Silencing Sister in Spirit

By Sarah Harrison

If we stop gathering information, the problem will go away.
Or at least, this appears to be the Conservative government’s reasoning. On Wednesday, November 3rd the federal government announced that Sisters in Spirit, an advocacy group for Canada’s missing and murdered Aboriginal women, will no longer receive funding unless they a/ quit working on their internationally acclaimed database, b/ don’t use government funds for research and policy, and c/ change their name to “Evidence and Action”.
It appears to me that there is a trend in Ottawa to de-fund organizations and programs that collect data valuable to social (justice) work in Canada. Sisters in Spirit is only the latest in what is becoming a laundry list of information de-funding. Throughout 2010 the Conservative government has refused to release documents concerning torture allegations of Afghani Detainees, has scrapped the mandatory Long Form Census, and has attempted to eliminate the Long-Gun Registry. Each action involves limiting and denying access to information on issues of significant social concern.
I can only speculate on the reasons behind Harper’s decisions to limit or eliminate data collection and information availability (power? control? punishment? all of the above?). But I can suggest what some of the results may be.
Without information it’s difficult to identify problems and substantiate critiques. Facts, statistics, patterns and trends are all compiled from sources like Sisters in Spirit database. Without agencies retrieving and compiling the information problems are difficult see, let alone to prove.
Context is missing. Restricting independent research and access to information leaves an issue susceptible to propaganda, with no historical or social context to be drawn upon. We are reduced to anecdotal evidence, short-term thinking, and hyperbole.
De-funding becomes punishment. Cutting or restricting funding based upon a group’s information gathering puts a chill on criticizing or questioning the government. Social justice, Aboriginal and women’s groups have already felt the silencing effect of de-funding data collection.
No need to argue. When groups that compile data are restricted or cut, the public looses access to valuable information. Simply erase the problems by eliminating the information. The result? A government that no longer has to formulate an argument to address criticisms.
Cutting the Sisters in Spirit project may be framed as a minor budgeting decision. But understood in relation to this government’s previous efforts to silence information, this project represents two major issues the Harper government doesn’t want anyone to speak about: women and Aboriginals. Thankfully, history shows us that no matter what those in power do, women and Aboriginals refuse to go away.