Democracy rightfully restored for Vancouver non-profit organizations

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      By Clara Prager

      Non-profits across the city of Vancouver can breathe a sigh of relief if they want to publicly critique City Hall decisions. Recently, city staff responded to a controversial request from council to develop requirements for grant recipients “to communicate to, about, and with City officials in a respectful manner.”

      Frontline organizations, particularly those whose programs rely on city funding, felt a collective chilling effect after a March meeting, during which some councillors mused about surveilling non-profit leaders’ public comments and questioned whether organizations who were openly critical of Mayor Ken Sim should receive funding. One outgoing city official chalked these comments up to inexperience. Whatever the reason, city staff recognized that stifling political speech was not within their jurisdiction. The message in their report back to council was clear: staff are not here to police public criticism on council’s behalf.

      Council’s discussions last March, which civil liberties experts have compared to the Harper-era “charities chill,” had a resounding effect on the non-profit sector. Their actions put many organizations in a double bind: stay quiet to avoid losing funding for initiatives that fill gaps in city services and address systemic inequality—or speak up against inequality and jeopardize programs that might be someone’s only remaining lifeline.

      That’s not to say that non-profits stayed quiet. As a non-profit that has never received funding from the City of Vancouver, we at Women Transforming Cities felt the responsibility to speak up. There was a widespread outcry against the undemocratic tenor of this meeting, even from city grant recipients. However, many others that depend on city funding felt silenced. Over the past four months, Women Transforming Cities heard from several non-profit leaders who opted not to speak to reporters, publicly criticize mayor and council decisions, or advocate to council for fear of being denied funding that would render them unable to deliver programming for some of Vancouver’s most vulnerable residents.

      City grant recipients know the challenges facing our city better than most. Through their work providing access to resources, safe spaces, culturally-informed services, and as first responders when crises strike, non-profit workers have a direct line of sight into the policies needed to address issues like gendered violence, youth homelessness, and food insecurity. These challenges are systemic and require systemic solutions.

      Front-line organizations play a critical role in highlighting gaps in policy approaches, identifying solutions, and advocating on behalf of the communities they serve. This requires, at times, being critical of government systems and the decisions of government leaders.

      City staff underscored non-profits’ mandate––and right––to participate in political speech in their response to council’s request. They stated that “critique of public policy, actions, and/or decisions is recognized as important to robust civic dialogue and the democratic process” and proposed a narrow policy focused “on communications and conduct that constitute harassment, discrimination, intimidation or threats of violence.” We support this approach. 

      Through our work to empower and amplify the voices of those historically underrepresented in local governments, we know that the disturbing trend of abuse toward elected officials—particularly based on their gender, race, age, sexuality, class, and disability status—prevents many from feeling welcome and being safe in these institutions. However, staff acknowledged that based on their history with grant recipients, abusive speech from grantees is rarely an issue. The report reiterates that “communication that is simply critical of policy actions or decisions of the City or City officials” would not violate this policy.

      The proposed recommendations were accepted unanimously by council. City grant recipients can once again advocate for the needs of their communities without fear of retribution from council policies. While this is good news for grantees and civic discourse, councillors’ rhetoric will likely have a lingering effect—one that a single staff report won’t fix. 

      Council must recognize the impact they have had on non-profits in the city and work to rebuild trust. This can start by acknowledging the essential role of non-profits in working towards a city where everyone feels like they belong. It can start with committing to sustainable funding for organizations that subsidize Vancouver’s social and emergency responses—often through great personal sacrifice of workers, who respond daily to the traumatic outcomes of inequality.

      An estimated 191,000 residents relied on city grant-funded services last year, according to city staff. These organizations do the heavy lifting in responding to the many overlapping crises our city faces. It’s in Vancouver’s best interest to have well supported non-profits. And, given their on-the-ground knowledge of what residents need, it is in the city’s best interest for council to commit to learning from these service providers, rather than seeking to silence them. As city staff pointed out in their response, “Local government officials must be open to critique of their actions and decisions – this is a core tenet of democracy and political life.”

      Clara Prager is the campaign lead at Women Transforming Cities (WTC) a grassroots non-profit organization that works to dismantle intersecting systems of oppression with equity-deserving genders and movements.