CONSUMERISM

Cancelled due to lack of interest

Because of few funding sources and low morale, public interest groups are in jeopardy

Val Ross July 6 1981
CONSUMERISM

Cancelled due to lack of interest

Because of few funding sources and low morale, public interest groups are in jeopardy

Val Ross July 6 1981

Cancelled due to lack of interest

CONSUMERISM

Because of few funding sources and low morale, public interest groups are in jeopardy

Val Ross

By the time it finally won a four-year fight to keep a uranium refinery out of the dairy farming community of Warman, Sask., the energy committee of the Saskatoon Environment Society had ceased to be. The self-appointed score of amateurs—including a carpenter, a bookstore owner and a couple of high school teachers— were drained by the cash shortages that plague citizen groups everywhere. Ever since January, 1976, when news of the proposed refinery first hit town, they had pored over nuclear physics texts at kitchen tables, churned out tabloids in basements and distributed leaflets at meetings in school gymnasiums, spawning a network of other church-backed anti-nuclear community groups that flourishes today. Together these groups pressed the provincial government to launch an inquiry into the safety and ethical problems they associated with uranium mining. While the mining companies spent an estimated $250,000 on public relations and representation, the citizens scrounged a $26,000 government grant and flogged $10 Environment Society memberships. They still couldn’t afford a lawyer at the hearings, so a public interest lawyer coached community worker Peter Prebble to present their case. During the hearings, Prebble put in 80-hour weeks. Daily, he faced the industry’s six seasoned lawyers and their ranks of experts, knowing that his side couldn’t afford its own witnesses. Naturally, the environmentalists failed to halt mining—though the refinery was finally defeated. Shrugs Saskatoon’s Herman Boerma, another member of the now-defunct committee: “You could get cynical about this.” Though they often realize they will lose, ordinary folk continue to cast themselves into the fray, simply because self-interest catalyzes conscience. Leo Rutlege of Hudson’s Hope became active in the Peace Valley Environment Association because he heard that a proposed B.C. Hydro dam would flood him out. Farmer Tony Cowan helped found the Renfrew County Citizens for Nuclear Responsibility when a radioactive waste dump was proposed for his eastern Ontario community, and was soon so busy with petitions that his calves fell sick.

Public interest groups are as prone to gather around issues as flies around

light bulbs; they also tend to be as numerous. But they’re poor. Seventyseven groups are identified in a recent report for the Economic Council of Canada; and one of its coauthors, Michael Trebilcock, a University of Toronto law professor, guesses that the groups’ total resources are under $5 million. A few groups—the Consumers’ Association of Canada (CAC), the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee (CARC), Energy Probe—attract some money from governments and foundations to augment their membership fees. But though others may get one-shot grants to make presentations at hearings or regulatory boards, they rely on far shakier sources for their survival. Wim Kok of the Peace Valley Environmental Association says it’s $5-a-year memberships and bake sales (“peddling pies for pennies to save the Peace”) that keep his group afloat. By contrast, corporate, trade and professional lobbies look downright hefty. There are 300 in Ottawa alone, with budgets totalling more than $120 million a year.

In an increasingly pluralist society, notes British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Tom Berger, who ran the Mackenzie Valley pipeline hearings, “You’ve got to take all sides of a question into account before you can reach a sound decision.” Thus, hearings and regulatory boards depend upon the pro and con debates of adversary interest groups to round out their understanding. “Alas,” says Trebilcock, “you’ve got a situation where industry interests are

better researched and represented.” The result is an adversarial regulatory system that public interest lawyer Andrew Roman compares to “a hockey game with only one complete team on the ice.” In the past year, Lise Thibodeau, the president of the Consumers’ Association of Quebec, has had to turn away a request to advise the provincial government on housing. “We just don’t have the money for experts to help us appraise them.” Last month Energy Probe was unable to afford transportation and expenses for top acid rain experts to testify at the National Energy Board against Ontario Hydro’s expansion plans; the group estimates that the net cost to the Canadian public of the resultant pollution will top $1.8 billion.

