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Earthquake survivors in Port-au-Prince wait in line to collect water this week. Aid groups in Canaday say they've been warned by the Conservatives not to weigh in on policy. (Mario Tama/Mario Tama/AFP/Getty Images)
Earthquake survivors in Port-au-Prince wait in line to collect water this week. Aid groups in Canaday say they've been warned by the Conservatives not to weigh in on policy. (Mario Tama/Mario Tama/AFP/Getty Images)

Canadian aid groups told to keep quiet on policy issues Add to ...

Aid groups say the federal government is casting a chill over advocacy work that takes positions on policy or political issues - and one claims a senior Conservative aide warned them against such activities.

An official with a mainstream non-governmental aid group said that Keith Fountain, policy director for International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda, gave a verbal warning that the organization's policy positions were under scrutiny: "Be careful about your advocacy."

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The official did not want to be identified out of concern that it might jeopardize funding for the group's aid projects from the Canadian International Development Agency, or CIDA.

That's a concern voiced by some other NGO leaders, who said they have received hints the government dislikes their policy advocacy or criticisms of the government policies, but did not want to be identified.

Most aid organizations, from church-based organizations such as Anglican and Mennonite aid agencies to big agencies such as World Vision, Oxfam and CARE, take public positions on some policy issues, and some organize letter-writing campaigns or publish pamphlets.

The aid groups use CIDA money to finance 75 per cent of specific programs, but don't use it for advocacy.

Some have had veiled warnings about positions that clash with Ottawa's on issues such as climate change, free trade with Colombia, or the Middle East, said Gerry Barr, president of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, an umbrella group.

"NGOs are being positively invited to remain silent on key questions of public policy," he said.

Cheryl Curtis, executive director of the Anglican Church's Primate's World Relief and Development Fund, said government officials have never warned her organization about public-policy positions, but other aid organizations have reported such messages.

"We've certainly heard that amongst colleagues," she said, adding: "There clearly is a conversation that's brewing at the government level."

But the government insists that is not so.

A spokesman for Ms. Oda, Jean-Luc Benoit, did not specifically respond to a question about whether Mr. Fountain had warned an aid agency about its advocacy work. But he said an NGO's funding is evaluated on effectiveness in delivering aid and matching CIDA's aid priorities.

"This is about best use of taxpayers' dollars to help the poor, not about what these organizations do with their own money," Mr. Benoit said in an e-mail.

The fears among the NGOs have been amplified by the government's move to reject a $7-million funding request from Kairos, an aid organization backed by a coalition of churches.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said publicly that Kairos was de-funded because it supported a boycott campaign against Israel. (Kairos insists it doesn't support a boycott.)

The government later backtracked and said the agency's funding was turned down because it did not meet CIDA's new areas of focus. But Ms. Curtis, who is also chair of Kairos's board of directors, said the feeling that the agency lost funding for political reasons has not gone away.

"Each and every one of us who are members of Kairos feel that keenly," she said.

Another aid NGO, the left-leaning Montreal-based Alternatives, can't get CIDA to return its calls since the National Post - citing unnamed government sources - reported that the organization's long-standing $2.1-million funding proposal would be rejected because of its political advocacy. Its most recent aid funding ran out last March.

Alternatives produces a newspaper that has published left-wing commentators and, for example, a piece that made a controversial argument for a "united Israel" and against Israel's status as a Jewish state - rather than the internationally endorsed "two-state solution" of Israel existing beside a separate Palestinian state.

"Everything we hear is that Alternatives' advocacy work is the main reason we'll eventually be cut," said the organization's executive director, Michel Lambert.

Follow on Twitter: @camrclark

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