Ottawa Citizen: “Artist accuses government of misusing its censorship powers to silence her”

March 22, 2015
Reposted with permission

OttawaCitizen_logo A British Columbia artist and environmental activist accuses government of misusing its censorship powers to hide a politically driven effort to silence her because of her views on climate change and the oilsands.

Franke James found herself on the federal government’s radar in the spring of 2011 after Canadian diplomats agreed to offer a $5,000 grant in support of a European art tour featuring James’s artwork. The grant was revoked a few days later by a senior director of the Foreign Affairs Department’s climate change division, who felt the funding would “run counter to Canada’s interests.”

The show for which she wanted the grant was to be “all about inspiring people to reduce their carbon footprint,” James said in an interview.

Using access to information law, James waged a four-year campaign that recovered more than 2,000 internal federal emails and other records related to the decision to revoke her funding. They revealed that more than two dozen senior officials and diplomats in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government had monitored information about the Victoria artist because of her criticism of the oil and gas industry’s environmental performance.

BannedOnTheHill_CoverJuly2014_72James wrote a book on the affair, describing how government officials were troubled by her “green conscience” and opposed the proposed tour in partnership with a non-government environmental organization in Croatia called Nektarina. One background document from the department said her artwork was not funded because it dealt “mostly with climate change” and was “advocating a message that was contrary to the government’s policies on the subject.”

But multiple phrases in the original documents were exempted from disclosure under the Access to Information Act. The government claimed making them public would, as stated in the law, be “injurious” to international relations and would violate the confidentiality of unidentified third parties who supplied government with information.

James complained to the Office of the Information Commissioner. The Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development recently relented and removed some of the redactions.

The new versions of the documents show that much of the official concern over funding James and promoting the European art tour was based on the polarizing politics of climate change.

In one, a departmental trade official notes that a Canadian diplomat in Europe would not help promote the show because of “the artist’s views on the oilsands.”


Another departmental email says the government does not support such private campaigns unless they “clearly advance broader Canadian interests and in this case we do not feel it does so.”

Another email sent to the NGO Nektarina stated the reasons for the defunding decision “are not something we are able to provide in writing.”

Said James: “What is surprising and so shocking (with the latest disclosures) is that they’re using high-level security clauses in order to black out stuff which is partisan and embarrassing. These guys have been abusing that (exemption) clause in my case, they’re blatantly covering up stuff.”

She believes the diplomatic letter to Nektarina was an attempt to smear her.

“Can you imagine being Nektarina and getting a letter from a foreign government saying the reasons for this decision can’t be put in writing. If I was that NGO, I’d be going, ‘I don’t want anything to do with that person.’

“It’s very Orwellian to see that I was being censured because of the way that I thought. They were telling me ‘do not talk about climate change.’ That is a really horrible thing for them to be doing; we need to be talking about climate change, it’s not about to disappear. We have to figure out strategies.”

James fears the government’s proposed security legislation, Bill C-51, may give authorities more powers to try to withhold information that should publicly available.

The Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development did not respond to a request for comment.

— With files from Postmedia News.

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