Environmental whistle blower Andrew Frank's allegations about threats by the Conservative government warrant more than a one-day story in the news.
In an open letter issued this week, the former ForestEthics communications staffer claimed that the Prime Minister's Office tried to silence critics of the proposed Enbridge pipeline by crushing Tides Canada Foundation's ability to fund environmental groups.
"As I have detailed in a sworn affidavit, no less than three senior managers with Tides Canada and ForestEthics (a charitable project of Tides Canada), have informed me, as the Senior Communications Manager for ForestEthics, that Tides Canada CEO, Ross McMillan, was informed by the Prime Minister’s Office, that ForestEthics is considered an 'Enemy of the Government of Canada,' and an 'Enemy of the people of Canada'," Frank wrote in the letter.
He added that this "was apparently part of a threat by the Prime Minister’s Office to challenge the charitable status of Tides Canada" if it didn't stop funding ForestEthics's opposition to the expansion of the tar sands and construction of pipelines.
"This is especially concerning because ForestEthics is a legally registered intervenor in the National Energy Board’s Joint Review Panel process, currently examining the Enbridge oil tanker/pipeline proposal," Frank stated in the letter. "By attempting to silence a registered participant in the review, I fear the Harper government may have permanently damaged the integrity of this process. After waiting more than two weeks for Tides Canada to go public with this story, it has become clear to me that the organization is too afraid of reprisals from the government to act."
In a statement on the ForestEthics website, the director of B.C. forestry campaigns, Valerie Langer, said: "We share these concerns with Andrew Frank, who is clearly concerned about the government trying to silence Canadians. Andrew worked with us for many years and was a valued part of this organization. He is no longer a member of ForestEthics’ staff because he violated the confidence of the organization, and we are unable to carry out our work without a solid foundation of trust between colleagues."
Langer didn't contradict Frank's basic claim. McMillan of Tides Canada, however, issued a statement claiming that Frank's account of his conversations with the government is "inaccurate".
Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson was a director of Tides Canada Foundation from 2002 to 2004.
Frank pointed out in his letter that Tides "is responsible for the employment of hundreds of Canadians and dozens of crucial environmental projects like the Great Bear Rainforest, and has been understandably paralyzed in challenging the Prime Minister’s Office on this matter".
Regardless of who is telling the truth, it's an indication that something is desperately wrong with the system when there's a credible suggestion that the prime minister can shut down a registered charity because he disagrees with its objective.
Part of the problem is that the government has the ability to harass registered charities because the rules in this area are so open to interpretation.
Much of it is guided by common law rather than by statute. Under the rules, registered charities are prohibited from engaging in partisan political activities, but what constitutes partisan political activities is in the eyes of the beholder.
I remember writing a story a few years ago about how a registered charity called the Canada West Foundation was hosting town-hall meetings for then-Liberal leadership candidate Paul Martin without inviting any other candidates.
Was that partisan? Not according to the Canada Revenue Agency, which enforces this rule.
In Canada, bureaucrats—who are answerable to cabinet ministers and the prime minister—have the power to strip an organization of its ability to issue tax receipts to donors
In effect, the government can put a charity out of business without due process.
Other countries, including the United Kingdom, have created arm's-length charities commissions to regulate this area. The commission in the U.K., for example, maintains a public registry, investigates misconduct, and issues legally binding orders, much like the securities commissions do in Canada.
It's also a creature of statute, which means its actions are subject to judicial review in a clear and transparent manner.
Traditionally, charities were given the ability to issue tax receipts to donors if they were alleviating poverty, advancing education, or promoting religion. The federal government has also granted status to environmental groups, arts organizations, think tanks, and tourist attractions because they've made a case that they fit the definition of a charity.
If Frank's whistle-blowing allegation is correct that the Prime Minister's Office threatened Tides Canada, then one wonders who might be next on the government's hit list.
We all know that Stephen Harper can't be trusted to play fair with anyone he perceives to be an enemy. Maybe it's time for the NDP leadership candidates and Liberal Leader Bob Rae to propose a long-term solution to prevent prime ministers from throttling registered charities for partisan political purposes.
The best way to do that would be to craft legislation to create an independent charities commission.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.