Attention Canadian NGO staffers: you’d better start ensuring your funding proposals are in line with what the government wants, if you know what’s good for you.
After six years of Conservative rule, it’s no secret that the grant regime that funds many Canadian non-governmental organizations is becoming stricter. Case after case pops up of the Harper government withholding funding from groups reliant on government dollars to do human rights, research and humanitarian work – Kairos, Tides Canada, even a Mennonite international development group.
The most recent target, it seems, is the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network (CHLN).
The government has made no secret of its agenda. When asked about its cuts to environmental groups, Harper replied, “If it’s the case that we’re spending on organizations that are doing things contrary to government policy, I think that is an inappropriate use of taxpayers’ money, and we’ll look to eliminate it.”
While some groups hit by the Conservative cleanup crew had no doubt been using taxpayer dollars to fund activism and advocacy – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, they argue – the exact nature of what constitutes “advocacy” is becoming broader and broader.
The most recent shift has left the CHLN’s executive director, Richard Elliott, scratching his head and his group in the lurch.
The group recently sent a funding proposal for 20 projects to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), totalling about $700,000 worth of funding – as it has done for the past six years.
Its proposals received strong reviews from PHAC bureaucrats, Elliott says, but he started to get worried when the health minister asked to look at the group’s application. Even so, Elliott didn’t see any reason the CHLN’s funding would be withheld.
He was wrong.
Only a third of the CHLN’s funding was approved, and 16 of its 20 proposed activities were axed.
“It was unclear from the details provided in the proposal whether the resource would be used for advocacy purposes, which is ineligible for funding,” reads PHAC’s response, which was provided to Xtra.
While other reasons were given for several of the proposals, those two lines – or slight variations – appeared on the rejection notice for 15 of the proposals.
One activity – an awareness-raising project on how the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities can apply to those living with HIV/AIDS – was rejected for even more ambiguous reasons: “It was also determined that this activity could be interpreted as advocacy,” the government document reads.
The Orwellian nature of cutting a group’s funding because someone could interpret an activity as activism is not lost on Elliott.
“The goalposts have shifted,” he says, as now even the air of advocacy can make an organization a target of the government.
The CHLN makes no secret of its advocacy work – it works to mobilize and educate those living with HIV about their rights and takes positions on government policy that relates to HIV to ensure that it lives up to its international commitments. The government dollars it was requesting, however, were on-the-ground projects to combat the spread of HIV and fight for the rights of those living with the disease.
That sort of advocacy, says Elliott, isn’t the same thing as using government dollars to bash a political party or hold protests; that work is for “critical” work on matters of public health.
“To think that you can have an approach that doesn’t include advocacy and human rights is foolish,” Elliott says, pointing out that advocacy, broadly defined, can have a positive effect on government policy.
The other proposals were intended to address myriad issues – dealing with housing insecurity for HIV-positive women, promoting a documentary about the effect of criminal nondisclosure on women, information sheets on intravenous drug use, a handbook for journalists and more.
But they were all refused outright. Elliott isn’t fooling himself about why. “I don’t think the climate is hospitable for the work we do,” he says.
The group thought they had figured out how to navigate through the Conservative buzz-word minefield. The CHLN had long ago dropped the words “harm reduction” from its proposals: “It’s not worth even trying, given the response we’ve had,” Elliott says. Anything dealing with drugs or prison issues is also sure to incur the wrath of the government’s red pen, he says.
So now the CHLN is faced with cutting services, laying off staff and turning to fundraising to make up for the government funding it lost. Some foundations have ponied up short-term cash to keep things running smoothly, but the future looks uncertain.
The organization applied to the National HIV/AIDS Voluntary Sector Response Fund pool, one of the planks of the federal strategy on the disease. For several years, the eight groups that were the primary recipients of the money – including the CHLN – simply had an existing funding agreement extended, given their long-standing partnership with the federal government. That changed when the Conservatives came to town and mandated a new round of proposals every two years.
While a spokesperson for Health Canada underlined the government’s nearly $93 million commitment to the federal government’s HIV strategy, neither Health Canada – nor the minister’s office – would comment on the growing practice of rejecting groups due to the perception of advocacy.
An earlier version of this story suggested that CHLN could face closure without these funds. While the organization is seriously affected by the cuts, they’re in no danger of closing.