, robbing Canadians of vital information about our culture and society. Researchers say they are missing information in key areas such as immigrant integration into the labour market, income-inequality trends, housing needs and the adequacy of services for low-income Canadians. Given the new voluntary census costs substantially more to administer, it can only be surmised suppressing information was the reason behind the change in the first place.

Even government departments were not safe. Elections Canada, formerly an independent department, took its non-partisan role seriously. But the 2014 Fair Elections Act moved the enforcement arm from Elections Canada over to the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, where it no longer reports to Parliament. Elections Canada lost the power to properly investigate election infractions, such as the ones that took place in 2011, and is prohibited from promoting democratic participation. Restrictions on the chief electoral officer make it much less likely the public will ever learn about election fraud if it takes place again.

That’s not all. The voter information card, sent to every single registered voter, is now inadmissible as identification, and the vouching provision has been narrowed. Then we have Bill C-50, which undermines the right to vote of Canadians living abroad. Bill C-520, which made it to second reading by the time the writ was dropped, hopes to mandate staff at all agencies make an official account of any political positions they have held in the last decade. A University of Ottawa law professor called C-520 a “witch hunt.”

Former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page has said that there is so much interference coming from the Prime Minister’s Office, civil society agencies can no longer do their work, calling Harper’s style of governing “Putin-esque.”

It’s chilling to see how Canadian civil society has been attacked and derided in the past decade. Call it a rude awakening.

Excerpt adapted from Broken Covenant. Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 17, 2015