By Merrily Weisbord, Globe and Mail, February 6, 2011
It’s discomforting to watch politicians spend billions on self-serving attack ads and staged announcements of new prisons and fighter planes, while ignoring such vital issues as that which the People’s Food Policy Project calls “a crisis in Canada’s food system.” In our country, child hunger grows at an alarming rate, food bank use has increased 28 per cent in two years (almost 900,000 people in March of 2010, 38 per cent under 18) and the average farm income in Canada is negative $20,000 a year. If farmers didn’t work outside the farm, there would be no family farms.
The People’s Food Policy Project, a pan-Canadian initiative of more than 3,500 citizens and grassroots organizations, will present Canada’s first food sovereignty policy report in April. For our country to solve grave problems, such as a food system in crisis, we require open political discourse. A government deaf to, or repressive of, society’s grassroots voices doesn’t engage in civil political discourse.
Yet, according to Voices, a volunteer coalition monitoring the past five years’ defunding of independent non-profit, faith groups and community organizations, more than 40 such groups have been cut or defunded, including: Court Challenges Program; South Asian Women’s Centre; Canadian Institute for the Advancement of Women; Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples; and Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada Community Action Resource Centre.
Independent institutions that protect democratic rights have also been targeted. More than a dozen leaders of key, supposedly non-partisan organizations have been fired, forced out, publicly maligned or have resigned. These include: Linda Keen, chair, Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission; Adrian Measner, president and CEO, Canadian Wheat Board; Munir Sheikh, chief statistician of Canada; and Rémy Beauregard, president, Rights & Democracy.
When government silences or diminishes respected public institutions and NGOs, it weakens our ability to participate in the democratic process. We must nurture these organizations as expressions of our citizenry. If Canadians aspire to civil political discourse, government must respect and attend to the voices of its civil society.