Canada’s conservatives and Sesame Street

Amidst all the furor in Ottawa over government secrecy and misinformation, one question emerges: what is it with Canadian conservatives and Sesame Street? Last week it was Mr. Snuffleupagus, this week it's the interjection NOT.

Amidst all the furor in Ottawa over government secrecy and misinformation, one question emerges: what is it with Canadian conservatives and Sesame Street? Last week it was Mr. Snuffleupagus, this week it’s the interjection NOT. What’s next? Jim Flaherty as the Count? John Baird popping out of a garbage can?

Some years ago the word “not” enjoyed a period of great popularity, courtesy of the kids’ TV show. It was the greatest giggle for the three-to-seven crowd to make a statement of fact and then contradict it by shouting, NOT! This annoying practice found its way into the common culture. It manifested itself on T-shirts, often accompanied by an insert arrow and some silly statement. Thankfully, such things are bound to pass, and this one did. By now, there is almost no one left who can hear or see that old gag without a roll of the eyes.

Almost.

Somebody in Ottawa still thinks it’s funny. The question is, who?

Bev Oda says she doesn’t know who butchered a $7-million funding recommendation by shoving in the old NOT joke. She also says she told them to do it. Don’t be confused, children. Here’s what happened.

Kairos is a Christian aid agency with 35 years of funding from the Canadian International Development Agency. In 2009 it applied to renew its grant. CIDA put the application through the customary scrutiny and recommended payment of $7 million over four years, a four per cent raise “to recognize Kairos’ strategic alignment with CIDA’s objectives.”

Oda signed the document. At some point after it had been signed by two CIDA officials, someone inserted a bold NOT into the final line, barely withholding the exclamation mark, upsetting the grammar of the sentence, and completely reversing the meaning of the document. Kairos got no funding. A few days later, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told an Israeli audience the government had cut Kairos off because it supported a boycott against Israel.

There’s no evidence that Kairos ever did support a boycott against Israel, but neither is there any reason to doubt that Kenney was sincere, if a little misinformed. Something about Kairos struck the Harper government as anti-Israel, and that is something Harper will not tolerate.

On three occasions during 2010, Oda’s parliamentary secretary Jim Abbott contradicted Kenney, telling the House of Commons that Kairos’s funding was rejected on CIDA’s advice. In December, Oda told a parliamentary committee that she didn’t know who tampered with the CIDA memo. This week she said, “The funding decision was mine. The NOT was inserted at my direction.”

The contradiction is so plain that even the government’s strongest supporters are cutting Oda no slack. Bev Oda Must Go says the National Post. Macleans goes so far as to invoke the usually forbidden L-word: “She lied – flat-out lied.” As for their opponents, Liberal blogger Warren Kinsella has suggested Oda’s actions constitute criminal fraud that could result in a prison term of up to fourteen years.

Even Peter Milliken, the Speaker of the House, now called upon to judge whether Oda’s actions constitute criminal contempt, has already pronounced on the matter in unusually strong language. He called the facts “troubling,” saying anyone who read them would be shocked, and sympathized with the CIDA officials involved. It seems that poor Oda has no friends.

Well, not quite none. She still has the prime minister and government House leader John Baird on her side.

But why?

Harper has shown a willingness to feed cabinet ministers to the dogs before this. Even once-favourite daughters and sons like Helena Guergis and Maxime Bernier have furnished a repast for the hounds when they became a public embarrassment. What makes Oda so special?

It was within Oda’s power to reject CIDA’s recommendations. Standard procedure in such a case is to send the memo back with a note attached saying thanks for the good work, but for policy reasons we’re rejecting the funding. Could anything other than spite have inspired the course of action taken in this case?

And does anyone really believe that the spite originated with Oda?

OK, Oda must go. But her departure won’t be enough if it leaves behind these questions.

When was the CIDA memo tampered with, who did the tampering, and who gave the order?

And finally, who in Ottawa is the mystery Sesame Street fan?

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.

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