It was a good news Christmas-like story which, while incomplete at this point, showed promise of a renewed relationship between Kairos, a faith-based, multi-denominational advocacy group and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).
But the story was buried in the 11th paragraph of a story in the December 16 Guelph Mercury.
The back story is that, some months ago, Bev Oda, the cabinet minister responsible for CIDA, communicated that the agency was turning down Kairos’ request for over $7 million in renewed funding for its human rights advocacy work. Oda had suggested that the grant request did not meet the government’s priorities for grant funding approvals to non-government organizations and agencies.
While she did not say so at the time, in so many words, Oda left Kairos with the impression that they might meet success if they reapplied, keeping in mind those readjusted priorities.
The good news, which could have been the lead in the story, in this Christian journalist’s modest view, was contained well down in a Mercury story by reporter Joanne Shuttleworth.
The story noted: “Mary Corkery, executive director of Kairos, said the development agency set out new priorities on its website and her group had tweaked its application and reapplied for funding this year. The new priorities are for projects around food security, children and youth and economic growth, which easily matches the work her organization does, she said.”
The reason why Corkery’s remarks were buried related to a point of order raised in the House of Commons early last week by John McKay, Liberal MP for Scarborough-Guildwood and his party’s point-person for relationships with faith-based groups.
McKay was suggesting that Oda had misled the house by suggesting that Kairos had not met CIDA’s requirements for grants. (Oda had suggested, at the time of the grant turndown, that the request did not meet the government’s requirements. But her parliamentary assistant at the time, Jim Abbott, the Tory MP for Kootenay-Columbia, responded to McKay’s complaint by allowing that he, not Oda, may have failed to distinguish adequately between government and departmental (aka CIDA) policy. For that, he apologized.
McKay’s point was that, a few days before, the Commons foreign affairs committee seemed to reveal a contradiction based in the wording of CIDA’s recommendation in favour of the grant. Apparently someone had modified the recommendation’s summarizing sentence by inserting the word “not” at a particular place. That had the effect of turning the recommendation into a rejection, signed by CIDA’s president and vice-president, as well as Oda. No one, including Oda, would admit to inserting the “not” into the critical sentence. And the CIDA people, under strong questioning, seemed to communicate that they approved the Kairos grant request.
All this might sound like a mountain the size of a molehill 100 metres away from Parliament Hill. But, at Christmas, it allows this writer to try to parse some of the wheat away from the chaff.
Oda doesn’t contribute a lot of verbiage to explaining the government’s priorities with respect to CIDA grants. She was quoted in the December 16 Kingston Whig-Standard as saying “The government is choosing to make its international assistance more effective and more focused. We want to make sure we have value for our aid dollars.”
There are a couple of points worth making in trying to turn this story from conflict to good news.
- From a faith-perspective, it happens McKay and Abbott are serious Christians whose convictions have an evangelical bent. And they both have a pretty fair handle on what work Christian agencies are doing around the world in the areas of relief, development and human rights. When push comes to shove, they would likely agree about 90 percent in these particular areas of thinking, and they would both base their views on having personally visited projects being carried on by some of these agencies. But, because of adversarial politics, their similar views become highly divergent in the Commons theatre.
- Neither Oda nor Corkery act alone, or in a vacuum. Oda is in a cabinet that has other ministers responsible for areas like international trade, foreign affairs and immigration, to name just a few. And Corkery acts for a group that has several denominational components – such as United, Catholic, Mennonite and Christian Reformed to name a few. Advocates for these different denominations often have different views with respect to, for example, human rights. That subject tends to represent the deepest point for political conflict within the various member groups.
- Advocacy group spokespersons often bolster their arguments by suggesting that they are responsible to “speak the truth to power.” The difficulty is two-fold. By virtue of its definition, advocacy often has components of truth, but likely lacks “all the truth” or “nothing but the truth.” And the power to which it speaks really does not have all that much power, working as it does with a multi-layered bureaucracy and a minority parliament.
All of which leads me to suggest that Corkery is doing the right thing by finding activities that the government would approve for its grant requests. At the same time, Oda does well to listen carefully to the range of things that Kairos would like to do, and concur with that which fits the stated government priorities.
CIDA, for its part, needs to understand why the government has set the priorities it has, and find ways to smooth the path between the advocates and the government. Sometimes that is difficult for bureaucrats who have been used to working with a different set of priorities under a different style of governance. But they are professionals. They should not find such a task impossible.
I’d like to conclude this week by saying that Edna and I want to wish readers a meaningful and happy Christmas, filled with the kind of reconciliation that grows out of a Christ-filled season.
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Lloyd Mackey is a member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa and author of Stephen Harper: The Case for Collaborative Governance (ECW Press, 2006), More Faithful Than We Think: Stories and Insights on Canadian Leaders Doing Politics Christianly (BayRidge Books, 2005) and Like Father, Like Son: Ernest Manning and Preston Manning (ECW Press, 1997). Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.