Vancouver tells non-profits seeking funding to be “respectful,” fuelling free speech concerns

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      An amendment passed by Vancouver City Council yesterday that would require non-profits applying for municipal funding to be “respectful” has raised alarm over whether organizations who critique the council could see their funding cut.

      The motion, proposed by ABC Coun. Peter Meizner, directs staff to create proposed requirements of grant recipients “to communicate to, about, and with City officials in a respectful manner that is in keeping with the City’s respectful workplace and related policies.” 

      During discussion, Coun. Meizner read a quote, without name. The Vancouver Sun reported it came from Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice’s program manager Rachel Lau, who spoke to the Canadian Press shortly after the municipal election last fall. 

      “I know that the Chinese Canadian community is really excited about the first Chinese Canadian mayor. I just want to point out that just because somebody looks like you doesn’t mean that they are actually going to take care of you. That’s the unfortunate truth,” Lau said.

      According to Coun. Meizner, “And then they went on to say they were very disappointed by the election of our mayor. This, to me, is a huge red flag … This, to me, is language that would never be tolerated in this council chamber under our respectful workplace policy. It would be called out of order immediately, it’s very personal.”

      While the amendment passed unanimously in council, Green Coun. Pete Fry noted that he struck down the original wording that would ask grant recipients to be “non-partisan.” He also said that, in his opinion, Lau’s comments “don’t run afoul” of the respectful workplace policy. 

      OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle said she voted for the amendment as it “seemed innocuous,” but later wished she hadn’t. 

      “ABC’s perception that no-one should be allowed to criticize them is an alarming precedent for government,” she said. 

      Although the amendment did not actively cut any organization’s funding at the time, observers immediately suggested that it could have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech. 

      Research lawyer Peter Waldkirch said the comment from Lau was “not inappropriate,” and noted that the policy conflated criticism of the ABC party with criticism of the broader City and Council.

      Similarly, New Westminster Coun. Nadine Nakagawa called the policy “complicated and concerning.” In a thread, she wrote that politicians should not have to endure harassment, but that valid critique did not constitute disrespectful communication.

      “Organizations should not have to be ‘respectful’ to those in positions of power and authority if that means they can’t criticize policies or priorities,” she wrote. 

      Currently, city staff process lists of funding requests and present reports to council recommending who should receive grants, and how much. Not every request is funded: the most recent community services and social grants report has 27 grants that meet current eligibility criteria, but “funding [was] not recommended as grants budget is limited and other applications rated higher in addressing City priorities.” The report recommended 105 grants, totalling $5,380,097. All recommended grants were approved by the council.

      Jill Atkey, CEO of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, said in a tweet that harassment of elected officials is unacceptable—but so, too, is defunding organizations who disagree with policies. “We should all be watching closely,” she said. 

      The City’s respectful workplace policy defines disrespectful behaviour as causing offense, humiliation or intimidation and having a “demonstrably negative effect on the complainant.” Examples include public ridicule, profanity or violent language, and “insulting, derogatory or degrading comments.” 

      While, as Coun. Fry notes, Lau’s comments would not seem to fall under this umbrella, the fact they were used by a councillor in bringing up the motion suggests that some politicians feel even relatively tame critique, done in a personal capacity, could be considered enough to disqualify funding.  

      Mutual aid organizer Amal Ishaque, who has worked with Yarrow Society, noted that using respectful workplace language to shut down valid criticisms of politicians was an “unsurprising irony of all ironies.” 

      And it’s not just social or community groups who will be affected. Filmmaker Kevin Eastwood saw the motion as an attempt to limit artists’ voices. 

      “No government should regulate what artists can or can’t say about politicians,” he wrote on Twitter. 

      The current Council has already limited arts grants based on politics. 

      The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) were denied a third year of their arts table grant earlier this year, due to a disagreement over a different city-funded program that VANDU had run. A successful crowdfunding campaign stepped up, but the decision was condemned by arts organizations and advocates at the time as “vindictive.” 

      Given the scope of the amendment’s wording of “communicat[ing] to, about, and with City officials,” and Lau’s own comments being taken from a news story, non-profit staff members may be more reluctant to speak to the media about their views. 

      The Tyee reporter Jen St. Denis noted that non-profits were already wary of speaking to her because “they’re worried their funding could be cut. Now it will be even worse.”