By Daren Zomerman
Canada has a well-defined system for granting an organization charitable status, with one exception—political advocacy.
Canada Revenue Agency’s rules are clear: a charity must not spend more than 10 per cent of its resources on political activity or advocacy. However, what exactly counts as political activity is simply rhetoric.
“Remember it’s guidelines, it’s not legislation that actually determine what exactly is political activity—it’s always been about interpretation,” Sierra Club Canada executive director John Bennet told the CBC’s Evan Solomon in 2014. “We have to have rules that are consistent, and what we’ve been hearing is that new interpretations are being given to charities.”
Environmental charities currently being audited include Tides Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation, Equiterre, and Environmental Defense Canada. Other charities include Amnesty International, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and the United Church of Canada.
The fear of being audited has held charities back from providing funding for anything that might be considered political—including environmental research. A charity that loses its charitable status becomes a non-profit, losing some of their tax benefits and the ability to provide funders with a tax receipt.
On Feb. 15, Dying with Dignity, a charitable organization whose purpose was to make doctor assisted suicide legal for terminally ill people lost its charity status. That said, according to the National Post, the organization has received double the previous year’s funding because of their recent push and media presence surrounding the supreme court decision to allow doctor assisted suicide.
For other charities with less funding, that status can mean life or death.
Former executive director of the Experimental Lakes Area David Schindler says that the audits are stopping charities from funding environmental science that may have an impact on industrial development and energy production.
“The threat to charities is that they view the money yields something that’s detrimental to industrial development, then the charities are immediately audited as being politically active,” Schindler said.
“All of that has put a noticeable chill on charities who normally would be anxious to fund things in the public interest and now there’s a lot of charities, if they think there’s something that’s politically controversial, they simply do not want to fund it.”
Without that funding from government, industry and now charities, many projects at facilities such as the Experimental Lakes Area go on indefinite hiatus, or don’t happen at all, Schindler said.
According to Schindler, charities were a source of funding alternative to dwindling government and industry budgets. Schindler notes that more funding has moved from broad-range programs like Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Canada (NSERC), to funding that requires industry support before it is released.
“How many tar sands companies are likely to support research that might find that the Athabasca River was polluted?” Schindler asked rhetorically.
With this move to keep putting the fear in charities, Harper may be finally getting his wish.