The Big Chill

Basic freedoms of speech and advocacy are now under siege
March 1, 2011

There are few values at the heart of any vibrant democratic society more important than the right and the ability to speak out freely, to disagree, and to advocate for differing points of view. These rights lie at the heart of freedom and liberty that underpins democracy. They ensures that the level and nature of public debate and discourse leads – in theory at least – to the wisest choices when it comes to making the laws and setting the policies that govern the most essential dimensions of our own daily lives, the types of communities we live in, and the place we take as a nation on the world stage.

No surprise, then, that related human rights obligations have consistently been recognized by governments as core in a wide range of human rights declaration, treaties, and other documents -- in particular the three fundamental freedoms of expression, association. and assembly. It is what guarantees that we can voice our views, join our voices together with others, and come together in public to do so.

Governments have come to recognize, as well, that, in addition to safeguarding these rights for all individuals, there is an urgent imperative to protect the rights of organizations that exercise their rights to free expression, association, and assembly to defend the human rights of other human rights defenders.

They have underscored the importance, therefore, of governments actively taking measures to safeguard the work of human rights defenders, working on their own or working in combination with others. In fact, on December 10, 1998, marking the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN unanimously adopted what has come to be known as the Human Rights Defenders’ Declaration, making it very clear that in all countries efforts to better protect and promote human rights should be encouraged in every way possible.

Around the world, of course, that is far from the case.  Brave women, men, and young people – working on their own or in organizations small and large; taking action within their schools and neighbourhoods or at a national level – press for improved human rights protection every day. They do so by educating, researching, going to court, mobilizing, providing relief and assistance, mounting demonstrations, and more. They very often do so on no more than a shoestring budget. And far too often they advance their cause at great personal cost – as human rights defenders on every continent -- remarkable individuals who should be celebrated for all they do -- are far too often instead targeted for arrest and imprisonment, torture, threats, attacks, “disappearance,” and death.

Not our reality, right? Of course not. We have long had a dynamic and outspoken human rights community in Canada, at all levels of society, who have taken up a multitude of important human rights causes and, over the decades, have made great contributions to improving human rights protection, both domestically and globally. And they have done so without fearing whether they might pay for their work with their life, or the life of a loved one.

But today there is a growing concern in Canada -- a concern that the space for human rights advocacy and, more generally, the space to disagree with government on a variety of human rights issues – is shrinking dramatically, and with it has come a hesitance about speaking out. That shrinkage and that nervousness is, admittedly, not a consequence of the sort of violence that human rights defenders in countries such as Colombia, Zimbabwe, China, and Sri Lanka face every day. But it does come through measures that are most certainly punitive and vindictive, and reflect government coercion to weaken and even silence voices of dissent.

This must be of concern to us all. As more and more individuals and groups have experienced the impact, or observed it being felt by others, we have started to come together. And we have come together in impressive numbers and from a remarkable array of sectors and backgrounds, many of us never before having found common cause or worked together. We have come to use some pretty strong terms: dissent under attack, opposition being silenced, civil society under siege, democracy in peril.

It goes back to 2006, when Status of Women funding rules were changed so that groups advocating for protection of women’s human rights would no longer receive government funding. The impact was dramatic, including the closure of the highly respected National Association of Women and the Law.

Soon after, the Court Challenges program was discontinued, cutting off one of the most important avenues by which Charter of Rights court cases had been brought forward by and on behalf of society’s most marginalized and disenfranchised.

Outspoken heads of important oversight bodies, charged with monitoring and even adjudicating on government conduct in areas where human rights are very much on the line, have felt squeezed out, been fired, or not been renewed in their positions because they have stood up to or disagreed with the government on a number of crucial issues: Peter Tinsley at the Military Police Complaints Commission (while he was in the middle of his Commission’s highly-charged Afghan prisoners hearings); Paul Kennedy at the Office of Public Complaints against the RCMP (who had been outspoken about such issues as the use of tasers and the weak oversight powers of his office); and Linda Keene at the Nuclear Safety Commission (who stood up to the government about nuclear safety at Chalk River).

