Chill settles over relations between Ottawa and church agencies

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Will Braun | Senior Writer

Unlike the directors of many non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Jennifer Henry can speak freely. She’s the head of Kairos, a social justice organization representing seven of Canada’s largest denominations, including Mennonites.

Kairos is well-known for having $7 million worth of government funding abruptly axed in 2009 by Bev Oda, who was then the minister responsible for CIDA (the Canadian International Development Agency). That cut is exactly why Henry can now say what’s on her mind; she doesn’t have to worry about offending the holders of government purse strings.

It’s also part of the reason why some NGOs that still rely on CIDA money are nervous about what they say. This “chill” is the new reality in the NGO sector.

While Kairos never received a straight answer about why it was cut, most observers assume it was because the organization’s advocacy on particular issues—perhaps abuses by Canadian mining companies overseas—aggravated government. Several other NGOs have also been cut.

Henry says historically government has been willing to work with organizations that offered “an element of criticism or alternative proposal making.” That was “welcome,” she says, “as part of a vibrant democracy.” But not any more.

In contrast to Henry’s candid critique, a spokeswoman for CARE Canada repeatedly defended and praised both CIDA and Oda in carefully calculated remarks on CBC recently. This, despite over $5 billion in cuts to Canada’s foreign aid commitments since 2010 and despite the fact that Oda had just resigned after a scandal-ridden term in which she lied about her involvement in the defunding of Kairos and was forced to apologize for spending public money on an uber-posh London hotel.

CARE received $24 million from CIDA last year.

“There’s been a lot of anxiety in the sector,” says Jim Cornelius who chairs the board of the Canadian Council on International Cooperation, a coalition of NGOs that do development work and promote social justice. It was also cut by CIDA.

Ironically, Cornelius also serves as director of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) which is in the second year of a five-year, $125-million grant from CIDA. When the funding was announced, Minister Oda called CFGB “Canada’s biggest contributor to ending global hunger.”

The $125 million is applied primarily as matching grants to boost funds raised by the 15 faith-based development agencies that make up CFGB’s membership. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is the largest of these members.

Cornelius believes CFGB has succeeded in securing CIDA money partly because of the agency’s “distinct” expertise and programming, as well as its strong public support, particularly among rural Canadians.

The current chill has not changed CFGB’s policy and advocacy work. “We have a very diverse ideological support base so we tend to be moderate in our approach,” says Cornelius. “We have always taken a constructive engagement approach.”

In April, CFGB released an unflattering release about the federal budget. It noted that government cuts would result in hundreds of millions of dollars less in aid for “the world’s neediest citizens.”

In contrast, when Bev Oda resigned amidst widespread criticism, CFGB issued a release entitled “Bev Oda Leaves Positive Legacy at CIDA for Hungry People.” That release was removed from the CFGB website after feedback from other NGOs. Emily Cain, who speaks for CFGB, says it will be re-issued with a different title and a more narrow focus on Oda’s efforts related to food security. Cain says this will more accurately reflect CFGB’s original intent.

The new CIDA reality is also on MCC’s mind. After receiving CIDA money almost continuously since 1968, MCC was unsuccessful in its 2011 bid for $8.7 million of CIDA funding. MCC still accesses about $4 million per year for projects funded through its account with CFGB.

Don Peters, who heads MCC Canada, says the organization will likely seek CIDA funding again but only if the sorts of projects CIDA is looking for are a good fit for MCC. Before applying for money, Peters says MCC would ask whether doing so would “in any way compromise the work we do.” He says MCC is “determined to ask that question very seriously.”

Peters notes that MCC is less dependent on CIDA money than many NGOs.

In terms of its advocacy work, the chill has not stopped MCC from openly opposing federal immigration policy and the recent omnibus crime bill. “MCC needs to say what it needs to say,” Peters says. It needs to speak “with integrity” and on the “basis of relationships with partners around the world.”

Jennifer Henry also emphasizes mandate over money in the current political climate. “As organizations we have to be true to our mandates,” she says. “Losing your mandate is much more critical to an organization than losing your CIDA funding.”

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How I wish we would have a government that cared more about helping people get out of poverty than about spending crazy amounts of money on fighter jets. May God grant our world leaders much wisdom in how to rule and how to spend tax dollars...hoping and praying!

I am glad to read that MCC will continue to speak openly and honestly about issues as they arise. ANd I commend them for openly opposing federal immigration policy and the recent omnibus crime bill. We, as the public and as Christinas, also need to speak up about these issues and other issues like mining and pipelines. And if MCC loses funding because of that, we need to support them, not only with our words, but also with our finances.

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