OTTAWA - Canada's commitment to strengthening struggling democracies will likely be a key message as the prime minister travels to Latin America next week — but the federal budget tells a different story.
Some of the government's tools for helping democratic institutions flourish abroad are disappearing, including Elections Canada's direct assistance for foreign elections in developing democracies. It lent a hand in Haiti's elections in 2006 and in 2010.
"Elections Canada will limit its international role in 2012–2013 to that of contributing to the work of multilateral organizations, such as the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Organization of American States," said spokesman John Enright.
This week, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird revealed that the federally funded International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, known as Rights and Democracy, would close its doors.
Over the last year, the arm's-length agency had organized trips to hotspots Burma and Libya to examine where Canada could be of assistance. It had worked on the Burma file for two decades.
But Rights and Democracy was swept up by controversy in recent years because of internal infighting and allegations the Conservatives had stacked the board with ideological friends.
Baird said the organization's work would be absorbed into his department, but a spokesman said it would be weeks or months before decisions were made about how this would unfold.
"I can tell you that a portion of the $11 million in funding that had been earmarked for Rights and Democracy's operations will continue to go to human rights and democracy promotion," Joseph Lavoie said Wednesday.
"But ... the goal is to further these foreign policy goals more effectively and efficiently within the department."
The cloud around Rights and Democracy had also served to dampen cabinet's enthusiasm for the creation of a democracy-promotion centre, promised by Stephen Harper in the 2008 Speech from the Throne. There hasn't been a peep about the idea in more than a year.
Foreign Affairs is facing $523.5 million in budget cuts over four years, but two programs that do work in strengthening democracy won't be affected: the Global Peace and Security Program and the Glyn Berry Program.
The department cited its own limitations in a critical assessment of the government's Americas Strategy last year, pointing to the "limited funds" available for governance activities and questioning how the government would meet its objectives in the region.
"Canada is losing its position and its reputation in the area of democracy promotion," New Democrat MP Helene Laverdiere said during question period Wednesday.
"We do believe in promoting freedom," Baird retorted. "We do believe in promoting democracy and human rights. Promoting Canadian values is one of the two priorities of this government and our foreign policy."
At the same time, the Canadian International Development Agency or CIDA has virtually vacated the democracy-promotion business, with governance removed as a core priority.
As a result, the Canadian Foundation for the Americas or FOCAL shut its doors last fall as CIDA funding virtually dried up. Like Rights and Democracy, it had been created by Brian Mulroney but under Harper's Conservatives saw its federal funding evaporate.
Still, groups such as the Parliamentary Centre and the Canadian Bar Association are managing to hang on to pockets of funding for their international work.
Jean-Paul Ruszkowski, president of the Parliamentary Centre, says funding for democratic development is a small component of CIDA funding and winds up "under the radar screen" for the government and the public. His centre gets funding from large multilateral organizations such as the World Bank or the United Nations Development Program — organizations Canada also contributes to.
"I have a feeling that there's no great appetite in the public for increasing international co-operation like there used to be let's say 20 years ago," said Ruszkowski.
"I think that Canadian society has been changing significantly its priorities from a high-level of comfort with our well-being, to concerns about our jobs. The environment is not the most propitious for investments outside of Canada."