Government employees who have spoken out and disagreed with the government about human rights and other important social policy issues have been intimidated and derided, and thus many have been silenced. Richard Colvin’s experience in simply telling the truth when he was called to testify before a parliamentary committee has certainly cast a shadow over others.  And last summer there was the example of Munir Sheikh at Statistics Canada.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission last year also was forced to close down three offices in Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax because of government funding cuts. 

Over the past two years, such financial and other constraints have really picked up steam, and the impact and the implications have begun to be widely and deeply felt. The wave of repressive measures came through a series of seemingly endless arbitrary and capricious funding decisions from CIDA, Citizenship and Immigration, Status of Women, and other government departments that have devastated some organizations and left many others in a position of uncertainty about important programming. 

One common thread appears to be a solidifying government policy not to fund organizations engaged in what we would likely consider to be human rights advocacy. The list of groups that have had long-established funding cut or near-assured funding denied is a long one. Others wait nervously with the expectation that they are likely next in line. 

It cuts across so many issues and so many communities. Deeply troubling funding decisions have been made or are looming that risk curtailing incredibly important advocacy and research work on a number of vital issues effecting Aboriginal Canadians: the National Residential School Survivors’ Society, the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, and the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Sisters in Spirit being some examples.

Some of these funding cuts have received considerable media and political attention, such as the crisis that shook and weakened Canada’s world-respected agency Rights and Democracy, created by Parliament. The crisis was triggered by the ideological opposition of a few government-appointed Board members to relatively small grants provided to well-known Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups. It provoked heated internal battles, in the midst of which the agency’s former President, Rémy Beauregard, died from a heart attack. Staff have been summarily fired. Others have left in dismay. A new president, who has taken some questionable human rights positions in the past, was appointed by the government despite opposition from all three opposition parties. In the end, one of Canada’s very important and trusted human rights voices has become largely silent on a whole range of issues that long defined its agenda and program of work.

There was the clearly politically motivated decision to deny CIDA funding to KAIROS and Alternatives, largely because of their programs of work with and on behalf of Palestinians. 

The Canadian Arab Federation lost immigration department funding for resettlement programs because of comments the Federation’s president made about the situation of Palestinians. 

An academic conference at York University faced intense political and administration interference, going to the very heart of academic freedom, again because of ideological views clearly not prepared to countenance criticism of Israel’s human rights record. 

Women’s rights advocacy continues to suffer. There was another punishing wave of cuts last year, largely from Status of Women, but also from CIDA. The list is now staggering, and is by no means confined to the Ottawa/Toronto/Montreal triangle. It includes the New Brunswick Coalition for Pay Equity, MATCH International, le Conseil d'intervention pour l'accès des femmes au travail, the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, Réseau des tables régionales de groupes de femmes du Québec, the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, Action travail des femmes, Womenspace, the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada, the Alberta Network of Immigrant Women, Centre de documentation sur l'éducation des adultes et la condition feminine, and the Association féminine d'éducation et d'action sociale.

Then there is international development. After more than 40 years of highly respected work analyzing, researching, critiquing, educating and, yes, advocating about Canada’s international development policies and programs, the Canadian Council for International Cooperation came into the government’s sights last July and, with little hesitation, reluctance or apology – away from the possible scrutiny of a sitting Parliament and the likelihood of media attention -- there was a sudden and crashing end to the significant financial aid the government has provided to the Council for decades, effectively gutting 75% of the agency’s budget, forcing staff layoffs and program cuts of a similar scale. 

There is no doubt this was political. Within CIDA, CCIC’s work and role in coordinating government/civil society engagement in the development sector is appreciated and respected. CIDA officials did not wish this result. This was political -- and once again it was all about advocacy. The message clearly conveyed was: “We will fund service delivery.  We will fund organizations that are prepared to feed the poor.  We will not fund organizations that ask challenging questions about why the poor are still in need of feeding, or that critique the approaches government has taken.

And finally there is immigration and refugee policy as reflected in Bill C-49, the government’s anti-smuggling legislation. I cannot recall when we have last seen immigration legislation that is so rife with so many blatant human rights violations. Top of the list: that any refugee claimants arriving in Canada by sea, in a ship arranged by smugglers, would find themselves subject to mandatory detention for one year, without access to a detention review. Mandatory detention without any right to challenge the grounds for detention before a competent tribunal – and not on the basis of the individual’s own characteristics or untrustworthiness, but simply on the basis of the number of people they travelled with. It violates the Charter. It violates numerous international human rights treaties. It is not worthy of Canada. 

