Senator defends Harper Tories' attack on the charitable sector, as green leaders deconstruct it
After being denounced as "anti-Canadian" and hypothetically willing to accept money from the Taliban, Canadian nonprofits like the David Suzuki Foundation and Tides Canada are hitting back at Senate critics.
In an interview with the Observer, Suzuki Foundation CEO Peter Robinson described the comments made on Tuesday by Conservative senators as “absurd”—a sentiment that has been echoed by other environmentalists and Opposition critics in Ottawa.
Martians, Taliban and Al Qaeda
The latest drama began with a controversial remark from Senator Percy Mockler, who called out a number of prominent Canadian environmental groups and charitable foundations.
"I want to bring to your attention some of the qualified bad, not to mention ugly, foundations, namely the David Suzuki Foundation, the Packard Foundation, the Mott Foundation, the Sierra Club Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, the Ecojustice Canada Bullitt Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Tides Canada. Yes, honourable senators, there is also the Greenpeace International foundation," said Senator Mockler.
The discussion was part of an ongoing Senate inquiry into foreign funding of Canadian charities, which has Tory senators seeking legislation to limit foreign funds to charities opposing energy projects. On Tuesday, Senator Don Plett added fuel to the fire by questioning whether environmentalists might go as far as taking money from terrorist groups.
"Let me ask you this, honourable senators: If environmentalists are willing to accept money from Martians, where would they draw the line on where they receive money from? Would they take money from Al Qaeda, the Hamas or the Taliban?,” said Senator Plett.
His remarks were in reference to a recent statement by Dogwood Initiative spokesperson Eric Swanson, who reportedly said in a CTV interview: “If I got duffel bags of money delivered from Martians from outer space, I would still take that money to make sure that British Columbians, those most affected make the decision for themselves."
A “silly statement”
Senator Plett defended his “Al Qaeda” comment in an interview with The Vancouver Observer on Wednesday, explaining that it was simply a response to what Swanson had said.
“Now, it's obviously a silly statement to say that somebody would accept money from Martians. But what this man basically said in my opinion is: I will accept money from anywhere and from anybody,” said Senator Plett.
“I'm not going to make any comment on where Dogwood Initiative takes its money from—Eric Swanson says he'll take it from Martians. You have to ask him, where are you getting all your money from?
“Are you smoking pot and taking money from Martians?”
Swanson responded that the “Martian” statement was a “flippant remark”, which he says was provoked by criticism from Ethical Oil spokeswoman Kathryn Marshall.
“What I was attempting to do was point out the ridiculousness of Kathryn Marshall's assertion that our receiving American donations controlled our activities or behaviour -- that's not the case. Clearly, Martians don't exist...I’m not positing an actual scenario,” he said with a laugh.
“Dogwood Initiative is happy to receive money from foundations and institutions whose values we are aligned with, so long as there [are] no strings attached. Tides, for example, does amazing work. We're happy to receive support from them.”
According to Swanson, the government’s focus on charitable funding is an attempt to avoid what he sees as the real issue: mounting opposition to the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.
“It looks like this Conservative senator [Plett] and Conservative MPs – and the Prime Minister himself – don't seem to want to discuss the actual issue. Which is whether the Northern Gateway is in the best interests of Canadians. They'd rather thow red herrings all over the place in order to distract folks from what's at stake,” Swanson said.
“He can smear oil tanker opponents all he wants. We're not going to back down, and we're going to continue to fight for our coast.”
An "antagonistic" approach to environmentalists
While Senator Plett may view the discussion around Martians and Al Qaeda as “silly”, environmentalists with other organizations say this week’s remarks are no laughing matter.
"This would be funny as a Rick Mercer satirical skit, but as a public statement from a Senator this kind of crude attempt to smear those who disagree with him is alarming,” said Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaign coordinator at Greenpeace Canada.
“Greenpeace depends on the generosity of individuals to support us in this work, as we don't take money from governments, corporations, or political parties in order to ensure our independence from precisely these kinds of threats."
Representing another organization targeted by the Senators, Tides Canada spokesperson Alison Henning expressed similar concerns with the government’s tone and tactics.
“The role of government is to take a balanced position and to work with all voices to find solutions that work for Canadians. Throughout history, some of our greatest achievements are the result of government and the environmental conservation community work together,” Henning said in an email.
“It is disappointing to see this increasingly antagonistic approach. This is an attempt to silence voices that are speaking out for our clean air, safe drinking water and healthy communities,” she said.
Anti-environmentalist rhetoric in the Senate
Liberal senator Grant Mitchell, the Senate’s environment critic, took issue with the “anti-environmentalist rhetoric” being thrown around in the inquiry.
“Senator Plett’s comments speak to the Government’s agenda to demonize environmental groups. All legitimate interests on these major energy projects have a right to be heard, and this is a smear campaign to denigrate legitimate perspectives as anti-Canadian,” Senator Mitchell said.
“Holding and reconciling different opinions is the hallmark of what it means to participate in Canadian democracy.”
In the Senate chamber on Wednesday, Senator Mitchell challenged the Conservatives, noting a “fundamental shift” in the government’s position on environmental issues and climate change.
“What kind of government would suggest that absolutely legitimate charitable groups like the Suzuki Foundation, like the Sierra Club Foundation, are meddling in public policy debate in this country, when they exclude groups like the Fraser Institute, which clearly takes international money, which clearly is a charity and which clearly meddles and muddles in public policy debate in this country every waking moment of their existence?,” he asked during Wednesday’s session.
The David Suzuki Foundation’s Peter Robinson, meanwhile, said that foreign funding has always been a part of how North American charities operate.
“There’s a century-long tradition of philanthropic money flowing back and forth across the borders for everything from libraries to healthcare and education, to environmental projects in both countries," he said.
"To suddenly say that this is wrong goes against this long tradition of organizations in both countries supporting work of good value in both countries. I found that really quite absurd.”
A double standard?
One argument consistently raised in this 'foreign funding' debate is whether there is a double standard being used against environmental organizations, since foreign investors and lobbies are also bringing money and influence to domestic policy issues.
“In many cases, not only is there extensive funding from corporations and business interests of issues that might be on the other side of this argument...but you actually can’t see where the funding comes from.
"So it’s not just a double standard, it’s one that’s not even a level playing field,” said Robinson.
Senator Plett, however, says there’s an important distinction between charitable funding and foreign investment.
“It's not a double standard—I'm not opposing Tides bringing money here to Canada doing lobbying here in Canada, as long as it's not done under the guise of charity,” he said.
“We clearly need foreign investment in our country. I have no argument with that at all…It's just charities, that we should have some form of legislation that prevents charitable organizations from other counties coming in here and using those dollars to work against what I personally believe is in the best interests of Canada.”