Canada Revenue Agency

Canada’s Charitable Law Urgently Needs Reforming: New UVic Report

A report released today by the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre calls for sweeping reform of Canadian charitable law in line with other jurisdictions such as the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and England.

Current rules around “political activity” — defined by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) as any activity that seeks to change, oppose or retain laws or policies — are confusing and create an “intolerable state of uncertainty,” the report says.

“This has created a confused and anxious charitable sector and detracts from them carrying out their important work,” Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the Environmental Law Centre, said.

The report — prepared for DeSmog Canada — comes as 52 charities are being targeted in a $13.4 million audit program launched by the federal government in 2012 to determine whether any are violating a rule that limits spending on political activities to 10 per cent of resources. Those charities include Environmental Defence, the David Suzuki Foundation, Canada Without Poverty, Ecology Action Centre and Equiterre.

Australia and New Zealand, also common law jurisdictions, have modernized their laws in recent years to allow charities to conduct more policy advocacy in carrying out their missions.

The report, Tax Audits of Environmental Groups: The Pressing Need for Law Reform, calls for Canada to establish clearer rules about what constitutes “political activity” and provide a more generous limit on allowable “political activity.”

“U.S. charity regulation is superior to current Canadian law because it is less vague and more respectful of the value that charities bring to public policy debates,” the report states.

Many European countries place no limit at all on a charity’s political activities.

Earlier this month, 18 Canadian charities called on the country’s politicians to enhance the ability for charities to engage in public policy debates.

Our society has evolved and our legislation hasn’t,” said Eric Hebert Daly, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, a group that signed on to the letter.

The new University of Victoria report calls on Canada to modernize the definition of what qualifies as charitable to rectify instances such as the CRA’s ruling that Oxfam can not have a charitable goal of “prevention of poverty.”

“In modern society the law should recognize that a poverty-relief organization can often relieve poverty more effectively by lobbying for affordable housing laws than by operating a soup kitchen,” the report says.

In October 2014, the Broadbent Institute released a report, which raised questions about whether the recent audits have been targeted at charities critical of the Harper government. The report said several right-leaning charities are reporting zero “political” activity while engaging in work that appears to meet the CRA’s definition.

There is a direct structural chain of command from the Minister of National Revenue to the charities directorate (which audits charities), the University of Victoria report notes before calling for the removal of any potential for political interference by establishing a politically independent Charities Commission like the one in England and Wales.

“Regardless of whether the audits are targeted or not, an obvious way to address this issue would be to reform the law to eliminate the potential for political control over CRA audits,” the report reads.  “This has been done in other jurisdictions.”

“The perception that audits may be targeted at charities critical of government policies creates a chilling effect,” the report says — adding that with such vague rules, charities can end up spending an “inordinate amount of energy and resources protecting themselves from an audit.”

The report also notes the contrasting treatment of business and charities under the Income Tax Act:

Since businesses can deduct advertising expenses from their income, they can lobby the public through advertising without any imposed statutory restrictions. A recent example has been the omnipresence of the multimillion-dollar [Enbridge] Northern Gateway radio, television, internet and newspaper ad campaign favouring the project. All of these advertisements would presumably be tax deductible and therefore subsidized by general taxpayers.

In contrast to companies’ tax-deductible political advertising campaigns, charities must carefully ensure that all activities of a political nature are kept within the 10 per cent limit. This contrasting treatment of business and charities under the Income Tax Act has the effect of encouraging businesses to take political action in support of commercial and private interests — while hindering the counterbalancing efforts of charities working to protect public interests.

The report provides the example of cigarette companies fighting smoking laws to defend profits while cancer societies advocated smoking laws for the public good (to prevent cancer). The “political activities” of the cigarette companies would have been tax deductible, whereas the charities advocating tougher smoking laws would have had to follow the ten per cent rule.

“This impairment of charities’ pursuit of the public interest has been magnified by the recent spate of audits and their repercussions on the charitable sector,” the report says.

Policy advocacy by Canadian charities has resulted in measures addressing acid rain, regulations on smoking, laws against drunk driving and regulations on toxic chemicals.

Canadian charities and non-profit organizations account for more than eight per cent of Canada’s GDP. As of the end of 2013, there were more than 86,000 registered charities in Canada.

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
We’ve got big plans for 2024
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

Canada just pledged to tackle environmental racism. What does that mean?

Ingrid Waldron wrote a book about how pollution, contamination and other environmental ills in Canada affect Indigenous, Black and racialized communities more than others. Along...

Continue reading

Recent Posts

That means our newsletter has become the most important way we connect with Narwhal readers like you. Will you join the nearly 90,000 subscribers getting a weekly dose of in-depth climate reporting?
A line chart in green font colour with the title "Our Facebook traffic has cratered." Chart shows about 750,000 users via Facebook in 2019, 1.2M users in 2020, 500,000 users in 2021, 250,000 users in 2022, 100,000 users in 2023.
Readers used to find us on Facebook. Now we’re blocked
That means our newsletter has become the most important way we connect with Narwhal readers like you. Will you join the nearly 90,000 subscribers getting a weekly dose of in-depth climate reporting?
A line chart in green font colour with the title "Our Facebook traffic has cratered." Chart shows about 750,000 users via Facebook in 2019, 1.2M users in 2020, 500,000 users in 2021, 250,000 users in 2022, 100,000 users in 2023.
Readers used to find us on Facebook. Now we’re blocked
Overlay Image