There are many organizations, large and small, right across the country, who have concerns about Bill C-49. But we are already hearing reports from many of those groups indicating that they are fearful to speak out, because many of them rely on funding from the Immigration department for the programs they run for immigrants and refugees. Some have indeed had veiled suggestions that their funding would be at risk if they spoke out. 

The flip side is that serious doubts are arising as to the legitimacy and even the very existence of some of the ethno-cultural groups the government says support the Bill. Within a day of the Bill being tabled, small ethnic organizations started sending press releases to journalists covering the story, and Conservative MPs speaking out in support of the bill began listing their names. But it turns out that many of these supporting organizations are so small that they have no office, staff, website, official mission statement, or evidence of any programming or activities related to immigrants. The result is perverse: those who have experience and expertise that should be heard in the debate are fearful about speaking out; and those who do not have these qualifications come to the fore.

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There is a common thread in all the examples I’ve cited. What is at stake, quite simply, is the freedom and the ability of Canadians to vigorously advocate for the protection of human rights – of all rights and of all people – both here within Canada and abroad, and to do so without political interference, intimidation, or manipulation. 

It is vital to understand it in those terms – to emphasize how crucial it is to ensure that voices are able to speak out on and debate these issues. These voices need to be heard. They need support and funding and space so that they can be heard. Voices of opposition need to be heard. Voices of support need to be heard. Voices that bring us uncomfortable messages need to be heard. 

And it is the voices that are at risk – that are being punished for the message they bring. Voices are being defunded, sidelined, derided, fired, punished. Not because they have wasted money or done their job poorly. Not because they have spread lies. But simply because they speak out about things the government does not want to hear.

Some may say that governments come and governments go, and they always make decisions about which groups are in fashion and which are out – which ones will get funding and which will not. That is true. But we have never before seen or experienced something of this nature on the scale it has occurred in recent years. What we are witnessing is a systematic onslaught against what I think is a bedrock principle that most Canadians support: that is in all our interests to ensure that all voices are heard on crucial issues. 

And let’s be clear that this is not a matter of simply whining about funding decisions. Many of the examples I have pointed to are not about funding cuts at all. But even when it is about money, that does not somehow turn it into something tawdry and illegitimate. What is at play here is the government’s particular and very important responsibility to ensure that voices that would otherwise be marginalized and overlooked are able to speak out be heard; and to provide support, including financial support, to make that possible. 

Many citizens’ groups are coming together to respond to this siege. They are uniting to learn and understand from each other; to provide support to those groups that have suffered the impact of these measures; and to find our common voice to speak out about the importance of voices being heard.

Many CCPA members have likely joined our new movement – which we have quite simply, aptly, and bilingually named Voices/Voix. “Voices” is national in scope. At the same time, a number of Quebec-based organizations, many of whom are part of Voices, have come together and formed a provincially-based coalition as well: Pas de démocratie sans voix. The Voices Declaration, which was launched last year, has been endorsed by 188 organizations and over 4,000 individuals – and that is without an agreed-upon strategy yet for promoting it widely.

The Declaration talks of the importance of upholding freedom of expression, of respecting and supporting the role of civil society groups in Canada, of the importance of transparency and accountability with respect to funding decision, and more. Very telling is that the organizations that have signed on come from almost every sector imaginable, including large national groups like AI, Oxfam, the CLC, the United Church, and local organizations such as the Island Peace Committee of PEI, the Prairie Lily Feminist Society of Saskatchewan, the Victoria AIDS Resource and Community Service Society, and the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg.

We have only just begun to tap into and mobilize the depth of concern that exists across the country. And that will continue. Because we are not a nation founded or built on some sense of orthodoxy, ideology, and conformity. We are a nation of diversity and debate. And we simply cannot stand by and watch as that is taken apart.

     (Alex Neve is Secretary-General of Amnesty International in Canada, a post he has held since 2000. This article is based on a speech he delivered at the CCPA’s 30th anniversary celebration last November.)