In 1976, a left-wing American activist-entrepreneur named Drummond Pike set up an organization called the Tides Foundation with a clever plan: He knew that high-profile, established trust funds (think: the Rockefeller Brothers Trust or the Packard Foundation) sometimes wanted to fund highly political groups — say, groups promoting gun control — but they didn’t always feel comfortable having those donations in the public eye. Pike invited them to donate to Tides, instead, where he would ensure the money ended up where they wanted — without their names being attached to it. And he’d take a cut on his end, too. As one activist watchdog website describes it, Tides is, “less like a philanthropy” and more like a “money-laundering enterprise.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, then, that Tides Canada, the U.S. group’s northern branch plant, has been working so hard to conceal its own activities. Now that the federal government has announced that it will be more closely scrutinizing groups that use their charitable status to illegally campaign for political causes, Tides — which has been taking advantage of Canada’s generous charitable tax subsidies, while also funding heavily political activities — knows its bound to come under scrutiny. Environment Minister Peter Kent has specifically raised concern about foreign funds being “laundered” through Canadian-registered charities. Tides Canada collects a lot of foreign funds.
Appearing on CBC’s political talk show, Power and Politics, last month, McMillan tried hiding the reality of where Tides money ends up: “With regard to the groups that we support… we can only grant to registered Canadian charities,” he said.
That’s a lie: Tides helps fund a long list of groups that aren’t registered charities. They’re right there on Tides own website: groups ranging from everything from the animal rights extremists at PETA to the anti-oil radicals at ForestEthics. These are groups that don’t have charitable status and would never receive charitable status because they’re virulently political. ForestEthics pressures U.S. companies, like Chiquita bananas and Bed, Bath and Beyond, to boycott Canadian oil; its launched campaigns to get international tourists to boycott Canada as a travel destination. You can’t get much more political than that.
Or check out the Canadian Youth Climate Action Coalition. That’s the group that’s now home to Brigette DePape — the rogue Parliamentary page who disrupted the Throne Speech last year with her “Stop Harper” stop-sign stunt. In case you don’t remember, CYCAC has that photo right there on its website: Brigette DePape, on the CYCAC website, in her one-person protest against the Conservative government. That’s not just political — it’s partisan. And Tides is helping DePape and their anti-Conservative political lobby group get tax-deductible receipts. (UPDATE: CYCAC has since taken down DePape’s “Stop Harper” photo, but here’s a screen shot of how her bio looked before CYCAC started what appears to be an attempt to cleanse politics from its website).
That’s what Tides has become: A rent-a-charitable-number operation for left-wing political groups. Tides lets The Tyee, a left wing BC webzine, use Tides’ charitable number to attack EthicalOil.org. That’s not charity, that’s politics. It lets PETA use the Tides charitable number, too. Tides isn’t just being sporting: it takes a 10% cut of every donation.
There’s nothing wrong with being political, of course, or giving to political groups — as long as you’re not violating charity laws, which put strict limits on political activities, while you do it. That makes sense: the government doesn’t want generous tax breaks intended to help feed hard-up families or cure diseases going to make videos attacking the beef industry or campaigns promoting job-killing anti-oil sands boycotts.
So how much Tides money and resources actually ends up funding political campaigns? Well, in the case of groups like PETA and ForestEthics, surely almost everything Tides gives those groups funds political action, because those groups are so inherently political. Tides own website even hosts PETA’s anti-seal hunt press releases. It has funded projects aimed at fighting against government broadcast regulations; it has funded drives to get British Columbians to join the province’s Liberal party; McMillan recently said his group “proudly” supports campaigns against oil sands and oil pipelines.
And yet, when it files its tax returns with the government, Tides says its funds are completely unaffiliated with any political work. It actually put “zero” as the amount of political activity its resources are connected to. Zero? So, once again, Tides is hiding the very unseemly truth about its work.
Time and again Ross McMillan has been given the chance to come clean about his group’s unorthodox “charitable” work. And yet he continues trying to hide the truth. McMillan told the CBC that he reports all donors to the government, but in fact Tides promotes its willingness to accept anonymous donations, its website gives donors the option to remain anonymous, allows its Tyee donations to come in anonymously, and a Forest Ethics spokesperson earlier this year told reporters that her group is getting a growing number of anonymous donations through Tides.
There’s little that’s transparent about what Tides does, which is why it was so unusual to hear Ross McMillan originally welcome the federal government’s increased scrutiny on the political activities of charities. “Tides Canada welcomes the provisions in the 2012 federal budget concerning transparency and accountability in the charitable sector,” reads a Tides press release from March. Since then, though, McMillan has been backpedaling, and is now attacking the government’s insistence on greater transparency and accountability, accusing the government of trying to silence environmental charities who “try and stimulate discussion and public discourse around major public-policy developments relating to resource extraction and the like.”
But taxpayers’ charity subsidies aren’t for “stimulating discussion and public discourse” around “public policy developments.” That’s politics. Tides does do some actual charitable work —it actually does give some money to cancer societies, humanitarian relief work, schools and hospitals, among other things. But it has also used that charitable work to cover for the money it launders for left-wing, job-killing activist groups. Tides’ years of taking taxpayer subsidies to fund its political crusades are over. Tides may be good at laundering, but the truth about Tides and its con of the Canadian taxpaying public can no longer be whitewashed away.