A year ago I wrote stories about the Conservative government’s ham-handed bullying of the Canadian ecumenical social justice group KAIROS. The story is now in the news again in a way that would be comic if it were not so nasty. It provides yet another glimpse into the ideologically driven spitefulness of the government, not to mention the lack of competence and truthfulness on the part of Bev Oda, the minister in charge of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Let’s begin with some background. KAIROS is an ecumenical human rights and justice organization that acts on behalf of 11 of Canada’s churches and church-based organizations. It includes under its umbrella the Anglican, Catholic, Christian Reformed, Lutheran, Presbyterian and United Churches, as well as the Mennonite Central Committee, the Quakers and others.
A 35-year relationship
KAIROS, or its predecessor groups, have received money from CIDA (the Canadian International Development Agency) for 35 years to support work in some of the world’s most troubled regions. The thinking behind such partnerships is that smaller NGOs, some of them church-based, can do things some things more effectively than government and go places where government cannot. For example, I wrote last year about attending a fund raising dinner in support of a legal clinic for women in eastern Congo. Those women have been gang raped and brutalized by marauding young men who fight in armies and militias. KAIROS was collecting money for the project.
In March 2009, KAIROS submitted a proposal to CIDA for the years 2009-13. The application moved through various levels of approval before arriving on Bev Oda’s desk in July, where it languished for months. Then, on November 30 KAIROS received a phone call from a functionary saying that CIDA would not approve the request for $7.1 million over four years. When KAIROS asked for an explanation, they were tersely informed that their program did not fit the government’s priorities. When questioned in the House of Commons, Ms. Oda would only say that KAIROS lost its funding because of shifting priorities at CIDA.
Kenney slurs KAIROS
Then on December 16, Jason Kenney, the Immigration Minister, used a speech to a conference in Jerusalem to make an astonishing statement. He accused KAIROS of being anti-Semitic, a charge that both astounded and angered KAIROS and its member churches. Many organizations and governments, KAIROS among them, have criticized the state of Israel for its long-standing and illegal occupation of Palestinian land and its continued harsh treatment of Palestinians.
For Kenney and some others any criticism of Israeli government policies is quickly branded as anti-Semitism. KAIROS said in a statement released on December 18. “Two points need to be made: Criticism of Israel does not constitute anti-Semitism; and CIDA was developed to fund international aid and not to serve political agendas.” Kenney later attempted to deny that he had made that accusation but the transcript of his remarks carried in the National Post newspaper at the time clearly indicates that he did say that.
KAIROS asked its supporters to contact their MPs requesting that the CIDA decision be reversed. The money was not restored and despite Kenney’s odd and preposterous claims the government largely stuck to its story that dumping KAIROS was the result of CIDA’s changing aid priorities. But that explanation has now been publicly debunked in a manner most embarrassing to Minister Oda and the government.
CIDA document tampering
In October 2010, Embassy magazine obtained the documents prepared for Ms. Oda regarding the KAIROS grant application. Embassy reported that in September 2009 the application had been approved and signed by CIDA’s president and also its acting vice-president. Ms. Oda’s also signed the memorandum, which was dated November 27.Â However, while the memorandum recommended that the project be approved, a hand-written notation inserted 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.”
This crude procedure to alter the memo completely undercuts assertions by Ms. Oda and the government that the KAIROS proposal did not meet the aid agency’s priorities. As Embassy reports: “[The] altered memo has reinforced allegations that the decision was entirely political.” Think back to Minister Kenney’s allegation of anti-Semitism, or possibly other nasty paybacks to KAIROS for questioning rapid development at all costs in the Alberta tar sands.
Ms. Oda, along with CIDA president Margaret Biggs, were called in early December 2010 to testify on the matter before parliamentary committee. Ms. Biggs acknowledged under questioning that she had recommended that the minister approve the KAIROS proposal. Ms. Oda also told sceptical MPs that she doesn’t know who altered the memorandum by adding the word NOT.
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.
Liberal committee member Bob Rae said that someone’s adding the word NOT to change the meaning of the document could amount to fraud. “This is tampering with a document which leaves a completely misleading impression as to what was really taking place,” he said. Oda also claimed before the committee that she does not remember signing the memorandum – although her signature is clearly on it – and she said the signature may have made with an electronic pen.
On December 15, a coalition of aid groups held a news conference in Ottawa to warn that Canadian aid funding is getting more political, at the risk of wasting taxpayers’ money. One of the spokespersons was Gerry Barr, president of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC), an umbrella group representing dozens of foreign aid organizations. Barr had publicly criticized the government in December 2009 for cutting off KAIROS. His organization was later dropped by CIDA in June 2010 and has had to lay off most of its staff and sell its Ottawa building. Barr said at the December 15 news conference that the government chopped CCIC because their complaints weren’t welcome. The Ottawa Sun quoted him as saying: “There was an effort to apply political discipline.” He said that the relationship between the aid sector and CIDA is increasingly troubled.
KAIROS, according to its executive director Mary Corkery, has now submitted a new application to CIDA. She chose the diplomatic road in a newspaper interview, saying that it was “a wonderful affirmation” to learn that CIDA’s president had approved the 2009 project application — despite the fact that someone placed a NOT in the memorandum.
The one good thing that may have occurred as a result of this nasty farce is that KAIROS intensified its efforts to communicate with its base of support among its member churches and individuals. I plan to write another cheque this year to the legal clinic for women in the Congo supported by KAIROS. You can do the same by double clicking here.