This is the fourth of a series of entries detailing the reasons for my opposition to the Enbridge Northern Gateway, and deconstructing arguments in favour of the proposal. In this post, I examine the work and role of freelance writer Vivian Krause in this debate, and dissect claims regarding the foreign funding of charities, and associated conspiracy theories.
Vivian Krause: the girl who played with tax data, and found what she wanted to find
Seeking fodder for their attacks, Harper and his cronies co-opted the work of Vancouver freelance writer Vivian Krause, whose lengthy fishing expeditions into charity tax returns revealed that, indeed, many such organizations had accepted donations from American sources, some of them large.
Aha! Krause probably exclaimed at the time. In her mind, this was the smoking gun behind a conspiracy on the part of “foreign” (namely American) interests to control Canadian natural resources. (Nevermind that Chinese interests have been doing precisely that for years, and have even offered $5.5 billion to help build the Northern Gateway!)
Even if we acknowledge the possibility that Krause is correct in her aspersions about American donations to groups that happen to oppose the Northern Gateway, aren’t there a couple of steps missing from her logic?
In short, yes.
Like all of us, Krause suffers from the confirmation bias – meaning she seeks out evidence to confirm the beliefs she already holds, but in this case, not enough to objectively validate her findings to a sufficiently skeptical reader.
First, Krause’s investigation hinges on the assumption that because charities receive contributions from particular donors, those benefactors thus hold sway over the decisions their beneficiaries make. While this may be true of politicians and lobbyists, it’s seldom true of charities; effectively, Krause is presuming a stunning level of moral corruptibility on the part of these institutions, but providing insufficient, if any, evidence to support these charges.
Second, Krause contends that charities should be non-partisan, and recuse themselves from political discourse and debate. On this count too, her position is erroneous.
Charity is an inherently political activity
As Sandra Garossino, a 2011 independent candidate for Vancouver City Council and an expert on Canadian charities, explains in this article in the Vancouver Observer, many of the allegations Krause makes against these organizations not only fail to establish criminal or ethical wrongdoing, but fail even to identify anything unusual or suspicious about their political activities.
“Krause’s real point is that political advocacy is illegitimate for Canadian charitable organizations,” she writes.
“As a factual statement, that’s flat wrong. As an opinion, it’s a dangerous fiction that should set off alarm bells, because this is precisely how to silence dissent,” elaborates Garossino, who defends the right of charities to engage in public discourse, even if this engagement is viewed as anathema by other partisan groups, like the Conservative Party of Canada.
As conservative blogger Stephen Taylor points out, charities that engage in direct or indirect support or opposition to a particular candidate’s campaign, can be considered to have crossed a legal line. Taylor points to David Suzuki, head of the eponymous David Suzuki Foundation, who has been vocal in criticizing candidates and parties, including the federal Tories, whose political stances do not include, in Suzuki’s view, sufficient plans to deal with conservation issues. Indeed, Suzuki seems to be walking a fine line, Taylor suggests.
Fair enough, except that Suzuki hasn’t told anyone for whom to vote; he’s merely criticized policies he doesn’t support, and named the political endorsers of those policies. Can this be considered an act of partisanship? If so, then virtually all Canadian charities who make public policy statements, or criticize government, could become subject to this damning imputation. And by forcing charities to live in fear, in my view, we vitiate our public discourse.
Indeed, the voices of charities are crucial to governmental decision-making, and to reduce organizations like the David Suzuki Foundation to an apolitical mandate, is effectively to silence them.
I can almost guarantee that if Harper flip-flopped tomorrow and exalted the sciences, tackled environmental and climate issues, and acknowledged the importance of large, complex ecosystems in his fisheries policy, Suzuki would change his tune. I don’t believe that Suzuki disdains the Conservatives per se, but rather their ill-conceived environmental and resource management strategies. And there’s nothing partisan about advocating sensible, conscientious policy – that’s supposed to be the objective of EVERY government.
Furthermore, environmental non-profits in Canada are NOT among the organizations receiving the most foreign contributions; indeed, among the ten charities accepting the most foreign funding, only one – Ducks Unlimited Canada – can be considered an environmental conservation body, the CBC reports.
The Tories’ charge of money-laundering also appears to be overplayed – of the roughly 85,000 registered charities, less than 2000 report foreign funding, according to the CRA, and much of this income arrives by way of sister organizations in the U.S.
And it hardly seems a coincidence the Harper Conservatives have elected to concentrate their animus on non-profits that oppose the government’s ideological agenda, while offering a free pass to many others.
One of the best-heeled charities in B.C. is the Langley-based Christian organization Power to Change, whose aim is to proselytize young people to the Christian belief system. Surely no one would argue that this charity is without political ideology, or that all Canadians would agree with its mandate. Yet the fact that it received both domestic and foreign donations to the tune of nearly $27 million in 2006 doesn’t seem to bother the federal government. And nor should it, as freedom of both religion and expression are enshrined in Canadian law.
The same standard should, and until recently always did, apply to environmental charities, whose stated goals involve preserving the quality of our air, waterways and ecosystems for future generations of human beings, irrespective of race, creed or nationality.
And as for the donations Krause uncovered? Well, I won’t go through each of them individually, but one significant example is a $28 million grant by the Tides Foundation to First Nation communities of B.C.’s North Coast. What Krause does not mention, is that this money is earmarked for such initiatives as developing a plan for the preservation of marine areas, fisheries and aquaculture resources, of which the B.C. government is a stakeholder, and to which the federal government is a signatory. To me, that sounds more like largesse than bribery.
And to follow this logic of buying political influence through to its conclusion, if Tides Canada truly were engaged in a form of bribery to the benefit of Coastal First Nations, wouldn’t we expect to see some form of cause-effect relationship between the funding and aboriginal opposition to a pipeline and tanker traffic?
I believe we should. But history tells us such a relationship does not exist.
The Northern Gateway is not the first pipeline proposed to link Kitimat to a distant oil reserve. In the 1970s, a pitch for a petroleum and gas pipeline connecting Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay oil field to a new shipping terminal in Kitimat received ardent opposition from First Nation communities in the coastal area, who were deeply concerned about the impact of tanker traffic and a potential oil spill on their traditional way of life, as indicated on page 86 of Energy Across the Coastal Zone: Proceedings of The Coastal Society, 1977. At the time, the provincial government deduced that the risks of the proposal outweighed its rewards – and did so more than a decade before Exxon Valdez, and nearly two decades before the Tides Foundation began its sponsorship activities.
Here’s a radical notion: maybe rather than disparaging organizations like Tides Canada, we ought to be thanking them. And perhaps instead of presuming that so many B.C. First Nations oppose the Northern Gateway out of sheer venality, we should remember that these peoples have staked their livelihood on the land and ocean for many generations, and some are turning down a substantial and continuous lucre from Enbridge in order to keep them intact.