It’s no coincidence that during a speech on Tuesday Jason Kenney described in glowing terms how harshly Russia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Iran deal with environmental dissidents. It couldn’t be more apparent where his political instincts lie.
As environmental citizen groups and non-profit organizations race against time to mount a co-ordinated international response to climate change, they’re encountering a formidable new threat: their own governments.
When Brazil's president Jair Bolsonaro proclaimed in August that environmentalists set the Amazon ablaze over a foreign funding fracas, he didn't pull the accusation out of thin air.
Authoritarian governments moving in lockstep to discredit environmentalists
“Foreign funding” has emerged as a powerful propaganda cudgel for governments to turn on environmental and human rights activists around the world.
The leader of Russia’s Ecodefense sought political asylum in Germany this June to avoid imprisonment in Putin’s ruthless crackdown on environmental groups designated as “foreign agents,” a term that in Russian denotes “spy” or “traitor.”
In Narendra Modi's India, where flooding and drought threaten more than 100 million lives, a 2014 intelligence report called dissident environmental and human rights organizations a threat to national security, accusing them of "serving as tools for foreign policy interests."
Despite being praised by Stephen Harper for his visionary global leadership, Modi was nothing short of brutal. Cancelling the licences of 20,000 NGOs, his government froze bank accounts and raided offices, including those of Amnesty International India and prominent human rights lawyers who had challenged his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
To prevent a Greenpeace India activist from testifying in the British parliament about the local impact of a British mining company's Indian operations, Modi's government blocked her from boarding her flight to the UK, then put her on a no-fly list.
In Iran, eight environmental scientists, including McGill graduate Niloufar Bayani, have been imprisoned for almost 18 months on various charges including espionage, which is punishable by death. One member of the group, Canadian-Iranian professor Kavous Seyyed-Emami, died shortly after their arrest, under mysterious circumstances.
The pattern is clear. Ascendant conservative and autocratic governments around the world are moving, as if in lockstep, to thwart and discredit environmental and human rights networks and to choke off their revenue sources.
This is the club Jason Kenney is itching to join.
Harper government's harassment of charities
Nor is Canada any stranger to the practice. In fact, we were early pioneers of the game.
In early 2012, years before Modi and Bolsonaro, and even before Putin's crackdown, the Harper government launched a blistering offensive to vilify and isolate environmentalists over their foreign grants.
Within weeks, eco-terrorism was targeted as a national security threat, foreign foundations were accused of money-laundering, and Conservative Senators in Parliament openly likened eminent philanthropies to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Then came Harper's $13.4-million CRA charity audit program, ostensibly launched to root out foreign funding of environmentalists.
The audits, based on claims identical to those Kenney makes today, continued for five years with no substantiation of widespread wrongdoing. A tiny handful of charities, such as Canada Without Poverty, were stripped of their charitable status.
Those revocations were not due to foreign donor improprieties, but the nature of their advocacy. The tiny five-employee Canada Without Poverty, for example, seeks legislative changes to address poverty.
That this was deemed too political for the CRA puts the lie to any claim that the government was concerned about foreign funding. The true aim was always to silence and intimidate dissident organizations.
The whole enterprise ignominiously fizzled out in 2018 when Canada Without Poverty successfully appealed its loss of charitable status on Charter grounds. By December 2018, the Trudeau government amended federal legislation to permit non-partisan public advocacy by charities.
50 countries now target foreign funding of environmental, human rights activists
That may seem like a happy ending now, yet for years Canadian environmental and human rights advocates lived with stigma, suspicion and oppressive monitoring.
The legal and accounting expenses of multi-year audits were oppressive, rumoured to be in the millions for some charities. All this merely for accepting international grants, a near-universally accepted practice among Canadian non-profits.
Calling this trend a crisis, Amnesty International identifies 50 countries worldwide that are targeting non-profits with repressive legislation. Brazil, Russia, Australia, Israel, India, Hungary, the Philippines, and scores of others have all used the pretext of foreign interference to silence or intimidate environmental and human rights advocates.
In its most recent annual report, the Geneva-based Oak Foundation, one of the world's foremost human rights and climate funders, notes that NGO conditions have "deteriorated rapidly" since 2017, as activists are subjected to increased monitoring, controls and funding restrictions.
Fear of foreigners is the perfect political duct tape: it sticks to anything and holds like glue.
Calgary business insider adjudicates one-sided inquiry
It's against this backdrop that Amnesty International urged Kenney to abandon his “fight back” strategy.
