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Breaking the silence

Years of federal funding instability and centralized, politicized decision making have led some activists to speak out

by Katie Toth

Mark Butler of the Ecology Action Centre says that governmental refusal to fund some groups that are perceived as critical "appears to be a trend across sectors."  Photo: Katie Toth
Mark Butler of the Ecology Action Centre says that governmental refusal to fund some groups that are perceived as critical "appears to be a trend across sectors." Photo: Katie Toth

On May 2, 2011, in response to a Conservative majority government, the Honourable Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney said that the party would now "actually be able to implement our platform."

The past five years of government have not come without implementations of new budgets or policy, however,  and federal cuts to groups that criticize government policy affected NGOs and arm's length government organisations in Nova Scotia, even before the Conservative majority.

Representatives of two major advocacy groups in Nova Scotia would not comment to the Media Co-op when asked about how instability with federal funding was affecting their organisational policy. But other Halifax organizers are breaking the silence.

Mark Butler is the policy director of the Ecology Action Centre. He says the Conservative's slashing of funding to groups that are perceived as critical has been going on for years.  

In 2008, the Ecology Action Centre applied for two grants from Environment Canada, which they thought had been originally viewed favourably. Both funding requests—one of which was for continued local implementation of the national Vehicle Scrappage program, which the Ecology Action Centre had successfully executed for three years—were denied.

"We can in no way fully... ascertain what happened exactly," he says, "but it was our sense in a couple situations we had good projects, they were approved at the regional level but nixed in Ottawa." 

The Ecology Action Centre had been critical of federal government policy, including it’s vehicle efficiency regulations. 

Butler says that at the time, it seemed possible that the Centre's advocacy work had affected the federal government's willingness to give it the grants.

 "We're not sure why, but we hope it wasn't because of political interference."

However, Butler says, potential funding cuts like those won't stop EAC from doing advocacy work. Just this February, the Ecology Action Centre signed a joint letter with twenty other advocacy groups expressing concern over the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' development of regulations which would facilitate the use of aquaculture pesticides.

Butler points to a "strict donor policy" which helps prevent the Centre from becoming dependent on any particular interest. " We are careful to restrict the amount of government funding we receive," he says.

"If we were to change what we said or didn't say because of funding concerns, it would defeat the purpose of our existence."

Janelle Frail knows firsthand how delays and cuts to funding can bring instability to an organization. As the NSEN program director, her hours are being reduced. "Instead of working 30 hours a week I'll only be able to work 20 hours a week for the next couple of months," she says.

Frail says this is due to core funding cuts and repeated delays in funding. "Three years ago we used to get about $20 000 a year, and this year we got less than $18 000," she says.

She says the cuts are "counterintuitive," given that "The work that we have to do is increasing and the environment seems to be the top of most people's minds."

The Nova Scotia Environmental Network does not do advocacy work, says Frail, but does offer support to member organizations, often made up of volunteers, who want to lobby or meet with government to share their interests.

"Because we're a network, we're here to connect organisations with each other [...] if our member organisations want it we can set up meetings with government to talk about isssues that are topical, pressing issues at the time," Frail says.

She's worried this ability to facilitate the advocacy work of others is being compromised.

"I have been having to rethink the type of programming I'll be able to provide," Frail says. "The groups that are going to be hit the hardest are the groups that have a small budget and are made up of volunteers... people that are very generous with their time."

Frail is worried that with fewer hours to work with, it will affect her ability to facilitate meetings with government officials and member organizations.

"Just the ability for NSEN members to meet with the government provincially...we're still going to be able to do that," she says, "but to have a more thorough discussion with other [government] departments on how to be more sustainable, that might not be happening because I have [fewer hours] to work on things."

Women's groups have also experienced cuts under Conservative policy. In 2006, the Harper government cut $5 million in funding to Status of Women Canada and closed 12 of its 16 regional offices. Status of Women is a branch of government whose mandate is to support women and girls with gender-based analysis, strategic policy recommendations, and supported funding projects. When the Minister responsible for the Status of Women at that time, Bev Oda, announced the cut, she said that "the government...does not need to be told that women are equal."

Christine Saulnier is the Atlantic Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. She was involved in a campaign called ‘Women are angry!,’ which responded to the funding cuts. "A group of women got together and said ... let's raise the visibility of these issues, and ‘Women are Angry’ seemed to capture exactly how we were feeling," she says.

Saulnier thinks that the government has a responsibility to fund advocacy groups. "We want a democracy where people's voices are loud, where governments are being held accountable, and where we are able to have more and more people able to participate meaningfully... advocacy organisations are a critical part of that."

Meanwhile, Butler observes that a governmental refusal to fund groups that are perceived as critical "appears to be a trend across sectors."  After this week's election, there are no signs of that trend changing. 

With files and research from Leilani Graham-Laidlaw


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