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Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver speaks during a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, May 7, 2012.Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Canadian government's campaign of intimidation of environmental charities has begun to create a chill among charities who wish to participate in public-policy debates, according to a respected national representative of charities known as Imagine Canada.

Even during hearings of the House of Commons finance committee into how this country can promote more charitable giving, the board members of some charities expressed concerns about making presentations, says Marcel Lauzière, Imagine Canada's president and chief executive officer.

This is a sad commentary on where the federal government's attacks on environmental charities for accepting foreign donations are taking public debate – charities afraid to speak out at a Parliamentary committee. Is that the kind of Canada sought by those who are demonizing the environmental groups?

In the government's view, some contributions to public debate are simply out of bounds, if they are "against the national interest" – that is, opposed to a proposed pipeline from the oil sands of Alberta to the British Columbia coast. Hence, Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver called environmental groups "radicals" serving foreign interests; Environment Minister Peter Kent accused these groups of "money laundering" and Conservative Senator Nicole Eaton added "influence peddling." Both of these last two would be criminal activities, yet no evidence of crimes has been brought to light.

The implication is that charities should confine themselves to good works – be seen but not heard. That's a strange view of democracy. Silence the churches? Anti-poverty groups? Breast cancer research fundraisers? Would we have anti-smoking laws if opposing the tobacco companies was seen as un-Canadian?

As Conservative Senator Hugh Segal put it last week, "We are an open society with the free movement of people, goods, services and capital. This has always been the goal of those of us who are free traders at heart. Limiting this freedom for charitable foundations would be a destructive and retrograde step."

The government's rhetoric is at odds with the official policy of the Canada Revenue Agency, which oversees the charitable sector: "Through their dedicated delivery of essential programs, many charities have acquired a wealth of knowledge about how government policies affect people's lives. Beyond service delivery, their expertise is also a vital source of information for governments to help guide policy decisions. It is therefore essential that charities continue to offer their direct knowledge of social issues to public policy debates."

A country that marginalizes its charities would be so much poorer.

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