Eighteen Canadian charities have written a letter to the country’s political parties asking them for platform commitments to enhance the ability for charities to engage in public policy debates.
The charities argue in their letter that “without years of organizing effort by Canadian charities, Canada would not have dealt with issues such as addressing acid rain, promoting safe driving, reducing smoking and banning toxic chemicals.”
The chief concern lies around the current regulation of so-called “political activities” — defined by the Canada Revenue Agency as any activity that seeks to change, oppose or retain laws or policies. Charities are currently limited to spending ten per cent of their resources on these “political activities.”
Groups that signed onto the letter include Oxfam Canada, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Amnesty International Canada, David Suzuki Foundation and Equiterre.
“Our society has evolved and our legislation hasn’t,” Eric Hebert Daly, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, told DeSmog Canada.
Charities have changed from being primarily service providers — doing things like running soup kitchens and helping the disabled — to contributing direct knowledge of social issues to public policy debates, Hebert Daly argued.
“It seems ridiculous to not let the experts be the ones to speak out on issues that they’re experts in,” he said. “If you’re a corporation, you can write off 100 per cent of your spending on political activity and have no restrictions whatsoever, but if you’re a charity you can only write off 10 per cent. There’s a real discrepancy there that doesn’t seem to make sense.”
Right now, the letter the charities sent to federal politicians would qualify as “political activity” and would need to be accounted for under the ten per cent rule.
“When they hear political activity, most people think ‘supporting a political party’ but there’s a huge gap between creating public policy and supporting a political party,” Hebert Daly said.
Charities are banned from taking part in “partisan activity” (supporting or opposing a candidate or political party).
Several of the charities that signed onto the letter have been audited since 2012, when the federal government dedicated $13.4 million to the Canada Revenue Agency to audit the political activities of charities.
The groups argue in their letter that the current regulations are confusing:
“A confusing regulatory environment leaves many would-be advocates unclear how proactively charities can advocate for policy change. The existing interpretation of the Income Tax Act appears to be open to widely divergent interpretations of what constitutes charitable activity … The result is a chill where charities feel that their efforts are being discouraged, subjected to rhetorical attacks or harsh or arbitrary review.”
Hebert Daly says all political parties should be interested in reforming the law so there is no question about arbitrary application of the rules or silencing of dissent.
“The fact that the interpretation itself can change at any moment is part of the problem,” he said. “It would simply take a bureaucrat three seconds to change their mind at CRA and we’d be way above the 10 per cent.”
The groups are asking for an open consultation process involving a broad range of charities and the public to help develop new regulations for the sector.
“The debate on this has really just started,” Hebert Daly said. “I think you need to have an open and honest conversation in the public view about what makes sense in terms of modernizing the Income Tax Act.”
Photo: Dave King via Flickr