Witches to hunt? Money to burn

In January, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver raised eyebrows when he declared that "environmental and other radical groups" funded by foreign special interests were hijacking development in Canada.

In January, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver raised eyebrows when he declared that “environmental and other radical groups” funded by foreign special interests were hijacking development in Canada. Prime Minister Stephen Harper took up the same cry, speaking of a “growing concern” about foreign funding for environmentalists.

These statements were widely condemned as reminiscent of the rhetoric of dictatorships, a gratuitous attack on Canadians who hold proscribed opinions, and a patent absurdity given the billions in foreign money behind resource industries. For a while it seemed as if the Conservatives realized they had a weak case, and would let the matter drop. The federal budget dispelled that notion.

According to the budget document, “concerns have been raised that some charities may not be respecting the rules regarding political activities. There have also been calls for greater public transparency related to the political activities of charities, including the extent to which they may be funded by foreign sources.” It fails to mention that the concerns were raised and the calls made by the finance minister’s cabinet colleagues.

A registered charity in Canada can legally spend 10 per cent of its annual budget on non-partisan advocacy work. Flaherty announced a special audit to make sure no one is breaking that rule. At the same time he created special reporting rules for charities that receive foreign funding, although foreign donations are a perfectly legal source of revenues. The estimated price tag on this charade is $5 million in the first year and $3 million in the second.

While the budget doesn’t name the groups who will be the focus of all this attention, you can bet that environmental activists are much more concerned today than conservative advocacy groups. REAL Women of Canada won’t have to sweat over those reporting forms or bother about what percentage of their budget they spend advocating against basic human rights. They’ll be too busy handing out the Queen’s Jubilee Medals.

Another advocacy group that can consider itself safe is the Canadian Shooting Sports Association. Closely tied to the National Rifle Association of America, the CSSA advocates for the rights of Canadian gun owners. The association played a strong role in the fight against the long gun registry, and in the course cemented a tight relationship with the Harper Conservatives.

One of the most influential lobby groups in the country, the CSSA has the ear of cabinet ministers and the power to affect policy. Executive director Tony Bernardo was looking across at lots of friendly faces when he addressed the Senate last week as it reviewed the act to repeal the gun registry. Bernardo is a donor to the Conservatives, a good buddy of MP Garry Breitkreuz, and a member of the government’s Firearms Advisory Committee.

Bernardo can sleep easy, knowing that the foreign-funding police won’t be bothering him about his boast that the NRA gives the CSSA “tremendous amounts of logistic support” or about the $100,000 video he made at NRA expense, opposing the Canadian long gun registry.

The CSSA’s influence in government goes far beyond the national firearms registry: so far indeed that the organization is involved in writing Canada’s foreign policy on small arms. Or perhaps more accurately, the NRA is writing our foreign policy through the CSSA. The CBC reports it has learned, through access to information that, at the CSSA’s behest “Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird ordered last-minute changes to Canada’s position on an international arms treaty, as well as to its delegation to meetings at United Nations headquarters.”

Against the advice of officials, Baird decided at the last moment to include CSSA president Steve Torino as the only non-governmental representative on the Canadian delegation at last summer’s UN Arms Control Treaty negotiations surrounding the international trade in small arms. Small arms fire is the leading cause of death in armed conflict around the world, causing 90 per cent of civilian casualties and killing more than 300,000 people every year.

Soon after appointing Torino, Baird unveiled Canada’s new policy on small arms control, rewritten to reflect exactly the position of the NRA, including the demand that “hunting and sporting” weapons be excluded from any treaty. Mexico, where rifles and pistols are in common use by drug gangs, is one of 15 countries who have spoken out against Canada’s new position. NRA executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre spoke in Canada’s support – of course.

Measured against this and countless other examples of the Conservative Party’s strong ties to Republican conservatives in the U.S., their feigned outrage against foreign influence should be laughable. The last budget took all the humour out of the situation. Even the usually staid voice of the Globe and Mail editorial page has blasted the budget measures against charities as a “dishonourable attack meant to intimidate environmental groups” and a “needless new cost” declaring “witch hunts don’t come cheap.”

Cheap was never the issue for the Harper Conservatives. Flaherty’s “austerity” budget still has room to maintain $1.3 billion in annual tax incentives to the oil and gas industry – something his department advised against – and $8 million to silence the industry’s critics. There may be no money for programs the government dislikes, but there’s always something in the kitty to reward friends and to persecute enemies.

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.