NGO executives say Canada’s anti-terrorism law threatens their support of demonstrations such as this one against racism.
Christian and secular non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in advocacy work in Canada and overseas say vital programs are in danger because of new anti-terrorism laws passed by Parliament last December.
They also say the new legislation, introduced as Bill C-36, threatens freedom of expression as guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Bill C-36 was introduced in October in response to terrorist attacks against the United States and to implement international conventions on terrorism.
The bill was also accompanied by a shift in control in Ottawa, which also concerns NGOs. “Now the regulatory people at Canada Customs and Revenue are in control, not the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA),” said Andrew Ignatieff, executive director of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF.)
“It used to be that (NGO) involvement in public policy debate was seen as a positive contribution,” Mr. Ignatieff added. “But to functionaries within Canada Customs, it’s not seen as so positive.”
Charitable law says that charitable organizations can use 10 per cent of their resources for political/advocacy activities, but now new definitions in the bill have been applied to those activities, making their correct interpretation difficult. Government officials could not be reached for comment.
“For example, PWRDF was involved very successfully in the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative,” Mr. Ignatieff said. Every year for three years there were public activities, meetings with government officials, letter-writing campaigns and research.
“Paul Martin, minister of finance, acknowledged that he was deeply affected by the research done by faith communities and was very struck by the huge public response to the Third World debt campaign,” Mr. Ignatieff added.
Now, according to C-36, one to one meetings with the minister and presentations to parliamentary committees are permitted but letter-writing campaigns are no longer allowed because they are deemed “political activity.”
NGOs are considering a charter challenge to C-36, Mr. Ignatieff said.
In the meantime, the NGOs are studying the new legislation, which has very broad definitions for “terrorist activities,” and trying not to succumb to “charity chill” – censoring their own activities or putting their overseas staff at risk.
“According to the new legislation, you can be defined by CSIS as a terrorist organization and testimony can be received from unidentified parties (including other governments) saying you are associating with terrorist groups,” Mr. Ignatieff said. This could be devastating for an NGO, because it would lose its charitable status.
NGOs are also concerned about the undue haste with which the bill was passed. “They railroaded it through the House,” said Kathy Van der Grift, senior analyst, advocacy and public policy analyst for World Vision Canada in an interview. “I don’t think the Canadian public was fully aware of the implications of this legislation.”
She added that the new law could have the opposite effect of that intended. “For example, people may not do things any more that they should be doing to fight terrorism.” She cited the NGO practice of helping children in places such as Palestine, Lebanon, and south Sudan where rebel groups recruit children into militias. Humanitarian groups intervene by educating children about their rights and also help them stay in school.
“This bill now makes that kind of involvement risky,” Ms. Van der Grift said.
While emphasizing that World Vision and the NGOs will not flout the law, “we will not just take it,” Ms. Van der Grift said. “We are not giving up. We want clarification (of how the new bill will be interpreted by the government.”
“It’s very antidemocratic and flies in the face of a very solid tradition and something expressed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” Mr. Ignatieff added.
Both Mr. Ignatieff and Ms. Van der Grift said the government is in a different frame of mind since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
“The trouble is that the federal government is in a very forceful and controlling frame of mind and the public is very accepting of that given Sept. 11 and the difficult economic and social times we are living through,” said Mr. Ignatieff.