Let’s be clear about what the federal Conservative government actually said about registered charities in its recently tabled 2012 budget: there are rules, federal finance minister Jim Flaherty reminded Canadians, about charities engaging in political activities. And under the Income Tax Act charities can devote only “a limited amount of their resources to non-partisan political activities that are related to their charitable purposes.”
Some groups “may not be respecting the rules regarding political activities,” the government said, and there is a need for “greater public transparency related to the political activities of charities, including the extent to which they may be funded by foreign sources.” The federal government is giving the Canada Revenue Agency $8 million to “enhance its education and compliance activities” and “improve transparency by requiring charities to provide more information on their political activities, including the extent to which these are funded by foreign sources.” Ottawa wants to make sure charities are following the rules that they agreed to when they apply for charitable status — a classification that gives them generous benefits, such as tax-free status and the ability to offer donors deductible receipts — and it wants to know more about where that money is coming from. So it’s providing a very small amount of money to the CRA to keep a closer eye on things.
Who could object to that?
Well, John Bennett, executive director of the Sierra Club Canada, does.
In an over-the-top opinion column in the wake of the federal budget, Bennett called the budget a declaration of “war.” The “troops came storming across the border last Thursday,” he said. This was an attack on basic freedoms, he fulminated. “Last week, our freedom to speak, our freedom to assemble and our freedom to participate were curtailed. We are less free today and all Canadians should be concerned.” Next to a picture of Big Brother, from the movie adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 (no kidding), Bennett wrote: “Who’s next?”
Well, one supposes, who is “next” are those groups that don’t abide by the law. Certainly that’s how it should be: groups like Sierra Club that fight against the oil sands may think their cause is uniquely righteous, but in the government’s eyes, all charities have to play by the same rules. If the Canadian Cancer Society and United Way have to abide by the Income Tax Act in order to qualify for charitable status, then it’s only fair that environmental groups should, too. Canadians clearly realize that: an Angus-Reid poll conducted after the budget found that greater transparency and accountability for charities doing political activity and receiving foreign funds was one of the most popular items in the bill: 80% of Canadians support it. Even dropping the penny only managed 68%.
Canadians know this isn’t about curtailing free speech: groups that want to fight Canada’s energy sector are free to keep doing so if that’s what they want. They have every right to fight the government and Canadian employers. They just don’t get to take taxpayer subsidies to do it. Those are the kinds of choices Canadians, and Canadian organizations, face all the time. Public office holders make the choice to give up making money in the private sector in order to represent us in our legislatures; public servants agree not to engage in public political partisanship.
But Canada’s rules about keeping politics out of charity are there for a reason. When groups spend most, if not all of their taxpayer-subsidized money fighting controversial crusades against industries like the oil sands, it means they’re not busy using their charitable license to do things that Canadians generally agree are good for the country. For instance, charitable groups fighting against the Northern Gateway pipeline in B.C. are firmly off-side with the large support among British Columbians for that project. Why should taxpayers be subsidizing these groups to fight against initiatives and jobs that Canadians very much want?
So John Bennett can relax. Groups that want to occupy themselves with politics can still do so, on their own dime. And groups that adhere to the rules about allowable charitable activities will keep getting their subsidies. Bennett himself says he’s “pretty sure” he hasn’t broken any rules. That’s good — though it sounds like now’s probably a good time for the Sierra Club, and all those other anti-oil sands charities, to double check and make sure. Sticking to the law is all Ottawa’s asking. That’s not “war.” That’s just asking them to play fair.