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Calvin Sandborn: Support your local charity — reform the law

Across Canada, a great “advocacy chill” has descended on environmental charities. Ottawa has launched tax audits against key groups across the country, and many are now afraid to speak out about threats to air, water and endangered creatures.

Across Canada, a great “advocacy chill” has descended on environmental charities. Ottawa has launched tax audits against key groups across the country, and many are now afraid to speak out about threats to air, water and endangered creatures.

This is not just bad for charities — it’s tragic for Canada. If environmental charities had been silent in the past, we might still have asbestos in classrooms, dioxins in Cowichan Bay crabs, acid rain killing Quebec’s forests and an out-of-control hole in the ozone layer.

The chill on environmental advocacy highlights the urgent need to modernize our outdated charity laws.

Although virtually all groups audited have been cleared of any wrongdoing, tax audits devastate anyway. They are intimidating. If a group has used more than 10 per cent of its resources for “political activities” — such as promoting law reform — it might be forced to shut down. Yet the rules are so vague, it is difficult for anyone to be sure they are under the 10 per cent cap. Regardless of outcome, the audit process itself cripples organizations, sucking scarce time and resources.

Some allege that these particular audits are politically targeted. Critics point to a government that:

• denounces environmental groups as “radicals”;

• changes laws to exclude environmental groups from pipeline hearings;

• guts other environmental laws; and

• stops government scientists from talking about climate change and oil-sands science. They also cite the curious movement of staff between the Prime Minister’s Office, Jason Kenney’s office and Ethical Oil, the industry group that files Canada Revenue Agency complaints against green groups.

If these audits are politically targeted, our democracy is at risk. At this point, we cannot conclude that government has directed audits at its critics. The long list of government critics being audited might be mere coincidence. But the audits themselves — and the mere perception that they may be targeted — are clearly silencing charities that should be speaking out on public policy issues.

This is tragic, because charities’ law-reform work is critically important to society. For example, the “political” work of cancer societies gave us laws against asbestos insulation and smoking in public places. The “political” work of Mothers Against Drunk Driving saved hundreds of lives by toughening drunk-driving laws. And the “political” work of environmental organizations has cleaned up the Great Lakes, cut dioxins in B.C. bays, eliminated toxic lead from gasoline and established parks.

In testimony before the Australian senate, the St. Vincent de Paul Society pointed out why charities must advocate reform:

“We see advocacy as absolutely non-negotiable. It is integral to our charitable purpose. This is not something we have invented in recent years; it goes to the heart of our founding. In Paris in 1833, our founder made very explicit the principle that we were not simply to give assistance to the poor but to seek out and understand the structures that give rise to poverty and inequality, and to actively advocate to change those structures.”

Silencing those who speak for eagles, for pristine lakes and for a healthy global climate will damage Canada. Public discussion about how to solve society’s problems will be seriously impoverished, as many with the best expertise on such problems won’t be heard. Public debate will be ceded to corporate interests and their tax-deductible PR campaigns.

A new University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre study recommends law reform to address the above issues, including:

• Remove any potential for political interference by establishing a politically independent Charities Commission like the one in England and Wales.

• Establish clearer rules about what constitutes “political activity.” Charities deserve to know the exact rules of the game.

• Provide a more generous limit on allowable “political activity.” U.S. rules are often more generous, Australia and New Zealand are now allowing more political activity and many European countries place no limit on a charity’s political activities.

• Get rid of the “death penalty” for minor violations of the 10 per cent cap on political activities. In England, authorities emphasize bringing an errant charity into compliance, rather than destroying the charity.

Political advocacy by charities is important to Canada. It enables society to recognize and respond to the social problems that charities address. Such advocacy should be actively encouraged, not crushed.


Calvin Sandborn is legal director

and Dora Tsao is a law student at the

University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre.