Vancouver move to limit grants to 'respectful' groups could chill speech: critics

Some Vancouver city councillors are warning non-profits: don't bite the hand that feeds you. At a meeting this week, councillors in the governing ABC Party said groups applying for grants need to be "respectful" in their language. But as Kristen Robinson reports, others say non-profits don't need to be non-partisan.

Vancouver’s new city council is facing questions about whether its approach to community grants could chill free speech among the city’s non-profits.

In reviewing grant proposals Tuesday, council unanimously passed an amendment by ABC Coun. Peter Meiszner asking city staff to report back with options to require all grant recipients “to communicate to, about, and with city officials in a respectful manner,” reflecting the city’s respectful workplace policy.

In proposing the motion, Meiszner read a quote from a Canadian Press interview with the director of a Vancouver non-profit criticizing newly-elected Mayor Ken Sim, calling the critique language that would not be allowed at council and a “huge red flag.”

The amendment was first reported by Postmedia.

Meiszner further asked staff whether the city’s communications department would be able to monitor public communications by grant recipients and flag “hostile comments” that would be “contrary to a respectful workplace policy.”

Meiszner did not name the organization he quoted in council chambers, but Rachel Lau, programs manager with Yarrow Society — an organization that serves low-income seniors in Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside — confirmed the quote was theirs.

Lau said council ultimately approved a pair of grants totaling $70,000 to Yarrow Society, but that council’s tone set off a red flag of a different kind.

“I was disappointed but not surprised, because I think there is a sort of signaling to grant recipients from the city that they need to be respectful when speaking about city officials moving forward or their funding is at risk — that wasn’t said explicitly, but it was heavily implied,” they said.

“I think the scope for what is respectful or what could be interpreted as respectful is quite broad …  In this case, it’s heavily implied that publicly criticizing city officials and the policies they support or aim to approve or move for the city is disrespectful.”

Meiszner’s original amendment also called for a ban on grants to partisan organizations, however the language was removed on an amendment from Green Coun. Pete Fry.

Fry told Global News the proposal crossed a line by infringing on Vancouverites’ Charter-protected right to free expression.

“I think in retrospect the folks at ABC that brought this forward realized this was very heavy-handed,” he said.

“It would effectively stifle any political opposition or even difference of opinion. As politicians we are fair game for legitimate criticism, and I think that should be enshrined and shouldn’t be a condition of getting grants.”

Vancouver-based political scientist Stewart Prest told Global News the apparent spirit behind the motion raised questions about how Vancouver’s new city council plans to work with the non-profit community.

He added that in a democracy, people should not be afraid to criticize their sitting government.

“It can place a chill on free expression among those who are among the most active in the city’s politics, who are really trying to do work in the community,” he said.

“That they should have to park their political views at the door in order to do that work is problematic.”

At other points in the meeting, councillors hinted that the way the city approaches its granting process overall may be up for review.

The City of Vancouver approved 836 arts, culture and community services grants to about 500 organizations in 2022, worth a total of $34.6 million.

“Is it too broad? Are we trying to do too much?” asked ABC Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung.

“I felt that the granting process was severely flawed and needs an overhaul,” added ABC Coun. Brian Montague.

While councillors unanimously supported the “respectful workplace” language motion, OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle later posted to Twitter that she wished she hadn’t.

“This was a very concerning discussion,” she wrote.

“ABC’s perception that no one should be allowed to criticize them is a alarming precedent for gov’t.”

Lau, meantime, said the nature of the work their group does is inherently political and that to be effective as a non-profit, it can’t be afraid to speak out against “systems of oppression,” including government policy.

“So in that way, I think we will continue to have an informed and critical stance that allows us to work in a way that aligns with our principles and our values,” they said.

“But at the same time, I think for other groups that may receive funding from the city, they may start to think and strategize about how they want to be critical of the city, or whether they want to be critical of the city at all based on the security of the funding they need for the organization.””

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said the requirement to adhere to respectful speech was approved in council. In fact, council voted to direct staff to report back on how to implement the measure.

© 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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