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Protesters fill a giant piece of pipeline with placards after a demonstration outside the Vancouver Art Gallery on Aug. 31, 2010.Jonathan Hayward

An environmental charity pegged as "radical" by the Conservatives for its opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline is fighting back, arguing the Harper government is shutting down dissenting voices.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver lashed out at environmental groups – like Tides Canada – that have taken money from U.S. donors to mount opposition against the $6.6-billion Northern Gateway pipeline that would connect British Columbia to the oil sands.

Tides Canada, however, told the Senate committee on energy, environment and natural resources Thursday that their views reflect those of many Canadians and that they've worked closely with the Conservative government on previous occasions.

"What's the real concern to us what seems to be an interest in silencing voices," said Merran Smith, the director of Tides Canada energy initiative. "It's not going to be good for the government in the long-term, because good decisions are made when everybody is able to participate and all voices are at the table."

Tides Canada's reputation has come under attack as one the groups the Conservatives have accused of "hijacking" the review process for the Northern Gateway. The group has a wide-reaching foundation that supports nearly 40 organizations, including ForestEthics, an environmental organization whose former spokesman had accused the Prime Minister's Office of resorting to intimidation tactics against the pipeline project's critics.

"One of the misnomers in this debate is that massive amounts of U.S. funding are coming in to fight the oil sands," Sarah Goodman, Tide Canada vice president for business development and services, told the committee.

"And the fact is, most of the funding from U.S. foundations is actually for projects done in collaboration with other governments. ... The best example is Great Bear Rainforest. Our organization received $25-million from U.S. foundations that was matched by the Harper government and the [British Columbia's]Campbell government."

Ms. Goodman readily admitted Tides supports groups that bring forward environmental perspectives that are sometimes "in opposition as a way to balance the heavy weight that is put in the public policy debate on economic dimensions."

"We feel this is a very important public policy debate that requires balance given how much government and industry resources are going into promoting a specific economic view," she said.

Several Conservative senators repeatedly questioned why Tides Canada was using foreign funding to oppose the oil sands, but Ms. Smith said it was "unfortunate how much confusion there is over the numbers."

"The focus of the majority of the U.S. foundation dollars that is going through Tides Canada is not around the pipeline or the oil sands," Ms. Smith said. "Only 3 per cent of our money in total is going to that [and]33 per cent of our money comes from the U.S."

In a separate inquiry launched last week by Senator Nicole Eaton, Tories in the Red Chamber have also questioned how U.S. foundations are funnelling money into Canadian charities, in particular environmental charities. That inquiry could eventually lead to changes in the Canada Revenue Act, which would still have to be approved by the House of Commons.

Conservative Senator John Wallace raised the same issue in the committee meeting Thursday.

"You've made me rethink my understanding of truly what activities are charitable," Mr. Wallace said to the Tides Canada representatives. "In relation to the energy field .... I'm having trouble distinguishing the work you're doing in those fields, which are private-sector and business driven."

Tides maintains they are under the 10 per cent limit on advocacy work allowed for charities under Canadian Revenue Agency rules.