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Gerald Caplan

The Harper government, women's rights and the cost of speaking out Add to ...

Are you old-fashioned? Do you still believe in gender equality? Do you intend to promote gender equality? Do you believe a woman should be able to have an abortion if she chooses to?

Or are you just an old-fashioned progressive? Do you sympathize with Palestinians who are treated like dirt by the government of Israel? Do you oppose the pursuit of free trade with a government like Colombia's that has a deplorable human-rights record? Have you been critical of our government for freezing foreign aid spending? For arbitrarily cutting off aid to eight very poor African countries?

Above all, would you care to be vocal about these views? If so, be very afraid. The Harper government is going to get you.

It's been one of the glories of Canadian democracy that we have a tradition of government funding of citizens who might oppose some government policies. Most Canadians have come to see an active and engaged civil society as a crucial component of a robust democracy.

Over the past half century, the tradition has evolved that the Canadian state - in practical terms, the government of the day - should enable non-profit civil-society groups and NGOs to operate and to make their voices heard. Many NGOs have become partially dependent on these public funds, and until the last couple of years all governments and most Canadians believed this was a good deal for all of us. It's in the common good to ensure that all voices are heard on crucial issues.

As Amnesty's Alex Neve puts it: "We are not a nation founded or built on some sense of orthodoxy, ideology and conformity. We are a nation of diversity and debate."

Alas, we need to change that tense. We were that kind of nation, a liberal or tolerant nation. Which is reason enough for the Harper government to go to war against this democratic principle and to introduce a new kind of punishment politics for those who fail to toe the government line. Dissent from that line is being squashed, or at least dissenters are being intimidated by the fear of losing their funding. You can disagree, but you pay the price.

This is no abstract threat. It's already happening. NGO funding is already being cut for daring to differ with the government. It happened to Kairos, a church-backed humanitarian NGO that worked with Palestinian civil society. (This week's shameful Israeli attack on ships bearing humanitarian aid for the Palestinians of Gaza has greatly increased world sympathy for the plight of that community, with the notable exception of the Harper government.)

It's already happened to a large number of groups supporting women's equality. International Planned Parenthood has heard nothing for a year about renewed funding. Match International, the only international development organization devoted specifically to women's equality, has been cut off. CIDA has cut funds to projects in Pakistan and Kenya that were explicitly dedicated to gender equality.

In fact, hard as it is it believe, CIDA staff have told NGOs to remove the words "gender equality" from their proposal if they want a chance at funding.

CIDA used to fund a wide variety of projects aimed at promoting women's rights and strengthening women's organizations. But the Harperites will only tolerate projects that offer direct service delivery. Yet as anyone with experience in the area can testify - which means many thousands of Canadians with NGO experience and virtually no one in the Harper government - service delivery isn't sustainable unless women can assert their basic rights.

In the international arena, including the UN, Canada used to be known as a country that worked to ensure that women weren't being victimized by globalization. No more. This work has fallen silent.

Despite the chill on speaking out, this week the Canadian Council for International Co-operation announced its fear that its funding is likely to be cut. CCIC is Canada's preeminent coalition to end global poverty. Some 90 Canadian non-profit organizations, including most of the well-known ones, come together under the CCIC umbrella to monitor federal policies on foreign affairs, aid, trade and peace-building.

Doing its job on behalf of these many civil-society members, CCIC has criticized the government on a number of issues, including freezing foreign aid and making Latin America more of an aid priority than Africa. Now they fully expect to pay the price.

It's hard not to see de-funding as yet another example of the political-chill message this government has been sending to the development community," says CCIC head Gerry Barr. "What we're experiencing here is punishment politics. Speak out against government policy and risk losing your funding."

Dumb policy. I'm with Oxfam Canada head Robert Fox, who sees CCIC as "exactly the type of organization CIDA should fund. Aid policies and programs will suffer if CCIC is not doing what it does best - analyze, critique and advocate for the world's poor."

Two distressing and related phenomena are at play here, relating both to process and to substance.

Over the years, at its best, Canadian development assistance has been largely non-partisan (even if Canada has blindly promoted discredited neoliberal prescriptions for growth and development). Today, however, without any public discussion or accountability, a destructive social- conservative agenda is being imposed on development priorities. That's what Harper's controversial mother- and child-health initiative really reflects, and that's what accounts for the reversal of Canada's support for women's rights internationally.

Civil-society activists from across the country are fighting back. They've united under the telling name "Voices" to keep track of Harper's latest victims and to plan a fight-back campaign. (Its website will be up soon, probably next week.) The women and men involved and their organizations are the very best of what Canada has to offer the world. Whatever good international reputation Canada has garnered in the past, much of it was based on the contribution of our NGOs.

But getting Stephen Harper to come to his senses won't be easy. This is a government that rarely cares about anyone beyond its minority conservative "base." It is unprecedentedly indifferent to the voices of other Canadians. But maybe enough angry Voices can shake it out of its dogmatism and folly.

 

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