“Foreign special interest groups”
“Enemies of Canada”
These word and phrases, recently uttered by Ministers and other government officials, are meant to discredit environmental groups opposed to the expansion of the Tar Sands and the proposed pipelines.
Does use of these words sound like the Canada we know?
In a healthy democracy citizens have a crucial role to play in determining public policy. People have a right – and, more importantly, a responsibility – to participate in the decisions affecting their country and their communities. That is the essence of democracy, especially a democracy that goes beyond the ballot box and rejects the politics of attack and vilification.
Participation can involve voting, organizing and attending town hall meetings, circulating petitions, visiting politicians. Citizens who question government policies and advocate for the common good, public health, protection of the Earth – or for any other cause – are as important as the Members of Parliament who have been elected to serve in the best interest of all people.
Our freedom of speech is a fundamental necessity in our participatory democracy. Threats, intimidation and tactics meant to hinder discourse are real threats to democracy. What do we say then when scientists are silenced as happened when the Fisheries Department prohibited Dr. Kristi Miller from speaking to the press after she published a report that suggested a virus from contaminated farm fish may have caused the Fraser River sockeye collapse; when public servants who dare question are fired, like Linda Keen who raised alarms over the safety of a nuclear facility; when academics are attacked on the leading party’s website like law Professors Errol Mendes and Amir Attaran at the University of Ottawa? They criticized the government’s handling of the Afghan detainees’ issue.
Last November Canadian artist Franke James opened her “Banned on the Hill” art show to protest the government’s censorship of her artwork, and the muzzling of environmental scientists.
Censorship does not require name calling and accusations. Financial restriction or funding cuts are as likely to achieve the desired result.
While funding restrictions and cuts from 2006 until the recent budget are too numerous to list here, a few deserve special mention. One such cut is the CORALNet (Canadian Operational Aerosol Lidar Network) program. This program acts as an “early warning system” of long-range transport of air pollution into Canada. The closure of the monitoring station has US scientists deeply concerned. It can offer early warnings “not only for environmental change, but also for Arctic ozone depletion and pollutants that stream to North America from other continents,'' states Anne Thompson, a meteorologist at Penn State University.
When discussing democratic rights one cannot ignore the recent $7.5 million a year cut to Elections Canada. Elections Canada is currently investigating allegations of election fraud and voter suppression against the government that is cutting their funds.
Other funding cuts include the ecumenical social justice organization KAIROS as well as Development and Peace, the official international development organization of the Catholic church in Canada. Both organizations have, like artist Franke James, responded to these attempts of suppression in creative ways. One initiative Development and Peace created is the One Dollar One World campaign wherein citizens are asked to send a $1 coin to their MP along with the request that the MP assist in having this one dollar matched by CIDA and forwarded to Development and Peace. KAIROS responded by strengthening and building bridges with supporting organizations and other social justice agencies. A recent activity was the Canadians for Tax Fairness conference in Ottawa. KAIROS along with 24 civil society organizations, including Citizens for Public Justice, co-sponsored this event.
Far from being silenced, citizens and organizations with strength and energy are finding resourceful ways to speak up and let their voices be heard. Contrary to the accusations, they live up to their responsibility of good citizenship.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. so famously said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
Bridget Doherty works in the Justice, Peace & Integrity of Creation Office for the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul in Kingston, Ontario.