Canadian senators are currently engaged in a debate prompted by Senator Nicole Eaton's concerns about "the interference of foreign foundations in Canada's domestic affairs." This follows the Natural Resources Minister's open letter that some observers have taken as implying that charities, especially those that attract foreign donations, should not play a role in public policy discussions. With the spotlight once again on the issue, it is appropriate to provide some perspective.
A wide variety of Canadian charities, including hospitals, cultural institutions, and universities, benefits from donations from abroad. But foreign donations are nothing compared to what Canadians themselves give. For example, based on what we know, total international support for charities operating in the environmental sector accounts for only about four per cent of revenue. Far from, as Senator Eaton put it, "troublesome manipulation of Canada's domestic affairs by foreign interests." Canadian charities' priorities are clearly set by Canadians and for Canadians.
Charities have long provided a means for Canadians from different walks of life, different backgrounds, and different locations to collectively express their views, gather evidence, consult, carry out research, and thus better contribute to the public policy process. Political activity by charities is strictly regulated and charities follow guidelines established by the Canada Revenue Agency.
Charities are often at the forefront of issues, raising public awareness and advocating policies that are not mainstream at the time but later become accepted wisdom. By raising diverse viewpoints and perspectives, they force us to consider all sides of an issue. This strengthens the policy process and leads to better outcomes. Health charities were instrumental in promoting tobacco reduction strategies and smoke-free workplaces.
Environmental charities raised the issue of acid rain, leading to a treaty with the United States to address this problem. Charities have also been at the forefront of efforts to curb drinking and driving; to establish the Registered Disability Savings Plan, the National Child Benefit, and the Children's Fitness Tax Credit; and to create the Canadian Initiative for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health.
As economic issues are top of mind today, we need to remember that good social, environmental and health policies are also good economic policies and that charities have much to contribute. It is telling that, in one of his first speeches as British Prime Minister, David Cameron emphasized that "the voluntary sector and social enterprise sector will be a bigger part of government than ever. But we have to involve your organisations, and work with you and through you." Charities seek to contribute to quality of life, not to undermine it.
So what about foreign money? Should outsiders be allowed to influence what happens in Canada? Modern philanthropy -- like many other aspects of life -- is increasingly global in its activities and funding. People know more about the world around them, they recognize where they have common interests and concerns, and they work to support causes in which they believe. Many issues are of universal concern and lessons we learn in one place can often be adapted and applied in other places. Some issues simply do not respect national borders, and actions taken in one country have direct consequences for another.
Good public policy cannot emerge from a vacuum. It requires the full participation of a broad spectrum of Canadians and communities. Individuals, corporations, small businesses, aboriginal organizations, trade unions, and charities all have a vital role to play.
Because we never know where the next good idea is going to come from, we need to make sure that the marketplace of ideas is as wide open as possible. We welcome the opportunity the Senate debate has given us to remind Parliamentarians and the broader public of this principle that is so fundamental to our society and our democracy.