3 min

Climate first, then condoms? How Harper is screwing with democracy

At first glance, the Harper government using the Canada Revenue Agency to beat up environmental charities is about as sexy as the prime minister. But what’s happening to environmentalists is alarming. It shows there are few lines Harper won’t blur to punish those who dare disagree.
Today, this is to help oil companies. Tomorrow, rightwing religious groups that don’t like condoms or equal rights could be smiling.
At this point you’re likely asking what this is about. The short answer is whether it’s okay to still say things that Harper doesn’t like.
That may sound alarmist, although it’s quite real. It’s also a bit technical, so bear with me.
Charities do many things. Some care for people with diseases or collect food for the poor. Others research cures for diseases or provide clean water in the developing world. Still others buy land for wildlife sanctuaries or work to deliver emergency supplies after disasters. All good so far.
But many also speak out and push for changes to prevent the problem they try to solve. It’s here that folks should worry, because Harper is clear: agree with me, or I will use the state to harass you.
Charities should speak out. Take two benign examples: the Cancer Society and the Heart and Stroke Foundation, which both fund research. They also speak about smoking and sodium content in food, which help cause the diseases they fight. While this might be “political,” it’s also common sense.
Similarly, an AIDS charity may fund research or care for PWAs. It also might wade into debates about foreign aid going to safe-sex programs or safe injection sites for drugs.  Some Conservatives likely get miffed, but wanting condoms on more cocks or clean needles in more arms seems in line with an AIDS charity’s mandate.
No surprise, then, that environmental charities fight global warming. And these days, one of global warming’s biggest fights involves drilling more of Alberta’s tar sands to send oil to China through new pipelines.
It’s a fight Harper is doing his best to make unfair, which is how the Canada Revenue Agency comes into play, because Harper gave it $8 million more in the last budget to go after green charities — ostensibly because they take foreign funds. They do, of course, just like many charities. An Ottawa Citizen story shows how absurd Harper’s argument is, but this is not about substance.
Our oft-censored community in particular should perk up, because democracy is improved by dissent.
First and foremost, there is nothing wrong with people working across borders. If a Canadian gives to a gay charity that wants equality in Asia or a human rights group trying to stop summary executions of gays, um, good. And if Canadians can give to charities that fix problems elsewhere, why shouldn’t foreigners give to fight global warming here?
Two, despite Harper’s sad slide down the slope toward censorship, democracy does kind of depend on debate.
An example: the Canadian AIDS Society is a registered charity. It speaks against mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and in favour of safe injection sites like the one in Vancouver that Harper tried to shut. A credible case could be made that these are about reducing intravenous drug use, but they’re also both at odds with Harper.
Environmental charities similarly speak out against some of Harper’s favourite hobbyhorses, namely big oil. If this, in the words of one Tory minister, makes them “radical” instead of simply contributing to public debate, where is the line drawn?
And three, how many other Harper friends get to enjoy seeing $8 million worth of bureaucrats set upon opponents?

Given that many organizations friendly to Harper don’t like organizations friendly to queers, the precedent set by the assault on environmental charities is worrying indeed.

More farcical still is that most oil companies drilling in the tar sands are foreign-owned: American, British, Chinese and Dutch. Just three of them raked in $170 billion in profit last year, but we’re to believe that environmental groups are the moneyed mouths to fear.
This last point is the most worrying, because Harper isn’t just gagging green groups to help his vastly more powerful friends. He’s also saying, implicitly, that there are good opinions and bad ones. There are no prizes for guessing where ours fit in that spectrum.
Jamey Heath is a former research and communications director for the federal NDP and works for an environmental charity. The opinions here are his own.