THE BLOG

Canada's Charitable Law Urgently Needs Reforming

03/25/2015 04:41 EDT | Updated 05/25/2015 05:59 EDT
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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.

- Emma Gilchrist, DeSmog Canada