OTTAWA - The Harper government was warned months ago of a "crisis" at a government-funded rights advocacy agency, according to internal correspondence obtained by The Canadian Press.
The then-majority of board members at Rights and Democracy wrote to Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon on Oct. 23 to say the board was "dysfunctional," requesting the appointment of a new chairman, and asking that a "high-ranking government official" be appointed to one of two empty board chairs.
The Conservatives responded by appointing the senior legal counsel of B'nai Brith Canada and the head of an evangelical-based Christian think tank, both of whom subsequently supported board chairman Aurel Braun.
Months earlier, on June 1, the board majority had also written to the Privy Council Office - the bureaucracy that supports the Prime Minister's Office - to warn that a secret assessment by Braun and two others of agency president Remy Beauregard "may not reflect the views of the board on the president's performance."
The board majority, stated the letter, had concluded at an in camera meeting last March that Beauregard's job performance "was highly satisfactory and that there had been significant improvements to the organization under his leadership."
Beauregard, 66, died of heart attack on Jan. 7 following a vitriolic board meeting at which Braun, aided by new government appointees, took control of the board majority.
Beauregard's funeral is Saturday in Ottawa.
His death has revealed a vicious internal battle over the 20-year-old rights agency that is still playing out in public and has become a hot political management issue in the eyes of the Harper government.
In an internal government email to senior political staff on Jan. 13, "Rights and Democracy Board" was listed No. 4 of six priority issues, behind only Haiti, the DART, and airline security.
The government's only public comment to date has been Cannon saying he'd asked a senior bureaucrat to look into the matter.
But other public commentary has been withering.
A distraught letter from Beauregard's widow to Braun, leaked to the media, accused the chairman of hypocrisy and demanded Braun's words of condolence about the president's death be removed from the agency web site.
And on Thursday, conservative pundit Ezra Levant wrote a blog posting that, among other things, called MP Irwin Cotler "the Liberal house Jew" and said of Rights and Democracy that "only a bigoted, rotten organization would focus its venom on Israel, and give its money to the U.N.'s perverted human rights apparatus."
The polarization of opinion appears to cut to the very root of arms-length agencies and how much control can be exerted by the government of the day.
David Matas, a respected rights lawyer and legal counsel to the stoutly pro-Israel B'nai Brith, was appointed by the Conservatives in November for his second go-round on the Rights and Democracy board.
In an interview, Matas said his understanding of the current impasse is limited because he participated in only a single board meeting - the fateful Jan. 7 meeting.
But Matas, who previously sat on the board from 1997-2003, said Parliament's original 1988 intent for Rights and Democracy was as a granting agency that could give money, at arms-length from Canada's government, to Third World NGOs who might be viewed askance as unwelcome agitators in the countries where they work.
Over time, said Matas, Rights and Democracy has spent more and more money on direct funding of programs that it generated and designed, even if they are delivered by other NGOs.
"Part of the problem is that the staff maintained its view of independence, but they changed it," Matas argued.
"The original vision was to keep Third World NGOs independent from the government of Canada, who was giving the money. What it has now turned into is 'keep the staff independent from the board.' That to me is what this dispute is about."
Matas suggested the staff is just "people acting out their political agendas. Then the board objects and the staff says, 'we're independent, leave us alone.' This creates a conflict."
But Rights and Democracy insiders, speaking on condition of anonymity, say the board was subject to a "hostile take-over."
Matas, a former Liberal candidate, says he's not a proxy of the Harper government. His only government contact over the appointment was the request from Foreign Affairs on whether he'd accept it.
But other recent appointees have a decidedly Conservative cast.
Just last January, the government appointed highly respected career civil servant Donica Pottie to the board. However she resigned, insiders say, after siding with the then-majority and supporting Beauregard's presidency.
A month after the board approved Beauregard's performance in March, the government appointed Conservative partisans Brad Farquhar and Marco Navarro-Genie.
Farquhar ran for the Tories against Liberal Ralph Goodale in 2006, while Navarro-Genie served as a party constituency director in Alberta and maintains a current Twitter feed that mocks climate change and Liberals, jokes about suffocating journalists and directs readers to pro-Guantanamo Bay polls.
Van Pelt, appointed along with Matas in November, has contributed financially to Ontario's Progressive Conservative party and is president of Cardus, a think tank whose flagship publication is committed to the "dynamic current of Christian thought, changing hearts and minds, institutions and networks, with a gospel-oriented, on-the-ground world view."
The current level of turmoil and animosity within and surrounding Rights and Democracy stands in stark contrast to the parting words of its now-deceased president, who was asked last spring how he viewed the coming year.
"With serenity," Beauregard told the in-house interviewer, according to the 2008-09 annual report.
"This will be a year of continuity for many of our projects, and at the same time, a new period of preparation for implementation of the new 2010-2015 five-year plan. We must find a balance between the desire to tackle new forms of injustice, which are many, and our concern to achieve genuine change through sustained engagement with our partners."