Government silences voices of dissent


Joe Gunn

July 19, 2010

Most Canadians like something cool in the torrid heat of summer. But not the chill emanating from Ottawa, which has frozen the good efforts of civil society groups across the land.

Major shifts are taking place in the federal government’s treatment of groups that make up what is known as The Third Sector.

Canadian charities and non-profit groups provide valuable social services to a wide range of people, as well as developing analysis and expertise on issues that are crucial to the body politic. These organizations contribute greatly to the matrix of modern Canadian society, filling roles that governments will not and that in many cases churches can no longer perform.

We all can name a range of groups that we support and count on, probably beginning with our local parish community, but perhaps few of us realize the impact this sector has as a whole.

Canada has more than 161,000 charities and non-profits. Together, they contribute seven per cent, or over $100 billion, to this country’s GDP. (This totals more than Canada’s retail sector.)


In 2007, 84 per cent of Canadians donated to charities, providing $10 billion for work that we felt was important and worthy. Various levels of government also supported charities and non-profits in recognition of the excellent community links they have developed and the unique services they provide.

Political parties of all stripes say they support charities. Those who believe in downsizing government even hope charities will fill the gap. But if charities dare to propose change, should they forfeit state funding?

At a June 17 press conference on Parliament Hill, a new coalition called Voices suggested the federal government has set out to deliberately silence dissent. Since 2006, Ottawa has consciously de-funded organizations with which it does not agree on a range of policy concerns.

Women’s groups (some 14 have been cut across Canada), policy think-tanks (the Canadian Policy Research Networks and the Canadian Council for Social Development have closed their doors) and international aid organizations have received merited special attention.

Readers of the WCR will be aware of the massive cut administered last November to the international development work of the Canadian churches carried out through KAIROS. Thirty-five years of collaboration agreements between Ottawa and KAIROS (and earlier Church coalitions) has been ended, leaving overseas partners without funds.

Church leaders, including the Catholic bishops, wrote Prime Minister Harper in February to request a meeting to discuss this cut. They are still waiting for a reply.


Several international development groups, like MATCH — the only Canadian international development organization strictly devoted to women’s issues — are closing programs. Others, like OXFAM, have had their funding delayed for months on end.

The most egregious cut to international development groups, however, has been to the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, the umbrella group of 90 international NGOs (including the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.) On July 15, due to the federal government’s funding refusal, CCIC will lay off 17 of 25 staff and will try to sell its offices.

CEO Gerry Barr reports, “What we’re experiencing here is punishment politics. Speak out against government policy and risk losing your funding.” (The government announced it will freeze Canadian aid spending for the next three years. Could anyone interested in international development be expected to remain silent?)


Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, also decries these cuts. “Without a diversity of voices you will have weakly-debated public policy — increasing the likelihood of bad public policy.”

I work at Citizens for Public Justice, an organization that receives no government funding but does encourage thoughtful public debate on the critical issues of the day. We believe citizens play a legitimate role in holding their governments accountable. A robust democracy needs an active civil society or politicians cannot fully represent us all.

Most Canadians recognize that charities they support need to be fiercely partisan on the issues that concern them, but strongly non-partisan politically. Would we really want a society where only the rich get to have their voices heard? Government funding can help to level the playing field — or slant it.

It is up to all of us to ensure that democratic practice remains healthy and vibrant. Social change is needed in our country and around the world to create societies that are more just, more equal and respectful of the rights of all. This is legitimate civic activity, worthy of government support.

For Christians, work for justice is the very measure of our faith.

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)