Dream of Canadian democracy centre melts as Arab powder keg smoulders

Despite Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s oft-repeated support for freedom, human rights and the rule of law abroad, his Conservative cabinet rejected a proposal in the fall to create a Canadian centre for promoting democracy.

OTTAWA — Despite Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s oft-repeated support for freedom, human rights and the rule of law abroad, his Conservative cabinet rejected a proposal in the fall to create a Canadian centre for promoting democracy.

And people within Canada’s international assistance community say they are getting a less-than-enthusiastic response from the government for projects that help promote democracy and good governance.

The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) even struck “governance” from its main priorities in 2009.

Canada’s role in helping wannabe democracies get their legs has come under the microscope with the recent turmoil in the Arab world.

The idea for an arms-length, democracy-promotion centre that would report to Parliament was the brainchild of former foreign affairs minister Peter MacKay.

It took shape through the House of Commons foreign affairs committee in 2006 and 2007 and popped up in Harper’s throne speech throne in 2008. But it has never taken flight.

“It went to cabinet and for various reasons didn’t get through,” said Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, who has a long history working on international governance issues.

“My suspicion is that particular submission didn’t have the depth to it…”

Segal emphasizes that the government funds myriad other programs around the world that help with democratic institutions and civil society, often through bigger international bodies — for example, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

But Parliament does not have a democracy-promoting agency that works directly with political actors as do countries such as the United States and Britain.

Many Canadians interested in that field of work have gone abroad to work for organizations like the National Democratic Institute in Washington.

“I think that if you parse the prime minister’s speeches, and you look at parts of the world where instability could cause us more grief (from a security standpoint) … engaging more fully in the democracy front would be a good thing,” Segal said.

A special advisory panel delivered a report in late 2009 recommending the creation of a “Canadian Centre for Advancing Democracy” with an annual budget of up to $70 million. But then, nothing.

A spokesman for Steven Fletcher, minister of state for democratic reform, said “details on this measure would be announced in due course,” but offered no further details.

In the meantime, Canadian organizations that promote democracy abroad have had their own difficulties. Funding for the Forum of the Federations will dry up in March. Montreal-based Rights and Democracy has struggled to regain its reputation after a very public battle over management of the organization and accusations of Conservative meddling.

Last fall, CIDA stopped funding the Parliamentary Centre of Canada’s program in Haiti to help advise legislators just as that country began to prepare for an election and as local politicians searched for more accountability in aid spending.

The agency says the decision was made in light of the dissolution of one Parliament heading into the next one.

Centre director Jean-Paul Ruszkowski called the Haiti decision disappointing. But he underlined that the centre has a $14 million CIDA-funded program in seven African countries that continues to work with foreign parliamentarians and is in talks with the Department of Foreign Affairs for further projects.

Former director Amelita Armit is not as diplomatic. Armit, who retired in October, said Haitian officials were very keen for the parliamentary support project to continue. She said she was told that there would be more emphasis put on maternal and child health initiatives instead.

“The interest of the (Conservative) government is supporting building governance institutions just sort of waned, and when we talked to CIDA officials and other senior officials in government, they were quite reluctant to speak about it,” Armit said. “They just said that the priorities had changed, and it’s very ironic.”

Robin Sully, director of international development at the Canadian Bar Association, describes the same experience in trying to get information from CIDA officials about support for legal and justice reform projects.

“We’re not cut yet, but we’re looking for new funding,” Sully said. “We’re looking for new projects, and we’re not sure, we’re certainly not certain given the change in the governance agenda whether or not we’re going to have funding. We’re concerned about the lack of priority on governance and democracy…”

Justice Brian Lennox of the National Judicial Institute, which helps train judge overseas and helps provide assistance to the judicial system, said his organization must either adapt its project proposals to fit with CIDA’s priorities or not apply at all.

“I don’t think it specifically fits into their designated priorities, their three priority areas, but we are also of the view that whenever you’re doing judicial education you’re actually doing governance and rule of law,” he said.

In an emailed response to questions about the issue, CIDA said: “Governance considerations are integrated into all development policies and programming.”

The agency said it’s just one federal body that supports democracy-related initiatives, and recommended the Department of Foreign Affairs for additional comment.