On the face of it, things have never looked palmier for public interest groups: the general public endorses groups like Energy Probe with small but continuous donations and a stream of letters on everything from storm windows to acid rain. Meanwhile, support services for public interest groups are more available than ever. The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), a federally funded legal service, has just received funding from the Law Foundation of British Columbia to start up a West Coast public interest law office.

But the cash flow problem won’t go away. Last summer the Consumers’ Association of Quebec was refused its usual federal grant to attend the Bell Canada telephone rate hearings in Ottawa, nor could it get provincial funding to fight the Régie des Marches Agricole over an increase in the price of milk. And though, back in 1976, the Berger inquiry spent $1 million facilitating representations by public groups, today CARC is unsure whether there will be federal funds to debate upcoming development plans for the Beaufort Sea. Storms CARC’s executive director, Murray Coolican: “The Beaufort is the larg-

est development in North American history; Dome Petroleum alone is spending $40 billion, and we don’t know if we’ll get .004 per cent of that—the amount we’d need to comment on the issues.”

In an era of cutbacks, even that modest sum looks generous to some. Laurent Thibault, vice-president of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association, echoes widespread fears when he warns against a “bottomless pit” of government subsidies. “If ‘public’ interest groups are legitimate,” he points out, “they should get substantial funding from their constituents—their public.”

The trouble is, the majority of Canadians tend to distrust single-issue or-

ganizations, and to dismiss their members as obsessive, placard-brandishing monomaniacs in Earth Shoes. The image problem is compounded by lack of motivation. Trebilcock explains: “A small group, such as a corporation, which stands to gain significantly from a decision is more likely to participate than a large group, e.g. consumers, who will individually just lose a little.” Besides, the complexity of the issues daunts most mortals. When the CAC’s lawyer, Andrew Roman, asked for extra details of Bell Canada’s cross-industry connections, a Bell lawyer grinned, “There—enjoy yourself,” and dumped three cartonsful of documents on his desk. Though most consumers would rather pay an extra dime than read three cartons of documents, they happily accepted $14-million savings won for them in 1978, when a coalition of groups temporarily forced Bell to roll back pay phone rates from 20 cents to 10 cents. Trebilcock refers to these onlookers, not unkindly, as “free riders.” If free riders won’t provide the support public interest groups require, the buck—or the need for it—passes to government. The Economic Council’s

working papers suggest several funding options, each a veritable tar sands of sticky controversy. To the suggestion that the federal government broaden its direct grants, some warn that this could compromise a group’s independence. Another funding formula, a cost awards system, has been attempted by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) since 1979, in which companies pay for groups arguing on behalf of their subscribers. Former CRTC vice-chairman Charles Dalfen, explains: “Consumers are already subsidizing telephone companies when the companies argue for rate increases. It seems fair that some subscriber money should be spent repre-

senting their own interests.” But the cost awards system doesn’t help groups survive between hearings—and besides, in the two years since the CRTC ordered Bell to pay its opponents $70,000 in costs, Bell has fought this radical principle in court. Asks Don Cruickshank, Bell Canada’s vice-president in charge of public and environmental affairs: “Why should we pay for our case and the opposition’s too?”

The funding option favored by Michael Trebilcock is a mixed system. For public interest groups able to satisfy regulators that their contribution to a specific hearing will be valuable and unique, there should be government funding. Meanwhile, tax credits would encourage increased support from the free riders of the general public, giving the ongoing survival of the groups a broader base. Yet even if government is willing to free up these extra revenues to fund corporate critics and government gadflies, the resource problems of public interest groups are far from over. Lawyer Roman recalls: “One Wood Gundy senior executive said he wouldn’t testify for us no matter how much I paid him. If a member of the

financial community isn’t already acting for Bell, he hopes to be.” Two weeks before a pipeline financing expert was due to testify for CARC at the Foothills1 Pipeline hearings, he cancelled—so as not to jeopardize future contracts.

Sooner or later, any self-appointed champion of public interest can expect to fall temporarily short of resources: cash, social contacts, morale. It’s the long-term impact of this fact of life on public interest groups that has consumer activist Lise Thibodeau worried. “If we continue to miss the chance to participate in hearings, we may lose our public profile, and be steamrollered

right out of playing a role.”_

With files from Catherine Rodd.