04/17/2019 17:17 EDT | Updated 04/17/2019 17:53 EDT

Jason Kenney’s Vow To Probe Foreign Funding Doesn't Faze Environmental Charities

Alberta’s incoming premier is seemingly no fan of the David Suzuki Foundation or Leadnow.

Jeff McIntosh/CP
United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney addresses supporters in Calgary on April 16, 2019.

OTTAWA — Two charities are brushing off Alberta premier-designate Jason Kenney's threat to probe their finances, resurrecting an old animus between Conservatives and environmental groups.

Kenney's United Conservative Party handedly defeated Rachel Notley's New Democrats Tuesday, sweeping into power with a majority government. His lengthy victory speech in a Calgary ballroom focused on supporting Alberta's energy sector and took aim at four charities for campaigning against domestic oil and gas development.

The UCP leader singled-out groups that he said act on behalf of "foreign-funded special interests" who want to "sabotage" Alberta's economy.

"To the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Tides Foundation, Leadnow, the David Suzuki Foundation and all of the others: your days of pushing around Albertans with impunity just ended," Kenney told a rapturous crowd of supporters.

Watch: Premier-designate Jason Kenney delivers victory speech

The incoming premier vowed to use "every means" at the provincial government's disposal to hold, what he called, the groups' "defamation" campaigns to account. "We will launch a public inquiry into the foreign source of funds behind the campaign to landlock Alberta energy," he pledged.

David Suzuki Foundation CEO Stephen Cornish told HuffPost Canada Kenney's tough words are an attack on a "fundamental pillar" of modern democracy. According to the charity, 93 per cent of its funding came from Canadian donors in 2016/2017.

He said not-for-profits and charities have long been involved in making "positive, meaningful social change" in Canada and internationally.

Kenney appears to be taking a page from prime minister Stephen Harper's playbook. The former federal Conservative government, in which Kenney served as a cabinet minister, sought to shut down opposition from critics by launching Canada Revenue Agency audits for charities engaged in political activities.

Cornish told HuffPost Canada that the David Suzuki Foundation passed its political activities audit "without any issues."

Kevin Bissett/CP
File photo of environmentalist David Suzuki speaks at a Green Party rally in Moncton, N.B. on Sept. 21, 2018.

Kenney, Cornish said, should use provincial funds to develop a stronger climate plan rather than fight environmental groups.

"The time and money he proposes spending to investigate charities would be better spent helping tackle the biggest problem facing our planet right now: climate change."

Tides Canada agrees.

Joanna Kerr is president and CEO of the Vancouver-headquartered charity, which is separate from the San Francisco-based Tides Foundation singled out by Kenney in his victory speech.

... the path is wide open for Albertans to join the clean green economy.Joanna Kerr, Tides Canada president and CEO

Kerr said less than one per cent of its funding has gone toward pipeline and oilsands-related initiatives. She suggested the premier-designate is being short-sighted by blaming the province's oil woes on advocacy groups.

"Mr. Kenney can call out environmental groups and U.S. funders, but investors are rapidly switching to clean energy," she said. "Instead of hanging on to what are essentially the VCRs of the energy sector, the path is wide open for Albertans to join the clean green economy."

Kenney, who left federal politics in 2016, claimed throughout the election campaign that Alberta has been targeted by foreign-funded campaigns bent on hurting the province's oil industry.

Back in 2015, the Commissioner of Canada Elections launched an investigation into the activities of Leadnow, another Vancouver-based advocacy group with charitable status, after Conservatives alleged the group used foreign money to oust Tory MPs during that year's election

According to the National Observer, the investigation closed last year with no evidence that Leadnow used any foreign money for its election advertising.

More from HuffPost Canada:

The Political Activities Audit Program launched in 2012 after then-natural resources minister Joe Oliver criticized "environmental and other radical groups" for attempting to undermine Canadian energy projects "to achieve their radical ideological agenda."

Experts warned the lack of a definition for "political activity" would create an advocacy "chill" and deter charitable groups from participating in public policy development.

The Liberals campaigned on the issue, pledging to clarify CRA rules on what constitutes "political activity." The CRA program was suspended in May 2017.

The Liberal government introduced new rules last fall.

Chief elections officer warns of foreign interference in 'other forms'

It's up to provincial and territorial election bodies to reinforce their own rules governing third parties and foreign contributions. Current federal laws already prohibit third parties from accepting foreign funds to pay for advertising during the writ period.

Elections Canada requires all third parties that participate in election advertising to file detailed income and expense statements about their activities. The restrictions were introduced in the Liberals' omnibus elections bill last year — but there's a limit to what issues the amended laws can inoculate against.

Stéphane Perrault, the country's chief elections officer, told a Commons committee in November that there are other worthy issues beyond concerns over foreign funds fuelling third-party partisan campaigns.

"Foreign interference can take other forms, including disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks," he said.

An update to the Communication Security Establishment's 2017 Cyber Threats to Canada's Democratic Process released last week echoed Perrault's concerns. The election-year report stated Canadians are "very likely" to encounter some form of foreign cyber interference before voting day.

The next federal election date is scheduled to take place Oct. 21.

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