Civil society coalition takes aim at Harper government for stifling dissent

A coalition of 200 civil society organizations says its wants all political parties to explain to voters how they will ensure that criticism and dissent of the government is not punished by those in power.

OTTAWA — A coalition of 200 civil society organizations says its wants all political parties to explain to voters how they will ensure that criticism and dissent of the government is not punished by those in power.

That message accompanied the release Tuesday of a report by the coalition, known as Voices-Voix, that revived a complaint that has been voiced against the Conservatives in the past — that it is stifling dissent and suppressing democracy by punishing civil society groups that publicly disagree with its policies.

The coalition is framing its report in the context of the coming federal election, and is calling on all parties to renounce what it calls unprecedented harassment by the government against its critics.

“We have borne witness to hundreds of cases in which individuals, organizations and institutions have been intimidated, defunded, shut down or vilified by the federal government,” says the 66-page report.

Signatories include the heads of Amnesty International Canada, Greenpeace Canada and the former head of Oxfam Canada.

It accuses the government of muzzling scientists and public servants and portraying First Nations and aboriginal groups as threats to national security — silencing the public policy debate on important issues as a result.

The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to a request for comment as of Tuesday afternoon, while the government deflected NDP and Liberal questions about the report during question period.

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney dismissed the report out of hand because one of the groups it cites is IRFAN-Canada, which was stripped of its charitable status in 2011 and added to the government’s list of terrorist organizations.

“Why are the NDP, Mr. Speaker, and the Liberals siding along with terrorist organizations?” Blaney asked.

IRFAN-Canada has asked the Federal Court of Canada to set aside Blaney’s decision as unconstitutional.

Alex Neve, the head of Amnesty International, said all governments take some action against their critics.

“What we’re seeing in Canada is something unprecedented in our own history,” he said.

Robert Fox, the former head of Oxfam Canada, said it is up to voters to hold candidates from all parties accountable when they turn up on their doorsteps or the barbecue circuit in the coming months.

“We’re releasing this report because it’s very, very important for Canadians that this not become the new normal,” said Fox.

“We challenge all of those candidates who are seeking our support this October to tell us not that they would not have done this but rather what they will do to undo this.”

The report accuses the government of targeting dozens of charities that it deems “too political” for its taste.

It also says the government has undermined the function of Justice Department lawyers by discouraging them from giving important advice to the government.

And it points to the “muzzling” of several government agencies, citing the dismissal of senior leadership at the Canadian Wheat Board and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

It also accuses the government of undermining the work of the military ombudsman, the Commission for Public Complaints against the RCMP, the federal commissioner of the environment and the correctional services investigator.

The report says the government has mounted an attack on “evidence-based” policy-making and cites Statistics Canada, which has undergone an 18 per cent staff reduction and $30 million in budget cuts since 2012.

It also takes the government to task for doing away with the long-form census.

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