By Dennis Gruending Pulpit and Politics 2011. Used by permission. All rights reserved
I have posted several pieces over the past year about the Harper government’s decision to deny project money to the ecumenical social justice group KAIROS. I have also written about CIDA Minister Bev Oda’s deceitful behaviour in the whole matter. For months this story was in the back pages of the newspapers and nowhere on television, but now the parliamentary chickens have come home to roost. Oda lied to a parliamentary committee in December and now the political opposition is demanding that she be fired and found in contempt of parliament. There is a longstanding tradition that ministers can duck, bob and weave in what they say but they cannot tell outright lies. Minister Oda and the government spent the week of February 14th trying to ride this out until the parliamentary break. What happened here, what does it mean and does it matter? KAIROS is an inter-church coalition that has been around for a long time. It is well respected and does good work internationally, particularly on social justice and human rights issues. KAIROS also has a habit of speaking its mind on public issues. It has offered criticisms of Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. KAIROS has also raised questions about the rapid development of the tar sands in Alberta and of certain environmental and human rights practices of Canadian mining companies working in developing countries.
In November 2009, CIDA cut off funding to KAIROS and neither the organization nor Minister Oda would explain why, beyond the generalization that CIDA’s priorities had changed and KAIROS did not meet them. However, in December 2009, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney spoke at a conference in Jerusalem and said that KAIROS was cut off because it was an anti-Semitic organization and that it was promoting an economic boycott of Israel. KAIROS and a number of its member churches hotly denied both allegations but Kenney’s comments had elevated the issue to a new and particularly nasty level.
Skip ahead to October 2010. Someone provided to Embassy magazine in Ottawa with a copy of a CIDA document clearly indicating that the president and acting vice-president had sent a proposal to Oda recommending that the KAIROS money be approved. However, somebody made a crude hand-written notation in the text inserting the word “NOT” into the final sentence. As a result, the document read as follows: “Recommendation: That you sign below to indicate you NOT approve the contribution of $7,098,758.” The news story blew Mr. Oda’s cover about its being CIDA and not she who had refused the grant, and it reinforced suspicions that the decision was political payback by the Harper government — bullies who do not like KAIROS and who will not tolerate criticism of any kind.
Oda testifies at committee
Ms. Oda, along with CIDA president Margaret Biggs, was called in early December 2010 to testify before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs committee. Ms. Biggs admitted under questioning that she had recommended that the KAIROS proposal be approved. She testified that the word NOT had not been in the document when she signed it and sent it to Minister Oda for her signature. Oda then told the committee that she doesn’t know who altered the memorandum by adding the word NOT. She also said it didn’t really matter.
Here is a brief bit of the exchange at the committee meeting between Ms. Oda and Liberal MP John McKay:
McKay: You were the one who wrote the ‘not’.
Oda: I did not say I was the one who wrote the ‘not’.
McKay: Who did then?
Oda: I do not know.
McKay: That’s a remarkable statement.
MPs later asked House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken to rule whether Ms. Oda had misled them. When he responded on February 10, Milliken was highly critical of Oda but said a procedural technicality prevented him from ruling on whether she misled the Commons and breached its rules. Oda’s parliamentary secretary, Jim Abbott, had earlier apologized for telling the Commons that CIDA turned down the KAIROS request because they found it didn’t meet their priorities. He said he did not know that was untrue when he said it.
All of this has occasioned a parliamentary firestorm, with opposition MPs using Question Period to call for Oda’s resignation. She did not respond to questions. That task was undertaken by Prime Minister Harper and cabinet minister John Baird. They defended Oda’s right to overrule her officials on projects and Harper said that no organization (read KAIROS) has an automatic right to be funded. That line of defence deliberately ignored the question of why Oda had implied for long months that it was CIDA officials who made the decision to cut off KAIROS, and the even more important question of whether she lied to fellow MPs. On February 15, Oda finally read a statement in the House of Commons in which she said: “The ‘not’ was inserted at my direction.” That was contrary to what she had told the Foreign Affairs committee on December. This admission has fuelled calls for her resignation but the opposition is also claiming that Oda’s orders most likely came from Harper himself. The opposition is attempting to turn this episode into a critique of Harper’s style of governing: bullying, secretive, anti-democratic and dishonest whenever the occasion requires.
What of Kairos?
What of KAIROS and other aid groups in all of this? KAIROS submitted another application for funds months ago but has heard nothing. The silver lining for the organization (if there is one) is that more Canadians will now have heard about it than ever before. KAIROS is even selling a T-shirt with an inscription that reads: KAIROS is (not) going away”. But other groups that have been critical of aspects of the government’s policy — including the Canadian Council for International Co-operation — have been cut off as well. And earlier in February newspaper reports indicated that Keith Fountain, Ms. Oda’s policy director, warned an aid organization that its policy positions were under scrutiny. “Be careful about your advocacy,” Mr. Fountain is reported to have said. He has since left Ms. Oda’s office. Cheryl Curtis, executive director of the Anglican Church’s Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, said government officials have not warned her organization, but that other aid organizations have reported such messages.
A flawed process
This indicates not only a measure of vindictiveness and arrogance on behalf of the government but also a seriously flawed way of determining public policy. An Access to Information request regarding KAIROS indicates officials from CIDA and other agencies found its work to be exemplary and indicated that its presence could make a difference in some of the world’s most troubled countries. So it would appear that a respected and effective organization was cut off simply because the Prime Minister or Jason Kenney don’t like them. That’s no way to run a railroad.