Ahem... just the truth please, Senator

April 9, 2012

“Well, it all goes back to the price of gas,” came the Senator’s voice from my radio, and like other listeners I was hooked immediately.  But things went downhill from there, and before long I found myself recalling a favourite line from a John Cougar Mellencamp song: “You've got to stand for something; or you’re gonna fall for anything”.  Here’s why.

The context
There’s a lively discussion happening on the floor of the Senate of Canada these days.  The unelected Red Chamber, traditionally the sleepy stage for sober second thought on bills sent down the hall from our elected Parliament, has initiated its own inquiry about the sources of funding of environmental groups in Canada.  Senator Nicole Eaton is leading the charge, supported by several Conservative colleagues.

The voice on my radio was Senator Mike Duffy, being interviewed on the issue, responding to this question: “Why this interest in the Senate in how environmental groups get their funding?”
He could have argued that because non-profits and charities – including many environmental organizations – enjoy special tax benefits, it’s important to verify that they are following Revenue Canada’s rules.  That would be a legitimate question most reasonable Canadians could agree with.

But he didn’t take that high road.  Instead, he tossed out a diversion: the notion that Atlantic Canadians would have cheap gas if only the oil and tar sands industries didn’t have environmental groups interfering with their plans to bring Alberta tar sands crude east.  But in his effort to paint Canadian environmental groups as huge organizations heavily funded by US interests whose main goal is to deny us cheap gas, he got several basic facts wrong.

Senatorial errors
For example, Senator Duffy alleged that the David Suzuki Foundation is funded by foreign interests.  But a quick check of financial statements publicly listed on the Foundation's website indicates that in fact it receives 94% of its funding from Canadian sources, mostly individual donors.

Senator Duffy also claimed that the David Suzuki Foundation – or “little David Suzuki”, as he put it – “has 500 people on their staff.”  But a quick check with Jim Boothroyd, Director of Communications at the Foundation’s head office in Vancouver, and one learns that it in fact has a total of 70 staff – just 15% of what the senator would have listeners believe.

Finally, Senator Duffy expressed indignation that three groups opposing a pipeline project “have been given by the federal government $150,000”.  A quick check of the National Energy Board’s website confirms the amount is in fact $123,500 – well below the salary of a single senator.

It seems to me that leaders should always check their facts to be sure they are accurate – especially if they are former journalists.

Senatorial stretches
The senator went on.  Citing an “independent researcher”, Vivian Krause, he stated, “More than $300 million has been given by ten American foundations to a group of Canadian environmental groups who are opposed to the pipeline.”  That sounds ominous – until you dig a bit deeper and find that a) Vivian Krause has been associated with tar sands advocacy and the Conservative Party; b) the vast majority of that funding was actually directed to protecting the Great Bear Rainforest and Canada’s huge boreal forest; and c) that sum actually represents ten years worth of contributions, not one as implied.

Further, Senator Duffy pointed out that the David Suzuki Foundation has 16 paid lobbyists in Ottawa.  But then he declined to speculate on how many lobbyists the tar sands industry might have, adding, “I haven’t seen many pro-industry groups lately, have you?”  Perhaps he doesn’t watch television or hasn’t figured out that CAPP stands for Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

The issue
It seems clear that Senator Duffy and his colleagues are using their positions and considerable taxpayer-funded resources to target environmental groups that dare to oppose the tar sands industry.  But worse, it would seem Senator Duffy isn’t too concerned about the accuracy of what he says. 

I guess that’s why those John Cougar Mellencamp lyrics came back to me.  I guess I expect better from my leaders, even those that are unelected and earning huge salaries. 

I’d hope that reasonable minds reading this would share these concerns, and perhaps tap their leaders with a phone call, email or letter – even if, like me, it’s not in their comfort zones to do so. 

After all, as US journalist Edward Murrow stated, “A nation of sheep soon begets a government of wolves.”