Canadian Environmentalists Protest Their Government’s Attacks Against Activists and NGOs

Wide Range of Groups Participating in BlackOutSpeakOut Campaign

A coalition of Canadian environmental groups is turning up the heat on the federal government this coming week to protest what they are calling “unprecedented actions” by government officials to curtail democratic debate and public process regarding Canada’s development of the Alberta tar sands, specifically the controversial Northern Gateway Pipeline.

Photo by Flickr usernouspiqueTomorrow, June 4, the BlackOutSpeakOut campaign is calling on Canadians to inundate
government agencies with calls and emails protesting proposed changes to the country’s
environmental laws and the government’s efforts to silence environmentalists.

Tomorrow, June 4, the BlackOutSpeakOut campaign is calling on hundreds of thousands of Canadians to inundate government agencies with calls and emails protesting proposed changes to the country’s environmental laws and the government’s efforts to silence environmentalists.

“It’s the only thing we’re working on,” says John Bennett, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada. “Hundreds of organizations, hundreds of thousands of people. The government servers are going to have a meltdown on June 4.”

The coalition is also asking businesses and people to fade their websites to black and replace with a splash page directing people to participate in the protest.

The government of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently introduced a budget bill that seeks to rewrite many environmental protections in the country, including when and how federal environmental assessments are conducted, giving the federal cabinet the ability to overrule those assessments, and making it more difficult for environmental organizations to participate in the public process by enforcing stricter regulations regarding their charitable status.

“The federal budget bill contains 150 pages of changes to regulations that weaken laws that protect the environment and limit public participation,” Bennett says. “These changes shoved into the budget bill are a huge threat to the environment and an alarming attack on Canadian democracy.”

Gillian McEachern, deputy campaign director for Environmental Defence Canada, says the government has intensified its campaign against environmental groups since the Northern Gateway hearings began almost two year ago. 

“The assault on environmental protection does seem to be targeted to pave the way for Gateway and other tar sands projects,” McEachern says. “The changes to the Fisheries Act, environmental assessment process, and pipeline review all seem to be about rubber stamping Gateway and putting Canadians at risk to let Big Oil get its way.”

Bennett says he started noticing a newer, meaner, federal government about a year ago. 

“I knew then it was something that we hadn’t seen before; we’ve never been attacked like this,” he says. “Nobody has ever tried to attack our motives, suggest our funding was inappropriate, not even [for more radical groups like] Greenpeace, and it breaks laws every time it does something.”

Some examples of government officials’ attacks on environmental groups:

• Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver and his infamous “foreign radicals” rant directed at environmental organizations that dared accept foreign donations, and his reference to a “radical ideological agenda” of environmental organizations in a letter to Canadians in a national newspaper

• The federal government using language usually reserved for terrorist groups to describe radical environmental groups such as Greenpeace.

• Minister of the Environment Peter Kent accusing, without naming names or providing any evidence at all, some environmental groups of “money laundering,” during an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

All this while the government continues to lobby on behalf of further tar sands development in Europe, where it is fighting a PR battle against those looking to classify tar sands crude as dirtier than other conventional fuels.

In an email to Earth Island Journal, Peter Kent defended the government’s environmental track record: “We disagree with the statements being made, and we note that, in stark contrast to the previous government, our government has taken real action on climate change, and we are making good progress. We are proud of our record in combating climate change, and we encourage you to visit  and  to learn more about the great work we have done. 
When asked about his accusations that environmental groups have been laundering money, Kent referred to previous statements from the prime minister: “As Prime Minister Harper has stated in the House of Commons, ‘[our government is] committed to the responsible use of charitable monies, [and ensuring] that charitable monies go into charitable activities as opposed to political activities. But at the same time when it comes to the important environmental review processes we have in this country, I think it’s ultimately important that Canadians control and Canadians get input into the process rather than foreign interests dominating this process.’”

Environmental NGOs remain upset. “It is clearly a smear campaign against environmental groups for doing what we do well — draw attention to environmental issues,” Bennett says. “The Northern Gateway garnered public attention and input from 4,200 people. Instead of thinking, ‘wow that’s a good thing,’ the federal government says this is a bad thing. They want to silence average people and prevent them from having any say in positions that affect them and future generations.”

Peter Robinson, CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation, agrees. David Suzuki himself recently resigned from his own organization so he could speak freely without endangering the group’s charitable status.

“The attacks on environmental charities and gutting of environmental review processes aim to silence Canadians of all sectors and many backgrounds who participate in decision-making about large-scale industrial developments,” Robinson says. “This is not only undemocratic — it will undermine the government’s ability to make sound policy decisions and to protect the environment,” he said.

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