Earlier this month the Trudeau government finally released registered charities from the strictures limiting their “political activity”.
Together, with so much else that happened during the Harper years, this mean-spirited regulation (legislated in 2012) cast a long and chilly shadow over all Canadian social justice, environmental and equality seeking groups. Over and above the actual restrictive effects was the pall of caution, bordering on fear, that dominated the sector.
But it was worse than that. Many mainstream groups acquiesced to the government’s new rules, citing the need to conform or lose both their funding and their status.
Such was the case with Oxfam Canada. Faced with a financial squeeze, they reacted politically. Short of money, the cutting of the one remaining position in St. John’s could be justified. What could not be justified though was their decision to sell the building on Duckworth Street that had acted as the focal point for social justice initiatives over its long history.
Partly in response to the political and financial chill in Ottawa, Oxfam began centralising its efforts in Ottawa. As part of that retrenchment, they proposed laying off the one staffperson in Newfoundland and selling the building on Duckworth – an idea that brought immediate and powerful local resistance.
The crumbly building in the heart of downtown, originally purchased in 1972 by local activists for the independent St John’s Oxfam, was the centre of local and global activism in St. John’s until 2013. It was more than merely an office — it was the centre of much social, political and environmental action and education in St. John’s.
Over 100 people showed up to confront former Oxfam Canada Executive Director Robert Fox when he tried to defend the decision in St. John’s. A committee, co-chaired by Ken Kavanagh and myself, was struck to carry out negotiations with Oxfam to keep the building in the hands of the local community so that we could continue the work of social activism, public education and the connection of local and global issues.
It was in this context that the Social Justice Co-operative of NL came into being. Ken Kavanagh had been active in the NL Federation of Cooperatives for some years; it was his suggestion that we consider forming ourselves as a co-operative, which, unlike charities, were not obliged to limit their “political activities” to 10 percent of their time or resources.
The founding committee incorporated the co-op under the governance structure of the Federation of Cooperatives NL, where we remain today. We chose this direction partly because the ‘Harper Chill’ meant that as an NGO we would be subject to the 10 percent rule and our emerging mandate was entirely political: “The Social Justice Co-operative has, as its core commitment, to advance the cause of social, economic and political justice for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador”.
Associating ourselves with the Federation of Co-operatives had other advantages. They had clear structures, especially around accountability, and staff who were helpful in integrating a new kind of cooperative venture. We were all attracted by the idea of ‘social justice’ as a communal resource that should be available to everyone in the community.
We were on the verge of an agreement with Oxfam, when on Sept. 4, 2013 the building burned to the ground, destroying years of records and memories and, of course, the material base for our activism.
Because Oxfam was still the legal owner of the building, they could, and did, claim the insurance, although it came nowhere near covering a replacement building. After lengthy and fractious negotiations Oxfam paid the co-op $50,000, although it was careful not to say that this was in compensation for the building, but instead was a one-off contribution of goodwill.
Some five years later, we hear that the Trudeau government has finally removed the ‘political gag’ order. According to a recent statement from the federal government, National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier “has asked the CRA to suspend all action in relation to the remaining audits and objections that were part of the Political Activities Audit Program, initiated in 2012.”
Clearly the removal of one of Harper’s most draconian and repressive pieces of legislation is a good thing, but NGOs are still faced with huge debts in legal fees they paid to contest actions against them.
Meanwhile, the Social Justice Co-operative of NL has adapted to the co-operative structure and is working to explore how the concept of co-operation between equals can advance our core mandate of social justice for everyone in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Marilyn Porter / St. John’s
(Social Justice Co-op)
Our AGM and panel discussion (titled ‘Justice Denied: Failures of Power and Authority in Newfoundland and Labrador’) will be held on Wednesday, May 17 at Memorial University in St. John’s (room AA1043). The AGM will begin at 5:30 p.m., and the panel will follow at 7 p.m. For more information visit the Social Justice Co-op N.L.’s website.