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International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda announces the government's opposition to a Liberal maternal-health motion on March 23, 2010, in the foyer of the House of Commons.

Adrian Wyld

Critics are accusing the Harper government of ideologically driven intimidation for cutting funding to women's groups even as it prepares to champion maternal health at next month's G8 Summit.

The Conservatives have axed funding for up to 14 women's groups in the past two weeks. News of the cuts surfaced a day after Tory Senator Nancy Ruth warned aid groups that they risk a backlash from the government if they don't "shut the fuck up" on the government's refusal to include abortion in the G8 plan.

Opposition parties seized on the two events as proof of the government's efforts to silence critics of its policies.

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"This is the culture of intimidation that has now been established by the Conservative Party," Liberal MP Bob Rae told the House of Commons.

He credited Ms. Ruth with the "the pithiest, sharpest description" to date of the government's tactics: "If someone has a disagreement with the government, just shut the F up."

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe said Ruth "revealed the true face" of the government. He said Prime Minister Stephen Harper's "true intention" is to "reopen the debate on abortion in Canada by putting an end to foreign funding."

With Harper en route to Europe, it was left to Transport Minister John Baird to stamp out the brush fire. He disowned the Conservative senator's remarks.

"The language is unacceptable and in no way, shape or form represents the views of the government," Mr. Baird said.

However, the head of a group that promotes women's rights abroad said the backlash has already begun against organizations that believe access to safe abortions should be part of the maternal health initiative.

Kim Bulger of Match International said the Canadian International Development Agency abruptly informed her group last Friday that its funding of $400,000 a year will not be renewed. CIDA cited performance and financing issues but Ms. Bulger dismissed those as "red herrings."

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"I think there's a pattern for sure. I think it's ideologically driven," Ms. Bulger said. "These guys are ruthless."

Ms. Bulger said Match was the only gender-specific aid group funded by CIDA. While it hasn't been leading the charge on the recent abortion debate, she said it's well known that the organization is pro-choice.

"We're known as a feminist organization and I think we were easy to pick off (because) we were at the end of our contract," she said.

Ms. Bulger said 10 other women's groups, funded by Status of Women Canada, have also been cut off. They include the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, the Alberta Network of Immigrant Women, and the New Brunswick Pay Equity Coalition.

"We're No. 11 in two weeks. It's hard not to feel - what do they say, paranoia is an acute state of awareness? - that something's up their sleeve about women and women's groups."

Anita Neville, the Liberals' status of women critic, said she's compiled the same list of groups that have lost their funding - plus three more that have not yet gone public for fear of further repercussions.

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A spokesman for Rona Ambrose, the minister responsible for the status of women, said funding for the women's program is at "its highest levels ever," with the government footing the bill for 75 projects that will help more than 24,000 women.

"Unfortunately, not all projects that submitted proposals were able to receive funding," Chris Hilton said in an email.

NDP Leader Jack Layton said the cuts to women's groups are "totally contradictory" with Mr. Harper's bid to champion maternal rights on the international stage.

"This is a government that every now and again lifts up the sweater and you get to see what's underneath,"he said. "And they're using the executive power of the cabinet to go after groups that espouse ideas that they don't agree with."

Mr. Baird said the maternal health initiative is aimed at saving the lives of women and newborns, something that should unite Canadians.

He accused the Liberals of trying to start a "culture war" by reopening the divisive abortion issue: "Canadians do not want to drag the abortion debate into the maternal and health discussions."

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