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Canada’s Creeping Suppression of Dissent

In Canada a budget bill has raised concerns that environmental safeguards are being dismantled to exploit the country's vast energy resources. The bill comes amid a wider trend of suppression of NGO's, charities and activists.

by Sylvain Lapoix On June 20, 2012

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À propos de l'auteur

Journaliste politique engagé et un brin utopiste, j'ai couvert la campagne présidentielle pour Marianne2.fr avant de m'ouvrir à l'économie. Enquêteur augmenté sur OWNI depuis septembre 2010, je cherche la petite bête dans les domaines de l'énergie, de l'écologie et des partis politiques.

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Overshadowed by student protests in Quebec against university reform, a proposed budget bill is raising concern among Canadian activists and environmental organisations. Tabled by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Bill C-38 (or the “Omnibus Bill”) would impact directly not just on the federal budget, but on many environmental laws. Critics have argued the bill would disrupt the governance and representation of citizens in debates surrounding Canada’s natural resources.

El Dorado

The bill has been promoted by its supporters as an economic springboard. Subtitled the ‘Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act’, the “action plan” directly involves a majority of departments who have all included proposals relevant to their areas of expertise. Questioned by OWNI, the Department of Natural Resources offered a clear outline of the objective of the reforms.

500 billion Canadian dollars of investment are expected for the top 500 economic projects throughout Canada over the next ten years. To capitalise on these opportunities, the ‘Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act’ includes measures aimed at fulfilling the government’s plan for responsible resource development (RRD), which intends to make the appraisal procedures for cases more predictable and less time consuming, as well as to facilitate investment and the planning of decisions that will create jobs and economic growth, while strengthening environmental protections.

In response to our request for specific examples, the department cited “the enhancing of security for tankers and response measures for oil spills, and an annual increase in pipeline inspections“. Both measures focus on one of the government’s top priorities – the development of Canada’s oil El Dorado.

In addition to the oil sands of Alberta1, the Department of Natural Resources is keenly aware of “offshore” potential, largely off the east coast of the country, and rich subsoil in arctic areas. It’s an energy boom, and Canadian environmentalists are choking on the fumes.

Several provisions introduced in Bill C-38 have caused consternation amongst enviromentalist NGO’s. In order to “alleviate” procedural issues, the bill provides for a reduction in the duration of the consultation process with scientific experts and the public, budget cuts for environmental inspection agencies, as well as a reduction of the purview of the independent National Energy Board in decisions concerning the granting of permits. This approach is not confined to the energy sector, as highlighted by Maryam Adrangi from the Council of Canadians citizens organsation.

Canadian legislation on fishing has been amongst the most protective in the world, but with C-38, it has been almost completely dismantled. It is no longer in place to protect the biodiversity of Canadian species, but instead (to protect) only those that are economically valuable. We can no longer, in its proposed state, call it fishing legislation. The law turns everything into a tool for supporting industry.

Black Out

But C-38 does not just cut to the heart of environmental legislation in Canada; it also holds a knife to the throat of environmental organisations. “Consultations have been reduced; the minister has the power to ignore our recommendations,” says Loïc Dehoux of the ecological NGO Equiterre. Along with other social organisations targeted by the budget bill, on June 4 Equiterre jointly organised a SOPA-style blackout day on the web to raise awareness amongst the general public about the proposed law’s implications on governance. The #BlackOutSpeakOut digital demonstration took place concurrently with other events across the country, from Vancouver to Toronto.

Anil Naidoo has been representing the Council of Canadians during parliamentary hearings on the law. She considers the plan “the worst piece of legislation in Canadian history, and a serious moment for democracy“. She argues that the manner of the bill’s tabling, with proposals from almost every department included, was designed to ensure its safe adoption.

By integrating these proposals into the budget bill, they are making the proposed law a vote of confidence in the government. But Mr. Harper’s Conservative Party has an absolute majority, so they have no interest in the rejecting it. Debate has been completely muzzled: while liberals and environmentalists have filed hundreds of amendments, the members of the majority have not even filed one to correct the typos!

The Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for British Columbia, David Wilks, was caught on May 22 criticising the government’s bill in a public meeting, admitting to his constituents that he and a number of other backbench MP’s had voiced concerns over the bill to the Harper government. A video of that statement was posted on YouTube, sparking much frenzied debate amongst commentators and earning Wilks the ire of the parliamentary majority.

The MP back-pedalled furiously in a perfunctory press release published on his website.

I wish to clarify my position with regard to Bill C-38, the Jobs, Growth and Long-Term Prosperity Act. I support this bill, and the jobs and growth measures that it will bring for Canadians in Kootenay-Columbia (Wilks’ constituency) and right across the country.


Beyond governance, C-38 impacts the operation of NGO’s and charitable organisations. Under Canadian law charities’ annual legal budget is restricted to 10% of their overall budge. The budget bill significantly strengthens the regulatory powers of tax authorities. Questioned by OWNI, the Canada Revenue Agency revealed its expanded purview with regards to charitable organisations.

These new measures are intended to help organisations with charitable aims to better understand the rules in relation to political activities, so that they use their resources appropriately. [...] C-38 [proposes] to improve transparency by requiring charitable organisations to provide more information about their political activities, including the extent to which the latter are being supported by foreign sources.

On several occasions, members of the government and the parliamentary majority have asserted that organisations such as Greenpeace Canada or the Council of Canadians are “financed by foreign funds“. Anil Naidoo has been forced to respond to such statements.

The role of foreign funding in our activities is marginal, of the order of 5%. But that didn’t prevent the ruling party from seizing on it to accuse us of playing games with our commercial competitors. To discredit any campaign criticising the oil industry, the Conservatives had no hesitation in painting us as agents in the pay of US interests. They are much more conciliatory when it comes to foreign oil interests financing lobbying campaigns promoting the oil sands.

Since the inauguration of the Harper government in March, a wave of restrictions has hit charitable organisations, whether social or environmental. The first victim of this process was the NGO Physicians for Global Survival, created 32 years ago to promote nuclear disarmament. The group was stripped of its tax status in May for having exceeded the 10% limit on lawyers fees.

C-38 will facilitate the systematic withdrawal of the tax-exempt status granted to charitable organisations. Individuals who wish to continue to speak out on controversial environmental issues have been forced to step down from positions in organisations in order to avoid jepoardising their funding. David Suzuki recently resigned from the presidency of his own foundation for these reasons.


Even before Bill C-38, the stigmatisation of environmental organisations had reared its head in a report released in February under the title Building Resilience Against Terrorism: Canada’s Counter-terrorism Strategy. This advisory document published by the Department of Public Safety included a small paragraph on “domestic extremists” which prefigured the new relationship between government and NGO’s.

Although not of the same scope and scale faced by other countries, low-level violence by domestic issue-based groups remains a reality in Canada. Such extremism tends to be based on grievances—real or perceived—revolving around the promotion of various causes such as animal rights, white supremacy, environmentalism and anti-capitalism. Other historical sources of Canadian domestic extremism pose less of a threat.

For environmental activists, the mention of environmentalists in the same breath as terrorist movements convicted of murderous actions on Canadian soil was unambiguous. “The word ‘terrorist’ has already been used to describe anti-oil sands activists“, said the head of climate campaigning for one Canadian NGO. On June 6 in Alberta, under the orders of the provincial government, an “anti-terrorist unit” was set up, made up of police, customs officers and members of the National Guard. Its mission is to secure sites for oil sands extraction and the route of the Northern Gateway pipeline, which connects the mines to the ports of British Columbia in the west.

Image Credits: Michael Sarver (CC BY-NC-SA), remixed by Ophelia Noor/Owni

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  1. an immature form of oil extracted by high pressure steam injection []

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