Lawrence Solomon: Environmentalists for a foreign agenda

(December 12, 2013) Canadians have no clue when the exhortations coming from Sierra Club, Greenpeace or the David Suzuki Foundation are financed by U.S. interests.

By Lawrence Solomon for the National Post, published on December 12, 2013

Without some $100-million that U.S. foundations have spent swaying us to their point of view, tar sands development and the shipment of tar sands oil would be far less contentious a public issue. Credit: The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward.

Without some $100-million that U.S. foundations have spent swaying us to their point of view, tar sands development and the shipment of tar sands oil would be far less contentious a public issue. Credit: The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward.

We don’t allow foreigners to vote in our political campaigns for the obvious reason that our political leaders should court, and be accountable to, Canadians alone. We don’t allow foreigners to donate to political parties for a similar reason – we don’t want our politics to be unduly influenced by a foreign agenda. But we do allow foreigners to pursue their agenda in another way – by funding willing Canadian NGOs to make their case for them. Is this funding desirable in a free and democratic nation and if not, are there any remedies?

These questions have become acute due to the investigative work of Vivian Krause, an independent researcher whose articles on this page have in voluminous detail exposed the extent to which U.S. foundations fund activities in Canada, most notably to influence Canadians and Canadian policy over our tar sands, the chief target of global warming activists.  Without some $100-million that U.S. foundations have spent swaying us to their point of view, tar sands development and the shipment of tar sands oil would be far less contentious a public issue.

Imagine Canada, a group that represents Canadian charities, argues that there’s nothing untoward about foreigners influencing our policies. “Issues such as energy, forest and ocean conservation, and climate change are global in nature and attract international philanthropy,” it states. “The support that flows into Canada is a testament to the perceived value and uniqueness of Canada’s ecosystems to the global community.” Moreover, Imagine Canada adds, allowing foreigners to donate to Canadian causes is a two-way street since “Canadians are allowed to donate to causes they support in other countries.”

Sweet words but they belie a sour asymmetry. For one thing, the U.S. foundations include multi-billion dollar activist organizations, built of fortunes from the Fords and Rockefellers, the Hewletts and Packards, that dwarf anything that exists in Canada. As if that didn’t provide them enough advantage, the U.S. foundations act in concert, deciding among themselves what the priorities for the nation and beyond should be, the better to concentrate pressure. There is no two-way street – U.S. foundations can and do routinely influence Canadian policy; Canadian foundations can’t and don’t influence U.S. policy. The U.S. influence, moreover, is all the more powerful because most Canadians have no clue when the exhortations coming from Sierra Club, Greenpeace or the David Suzuki Foundation are financed by U.S. interests, to further a U.S. agenda.

The asymmetry is even more pronounced because, unlike Canada, the U.S. has a law – the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) – specifically designed to ensure Americans know who, exactly, seeks to plant thoughts in their minds. “The purpose of FARA is to insure that the U.S. government and the people of the United States are informed of the source of information and the identity of persons attempting to influence U.S. public opinion, policy, and laws,” explains the United States Department of Justice website. Moreover, Americans are informed on a timely basis and in a prominent manner – for example, on foreign-funded literature or at the entrance to a foreign-funded event.

The law, created during the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration in 1938, was designed to curb the success of the then-popular American Nazis, whom the government suspected were being funded by Hitler. FARA didn’t ban Nazis from making their case to the American public but it did provide the public with the right to know where its financial backing came from. After World War II FARA became a feature of U.S. political life, applied to peace and environmental causes as well as those overtly political.

FARA’s detractors likened this “right to know” to censorship, calling it an unwarranted curb on free speech. In 1982, the detractors sued when FARA applied the label of “political propaganda” to three Canadian films — two involved acid rain, the third was the anti-war Academy Award winner, If You Love This Planet. Audiences did not need to be told about these film’s foreign origins, they argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court disagreed. In an unambiguous 1987 decision, it found value in public disclosure of material from those who might have an alien agenda, “so that the government and the people of the United States may be informed of the identity of such persons and may appraise their statements and actions in the light of their associations and activities.” More recently, critics of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Hamas-linked Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) employed FARA to seek timely disclosure of foreign funded activities.

If Canada had FARA-like legislation, our environmental politics would be transformed. Take David Suzuki, one of Canada’s most admired individuals. Over the last decade, Suzuki has put his celebrity and his reputation at the service of the environmental causes he believes in so passionately. But would he have done so if he had to let his audience know, every time he gave a speech or an interview on a foreign-backed campaign, that his words came courtesy of foreign money?

Not a chance. Suzuki’s brand is far too valuable to tarnish with the taint of foreign money. He would have foregone the foreign funds – Krause estimates them to total at least $14-million — and operated his campaigns at the reduced levels commensurate with the Canadian funding available to him. Other environmentalists with an important brand, such as Sierra Club, might well also have eschewed the foreign funds.

Some Canadian environmentalists would have accepted the U.S. money but this could have done their cause more harm than good – with Canadians now aware of who was paying the piper, the environmentalists’ tune would have hit a sour note, so sour that the U.S. funders might even have decided that continued funding of Canadian NGOs wouldn’t be furthering their agenda.

Opposition to the tar sands wouldn’t end but it would be dramatically scaled back. Without the large American pot of money to tap, Canadian environmentalism might revert, too, to the pre-U.S.-money period when Canadian environmentalists determined their own priorities, rather than subordinate them to the dictates of foreign funders. The Canadian environment as a whole would then benefit, as would Canadian democracy.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Toronto-based Energy Probe.

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About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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