After 11 years of bringing you local reporting, the team behind the Vancouver Observer has moved on to Canada's National Observer. You can follow Vancouver culture reporting over there from now on. Thank you for all your support over the years!

Canadians don't know if Prime Minister Harper's beholden to foreign organizations: Hon. James S. Cowan

On April 5, Hon. James S. Cowan responded in the Senate debate to Tory senators' hyperbolic attack on environmental groups and brought up the issue of the Koch brothers' contribution to the conservative Canadian think tank, the Fraser Institute.

Hon. James S. Cowan (Leader of the Opposition): I have listened closely to the honourable senators who have spoken on this debate. Many issues have been raised and some serious accusations have also been levelled against some of Canada's most respected and dedicated charitable organizations.

The privileges honourable senators enjoy in this place should never be used as a shield for a drive-by smear campaign. Our privileged right of speech in this chamber should never be used to try to stamp out the right of other Canadians to their fundamental Charter right of freedom of speech; yet that is what I fear this inquiry is trying to do.

…Many thousands of Canadians are angry that parliamentarians, sent here to debate serious issues of vital national importance, are instead spending valuable time "trying to stifle the voices of millions of Canadians with whom you may not agree." That wording was contained in thousands of emails that I have received on this topic…

… Honourable senators, think of the work done by charitable organizations over the years on issues that were controversial at the time but are now are widely accepted. Think of acid rain and, before that, think of the health organizations that worked tirelessly against smoking while "big tobacco" was telling Canadians and others that there was no proof cigarette smoking was bad for one's health. Look at the work being done today on the export of asbestos. Will this government next try to silence or shut down the Canadian Medical Association for its criticism of Canada's asbestos policy?...

Are charities now to confine themselves to government-approved issues and carefully avoid advocating for causes that have not met with this government's prior approval?

Many Canadians have suggested that this government's policies aspire to some television-inspired fantasy of the 1950s, but with this change it would appear the Harper Conservatives want to turn the clock back even more radically, to the Middle Ages….

…The 2003 policy statement of the Chrétien government recognized and indeed welcomed the role that charities play in public policy development. It provided clarity — and "clarity" is an important word — on what charities could do without jeopardizing their charitable status. It defined "charitable activities," "prohibited activities" and "permitted political activities." The line between what was and what was not allowed was defined by the nature of the activity and not by whether the charity supported a particular government policy. For example, a charity may not engage in partisan political activities, but it may engage in a public awareness campaign to enable the public to make decisions about an issue related to the charity's work.

…Let us be clear, honourable senators. I have not heard anything to indicate that any Canadian charity has violated these rules…

… There are many students of history in this chamber who recall, as I do, another Senate investigation, in another country, into foreign infiltration of domestic organizations. The McCarthy hearings in the United States were not a high point in that chamber's history.

The rhetoric that has been employed in this debate is reminiscent of such low periods in history — listing "good" versus "bad and ugly" foundations, telling Canadians to beware of "foreigners" who are "infiltrating" our charitable organizations — Senator Mockler even used the word "hijacking" — and Senator Plett went so far as to suggest that environmentalists would take money from al Qaeda, Hamas and the Taliban. Senator Duffy contributed that such activities were "anti-Canadian."

Honourable senators, instead of an international communist conspiracy, apparently we now have an international environmentalist conspiracy. Is today's Senator McCarthy question going to be: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of a conservation society?" Is that what we will be asking witnesses who appear before our Senate committees?

…Honourable senators, I understand that organizations like Tides Canada and the Suzuki Foundation — two of the charitable organizations singled out for particular attack by senators opposite — are very transparent about their funding. Indeed, some might question whether supporters of the government would be better to address their calls for transparency to their own leader. Prime Minister Harper to this date has refused to make public the full list of donors to his leadership campaign in 2002. Canadians do not know whether he is in any way beholden to foreign organizations, and I rather think that the Prime Minister wields more authority in this country than the Suzuki Foundation…

…Canadians are highly intelligent, discerning individuals. They are capable of making up their own minds about issues. They do not need this government intervening to keep ideas out of earshot…

…I understand that some wealthy donors are reputed to give money only if the results support the positions they endorse. I am thinking in particular of the billionaire Koch brothers, who reportedly donate large sums of money to the Tea Party in the United States and have also given money to the Fraser Institute in Canada.

Koch Industries is, of course, a very large oil company, with annual revenues estimated at $100 billion. They have spent millions funding environmental skepticism. Dave Koch has been clear about his family's tight ideological control of its donations. This is what he said:

“If we're going to give a lot of money, we'll make darn sure they spend it in a way that goes along with our intent. And if they make a wrong turn and start doing things we don't agree with, we withdraw funding.”

Honourable senators, I must say that I have never heard of donors to Canadian environmental charities seeking to direct the results of their donations like that.

More in Politics

Gitxsan leaders join BC First Nations to vote for Anyone But Clark (ABC)

Two Gitxsan house groups, Gwininitxw and Luutkudziiwus urge voting that will empower First Nations, support communities, environment, and economic well-being.

B.C. Premier defends Bill 20 amendments

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark said Tuesday that a controversial provision in Bill 20 is meant to create “a level playing field” for all the political parties. Her comments come on the heels...

Jacobs and Florida and Gehl oh my! Who really influences our local politicians?

Still undecided about who to vote for? Second guessing yourself? Who really influences and inspires those candidates who are running for a seat in Vancouver's City Hall?
Speak up about this article on Facebook or Twitter. Do this by liking Vancouver Observer on Facebook or following us @Vanobserver on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you.