ForestEthics: Affidavit Accuses Prime Minister's Office Of Threatening Environmental Charity

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View of the Syncrude oil sands extraction facility near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta on October 25, 2009. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images) | AFP/Getty Images

A former employee of an environmental group critical of a proposed oilsands pipeline says the Prime Minister's Office threatened a funding agency if it didn't pull its support for the group.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper denies the allegations.

In a sworn affidavit released Tuesday to The Canadian Press, Andrew Frank says he was told by his supervisor at ForestEthics that a PMO official had referred to their organization as an "enemy of the state." The affidavit describes how staff were told their jobs were at risk after the official told Tides Canada, which supports the work of ForestEthics, that the government would "take down" all of the agency's projects unless it cut ForestEthics loose.

Tides gets most of its money from private foundations and assists a wide array of social and environmental charities in Canada — from Big Brothers and Big Sisters to the World Wildlife Fund. It also partners with major corporations and governments, including federal government agencies.

Frank says he was fired from his job as communications adviser at ForestEthics on Monday over his plans to go public.

His affidavit details a series of conversations allegedly held in early January between ForestEthics and Tides staff.

He says ForestEthics employees were summoned to a meeting on Jan. 5 in which the group's supervisor, Pierre Iachetti, told them the CEO of Tides, Ross McMillan, had been given a period of time in which to stop contributions to ForestEthics or the government would "take down" all of Tides's charitable projects.

ForestEthics has been behind efforts to encourage U.S. companies to avoid using oilsands-derived fuel in their transportation fleets. A total of 14 companies and one city have made commitments of varying strength.

ForestEthics has also worked to get people to sign up to address a National Energy Board review currently underway into Enbridge Inc.'s proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline between Alberta and Kitimat, B.C. More than 4,000 people have asked to appear.

Frank says Iachetti was attempting to find alternate funding sources to try to survive.

"The assumption was that Mr. McMillan had already decided to dissolve ForestEthics's public work in criticizing the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway oil tanker and pipeline plan in order to save the rest of Tides's projects."

The next day, Frank says, he heard the same story directly from Merran Smith, energy initiative director for Tides.

"She said that...someone at the PMO had described ForestEthics as 'an enemy of the government of Canada' and 'an enemy of the people of Canada' and had then made the threat that if ForestEthics was not dissolved or removed, Tides would meet an undesirable fate."

Other ForestEthics management corroborated the story over the next few days, says Frank.

He says he met directly with McMillan on Friday to inform him of his plans to go public with the information. He says McMillan did not deny the story, but compared Frank's plans to "setting off a bomb in your own house."

"He and (vice-president Sarah) Goodman suggested there were better ways of fighting back."

Andrew MacDougall, spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office, said none of the statements attributed to the government is accurate.

"The Prime Minister's Office denies making any of the allegations or saying any of the things that are outlined in that statement," he said.

He would not comment when asked if either Tides Canada or ForestEthics had been targeted by the government.

Tides Canada said no one from the organization would be doing interviews. In a statement, McMillan said he wouldn't comment on Frank's affidavit other than to say "his account of our conversations with government is inaccurate."

McMillan added: "The federal government has repeatedly and pointedly made its position clear regarding its concern about those voicing legitimate perspectives about the potential environmental and social risks related to the controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway proposal."

ForestEthics spokeswoman Valerie Langer said the group wouldn't comment on the accuracy of Frank's account. She did confirm that staff had been warned about a funding crunch.

"A lot of donors are getting scared that their giving to organizations will result in reprisals," she said. "Because of this it's made for a very uncertain outlook.

"The federal government has levelled its guns at our organizations."

More donors than ever are asking to give anonymously, Langer said.

In Canada, ForestEthics gets charitable status through Tides Canada. Tides also provides administrative support and some funding.

ForestEthics is supported by dozens of other foundations and thousands of individual donors, said Langer.

ForestEthics spokeswoman Tzeporah Berman said Tides and ForestEthics continue to have "positive" conversations.

The Commons finance committee is to begin a study later this month on the ways individuals and corporations donate and how to boost that generosity through tax incentives. The last federal budget recommended such a review.

There has been speculation about a Conservative crackdown on environmental and other foundations with charitable status that also do advocacy work.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has accused "environmental and other radical groups'' of trying to use money from "foreign special-interest groups'' to hijack the Northern Gateway hearings.

The Harper government has cut funding for critics before. In December 2010, the Canadian International Development Agency turned down a funding application by the relief organization Kairos.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney initially told an Israeli audience the group had been cut off due to its anti-Israel stance — an assertion Kairos said was patently untrue. International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda contradicted Kenney, saying the group simply no longer met the criteria for CIDA's foreign aid priorities. But an internal memo later surfaced, signed by Oda and CIDA's top two officials, indicating that the agency had actually recommended Kairos's application be approved.

In an interview, Frank said he is motivated by concern over his civil rights.

"I think Canadians need to know that behind the scenes, the Prime Minister's Office has apparently attempted to silence a legitimate voice and a critic of the proposed Enbridge oil tanker and pipeline project," he said.

"At the very highest levels of this government, Canadians who have a legitimate concern about this oilsands pipeline are being called enemies of the government of Canada and enemies of the people of Canada. And that's the language of anti-terrorism.

"When a government calls its own citizens enemies, you've lost your moral authority to govern."

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