The Conservatives’ efforts to limit criticism of their environmental and energy policies could be backfiring as environmental groups formulate strategies to deal with increased pressure on charities.
Both David Suzuki of the David Suzuki Foundation and ForestEthics are implementing plans to protect their organizations and allies while stepping up advocacy efforts opposing Conservative priorities
“What they have done is touched on a democracy nerve and people are reacting. We’ve gotten thousands of names on petitions and received thousands of dollars in donations—more than ever in our history from individual donors—since these attacks began,” said Niki Skuce, the senior energy campaigner for newly formed Forest Ethics Advocacy.
The David Suzuki Foundation has also seen a moderate increase in donations, said a spokesperson from the foundation.
Forest Ethics Restructures
ForestEthics recently announced plans to split up its operations and form a non-charitable branch so that it could step up efforts against projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline and gas drilling at what is known as the sacred headwaters in Northwest British Columbia where the Skeena, Nass, and Stikine Rivers begin.
In the last budget, the Conservatives allocated $8 million to monitor charities’ compliance with tax regulations, requiring they limit political advocacy efforts to 10 percent of their spending with increased penalties for breaches.
Previously, the government had criticized environmental groups for their “radical” opposition to energy and resource projects, alleging foreign funding was being used to oppose Canadian economic objectives.
Under the new regulations, charities will have to say how much of their foreign-sourced money goes to political activities. The government has also firmed up what constitutes political activity.
“Instead of increasing dialogue and open conversation, they are trying to silence it,” said Skuce. “I think they are going too far and too fast and they are going to get a lot of push-back even from their own supporters.”
ForestEthics operates north and south of the border, with some of its funding previously coming through its relationship with Tides Canada, an umbrella organization that helps several environmental groups raise funds while providing office support services like accounting and financial management.
Tides Canada spearheaded fundraising efforts that helped get protected designation for the Great Bear Rainforest.
ForestEthics broke ties with the Tides Canada to alleviate pressure on Tides coming from the Conservative government, said Skuce.
“We have been specifically targeted by the Harper government and so Tides is undergoing its fourth audit in a year and a half. So we think it is better for all the projects they support if we step aside.”
Skuce said the bureaucratic burden of carrying out those audits has become “outrageous.”
“[Tides] are really fantastic and we support the work that they do … and we will continue to have a cooperative relationship with them, but we will no longer be putting them at risk, hopefully.”
Rather than expose Tides to pressure, ForestEthics decided to “rise to the challenge” and develop an organization dedicated to advocacy.
Skuce said funding will come from several streams, including foundations interested in groups that don’t have charitable status. With increased support coming since the Tories took a harder line on environmental groups, she is hopeful they can attract donors even without the ability to issue tax receipts.
David Suzuki Leaves Foundation
David Suzuki made a similar move last week when he announced his departure from the eponymous foundation he started.
“I want to speak freely without fear that my words will be deemed too political, and harm the organization of which I am so proud,” wrote Suzuki in an open letter explaining his departure.
“I am keenly aware that some governments, industries and special interest groups are working hard to silence us. They use threats to the Foundation’s charitable status in attempts to mute its powerful voice on issues that matter deeply to you and many other Canadians.”
Suzuki said it is important he speaks out and that the foundation’s “science-based, solutions-oriented research and educational work” continues without being endangered by his own advocacy efforts.
“Our opponents, however, are redoubling their efforts to marginalize the Foundation by getting at me, personally,” he wrote. Suzuki said he made the decision last year.
Another high-profile environmentalist, Tzeporah Berman, left Greenpeace International so she, too, can become more politically active. She said she would also consult with ForestEthics’ new organization.
Berman made national headlines for organizing roadblocks during the Clayoquot Sound protests in the 1990s. She faced nearly 1,000 criminal charges and six years in prison for her efforts.