That now-familiar autocratic urge to discredit and harass environmentalists, then cut off their revenues was on full display as the Alberta premier unveiled details about his inquiry into anti-Albertan activities this week.
In his rambling defence against Amnesty International's objections, Jason Kenney brushed off any comparison of his inquiry with authoritarian regimes.
Yet the clownishly one-sided language and tools surrounding this inquisition and its terms of reference would look perfectly at home in Iran or Saudi Arabia:
“anti-Albertan” activities defined so broadly as to include virtually any opposition to oil and gas development;
investigating foreign donors who “Evinc(e) an intent harmful to the Alberta oil and gas industry;”
power to summon witnesses and compel production of records and documentation, which may include texts, emails and private communications showing "anti-Albertan" intent;
tip line for Albertans to report on each other and other Canadians;
veiled threats over charitable status;
Was this thing drafted with a sharpie?
Nor, apparently, could Kenney find a respected independent jurist to act as inquiry commissioner. No surprise there — any reputable lawyer would look at this mandate and hightail it out of town.
Instead, Kenney found his man deep in the heart of Calgary’s tight-knit business community, Steve Allan is an eminent Calgary businessman and forensic accountant whose previous position as chair of Calgary Economic Development kept him in close proximity with sponsors like Cenovus, Shell, Suncor and Birchcliff Energy.
Birchcliff’s CEO Jeff Tonken now chairs the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, donated thousands to a film GoFundMe over foreign funding, and sponsored an anti-foreign-funding video newly making the rounds.
Why Allan, a man highly respected in Calgary circles, thinks getting involved in this disgrace is a good idea is a mystery.
As the world faces the most pressing moral imperative in the history of human civilization, Jason Kenney’s inquiry has all but criminalized opposition to fossil fuel expansion, before a single witness is called. At this point, why even hold hearings? Might as well skip right to the sentencing.
Wait, there isn't going to be one. There's no trial. It's just a show.
Despite incendiary rhetoric, Kenney virtually powerless
For any lawyer, what comes through crystal clear in Kenney's inquiry terms of reference, is how weak and impotent the Alberta government's position is. For all his huffing and puffing and banging on about foreign funding, Jason Kenney has almost no power here at all.
He can't stop environmentalists from saying mean things about the oilsands. He can't stop them from raising revenues wherever they choose. He has zero jurisdiction over anyone's charitable status.
In light of the threats over charitable status, however, Canadians need to know now if Andrew Scheer has made commitments to change the Income Tax Act or other federal legislation to restrict charitable advocacy.
The only thing Kenney has the power to do is cut off whatever Alberta government grants non-profit organizations receive, and use the inquiry as a bully pulpit to discredit environmentalists.
Like that's going to scare the daylights out of Greenpeace, which, by the way, is back in Russia. That's after it collected millions of dollars in damages from Putin's government over their little misunderstanding. Instructive, as they say.
If Putin can't even get Greenpeace out of Russia, what does Jason Kenney think he can achieve in a functioning democracy?
Yet there he is, prattling on about Russia and Saudi Arabia like a mini-tinpot dictator while authorizing a government official — not even a judge — to rifle through the private records and documents of Canadians lawfully exercising their freedoms of speech and association.
Kenney poured gasoline over the Canadian pipeline debate and set a match to it
You might as well pour gasoline over the entire Canadian pipeline debate and set a match to it.
A friendly word of advice to my Albertan friends: You don't want to hear this, but your guy is about as good at this as Boris Johnson.
If you haven't noticed by now, this foreign-funding conspiracy business doesn't play in the rest of Canada. Canadians for the most part are not vexed about international grants to environmentalists, and they don't buy the evil conspiracy line.
Here's what Canadians do care about: Democracy and the rule of law. Oh, and doing something about climate change.
Find a way to shut this inquiry down, it’s a national embarrassment that is already disgracing anyone associated with it. Things will only get worse from here.
Everything you think you know about the foreign funding conspiracy is false
For a lot of reasons, the richest irony in this whole sorry business is listening to Jason Kenney whine about false and misleading statements.
That's because just about everything you think you know about the entire foreign funding conspiracy theory is false and misleading. The whole thing is a house of cards.
Next column, we start pulling them out, beginning at the bottom.
This story was updated at 6:50 AM PT on Sunday September 16 to correct the spelling of Steve Allan's name.