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Eco groups protesting government bill, attacks

May 09 2012

Canada's leading environmental organizations will black out their websites for one day next month to protest what they consider attacks by the federal government - and they are asking businesses, social justice groups and individuals to join them.

The Black Out Speak Out campaign, culminating in website blackouts June 4, is a symbolic act to focus attention on government actions, said Peter Robinson, CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation.

"Over the past few months, the environmental laws that protect our nation's extraordinary natural legacy have been gutted," Robinson said. "At the same time, those who want to protect it have been the targets of an unprecedented and organized effort to discredit, disenfranchise and silence their voices."

The federal government included a rewrite of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act in the omnibus budget bill.

Bill C-38 allows government to crack down on charities that advocate for better laws and policies; override National Energy Board decisions; and speed up environmental reviews, Robinson said.

"Perhaps, most disturbingly, it shuts citizen groups out of environmental reviews," he said.

At the same time, individual cabinet ministers have launched barbs at environmental groups.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver hit out at "environmental and other radical groups," funded by foreigners who want to undermine Canada's national interest.

Environment Minister Peter Kent accused one unnamed group of taking part in "money laundering."

The March budget allocated $8 million to the agency to crack down on charities engaged in political activities and figure out whether they were spending more than the permitted 10 per cent of their budget on advocacy.

This week, Tides Canada, which already had the federal government's attention for accepting foreign contributions, revealed it was being audited by the Canada Revenue Agency.

Last month, the oil industry lobby group Ethical Oil sent a public letter to the CRA asking for an investigation into the David Suzuki Foundation's charitable status.

"Put it all together and you get the impression this is an attempt to demonize groups that speak out against large-scale industrial projects such as pipelines," Robinson said.

The aim of the Black Out Speak Out campaign is to show silence is not an option, he said.

"This is not really about environmental organizations. This is about the ability of people to speak out in a democratic society," he said.

One unintended consequence of the crackdown is that the Suzuki Foundation and other groups have sifted through budgets to ensure they were not exceeding the 10 per cent limit, Robinson said.

"When we went back and looked very carefully at the amount we were spending on advocacy, it was way less than 10 per cent, so many of us are now saying we could push this a little further," he said.

Groups taking part in the Black Out campaign include Greenpeace Canada, Environmental Defence, Equiterre, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Sierra Club of Canada, Pembina Institute, Nature Canada, Ecojustice and World Wildlife Fund Canada.

Tides Canada is not part of the campaign, but is supportive, said the group's CEO, Ross McMillan. The CRA audit has taken a toll on staff, legal and accounting time, he said.

"But I think we may come out of this stronger, because we are getting all sorts of unsolicited support from people who did not know we existed until the Conservative government put us in the crosshairs," he said.

The CRA's line of questioning does not appear to be random, McMillan said.

"There are questions about international funding and projects with views that are not always aligned with government perspectives on social and environmental policies," he said.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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