Time for a Human Rights Defenders Action Plan: the Shrinking Space for Advocacy and Dissent in Canada

Last month Voices-Voix, a coalition of 200 organizations – large and small, local and national – from all corners of the country, released a deeply troubling report detailing what has become a campaign, some go so far as to say siege, against advocacy and dissent in Canada. It is a gloomy but necessary report, well worth a read.

My own organization, Amnesty International, has been centrally involved in Voices since the outset. Voices came together in 2010 because it had become clear that a growing number of groups and individuals who expressed views that went against federal government views on a variety of important public policy issues were facing consequences for doing so.

The coalition took the name of Voices-Voix, because that is exactly what was at stake; the ability to raise voices and speak out freely without fear of repercussions. And the new report, the result of five years of carefully documenting over 100 examples of a growing variety of punitive measures, carries the title Dismantling Democracy, because that too is very much at stake; maintaining strong, vibrant democracy in Canada.

When Voices came together the common experiences and connections across and among organizations and individuals, many of whom had never before collaborated with each other, were immediately evident.

First were the particular issues that were the most obvious hot buttons: women’s human rights and gender equality; the land rights and equality rights of Indigenous peoples; the rights of Palestinians; national security and counter-terrorism; the war in Afghanistan; and environmental protection, pipelines and the oilsands.

Second, it was not just about civil society groups and activists. Parliamentary agencies, oversight bodies, civil servants, diplomats, government scientists, United Nations officials and others also soon came under attack.

And third were the measures and tactics used: deliberate and often crushing funding cuts; targeted charitable audits to examine the level of ‘political activities’ carried out by groups with charitable status; public vilification and character attacks; stifling government scientists; and firing or not-renewing public servants and watchdogs.

The impact was felt quickly and deeply. Respected organizations were shut down, such as the world renown parliamentary agency, Rights & Democracy, which was torn apart by conflict that erupted when new government appointees to its Board opposed funding that had been given to Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups documenting abuses against Palestinians. Entire programs of work were discontinued at some groups, such as the Feminist Alliance for International Action. Nongovernmental groups were forced to lay off valued and experienced staff, as was the case with the Canadian Council for International Cooperation. Important sources of information and analysis disappeared, such as when the long-form census was abandoned and research institutions like the National Council on Welfare were shuttered. And activists began to look over their physical and virtual shoulders when the extent of in-person and on-line government surveillance of human rights defenders like First Nations children advocate Dr. Cindy Blackstock came to light.

But perhaps most ominously of all, a chill was cast over advocacy and dissent in the country. It became clear that freedom of expression was on the line. This was not Iran, China or Uzbekistan. Activists and critics were not being arrested and locked up; and were not at risk of torture and enforced disappearance. But they were being punished in other ways, be it for questioning government decisions, opposing law reforms, or pointing to government transgressions.

And as a result groups and individuals have begun to second guess and doubt whether or not to take up a campaign, attend a rally, express opposition in a media interview, or sign on to public statements. Not all. Not always. But many. And often.

There may be some who say it isn’t such a bad thing for government to cut-back funding to civil society groups. There may be others who point out there is nothing wrong with regular audits to ensure charitable groups stay on the straight and narrow. There may be any number of people who assume this is just a story about whining and complaining inside the Ottawa bubble.

But this is much graver and more ominous than just whinging about funding cuts and audits.

Governments come and governments go. They have different priorities and make different funding choices. That is expected and it keeps society lively and evolving. But never before have we seen such an unrelenting campaign of funding decisions and other measures that are designed as ideological punishment; designed to enforce orthodoxy and compliance and discourage discourse and debate. When we lose that space in Canada, and when groups and individuals become hesitant and fearful to speak out about what is happening; we are all diminished.

This truly is unprecedented in Canada. And it is starting to get noticed outside Canada as well. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association has expressed concern and asked questions. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, an important UN body charged with overseeing implementation of one of the most important and wide-ranging global human rights treaties, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, will be reviewing Canada’s human rights record in July, the first such review in ten years. In advance of the review the Committee has highlighted a number of concerns and asked the Canadian government to be prepared to address those issues.

Please also comment on… reports indicating that freedom of expression is being restricted by punitive measures against civil society organizations and human rights defenders that promote women’s equality, the rights of Palestinians, and environmental protection and corporate social responsibility…. [1]

With a federal election around the corner it is a crucial time to bring these concerns to the fore. Around the world Amnesty International has urged governments to take up UN advice that countries should put in place national action plans for supporting and protecting the work of human rights defenders. In the past there certainly did not seem to be any pressing need to do so in Canada. That has most certainly changed. Going into the election we will be looking to the parties to make a commitment to do just that. It is upsetting to acknowledge it, but Canada needs a Human Rights Defenders Action Plan.

The Voices-Voix report is available at


[1] Human Rights Committee, List of issues in relation to the sixth periodic report of Canada, para. 18.

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