05/01/2012 07:19 EDT | Updated 07/01/2012 05:12 EDT

Harper Cuts Down Rights like They're Trees

On a day when many were celebrating the 30th anniversary of the signing of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Stephen Harper's government was almost silent on the topic. The press highlighted the Charter's global significance with headlines like "The Charter proves to be Canada's gift to world". Meanwhile, Ottawa diverted attention away from Canada's signal achievement of enacting constitutional legislation to protect the rights and freedoms of individual Canadians by choosing the Charter's 30th birthday as the date to announce legislation that will drastically reduce the number of regulatory agencies that exist to protect the environment in which individual Canadians enjoy their rights and freedoms.

It was left to individual Canadians to celebrate the ways that the Charter has enhanced our society. Thought leaders in the environmental movement argued that "every Canadian's eco-rights need Charter protection". Devon Page and Peter Robinson cogently argued that the Charter should safeguard "our air, water and food, which are the very elements of our survival".

Constitutional law is not my area of expertise. I do not even understand the pros and cons of the government's decision to consolidate the number of organizations responsible for reviewing environmental issues from more than 40 to only three: The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the National Energy Board, and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

What I do know something about is charity law so I recently commented on how Canada's 2012 Federal Budget managed to find $8 million in these times of cutbacks to finance Canada Revenue Agency's pursuit of charities engaged in "political activities". CRA has framed all the changes in Budget 2012 as being about "Transparency and Accountability," and have emphasized that the proposed amendments do not actually change the definition of allowable activities such as advocacy, policy development or overt lobbying. The change in the definition of "political activities" only extends to making the funding of political activities a political activity in and of itself.

The proposed amendment reads: "political activity" includes the making of a gift to a qualified donee if it can reasonably be considered that a purpose of the gift is to support the political activities of the qualified donee.

It seems to me that much of the press attention on the legislative amendments surrounding "political activities" misses the main point: the government's strategy to prevent environmental charities from engaging in public debate on the merits of projects such as the Northern Gateway pipeline. The Minister of Natural Resources, Mr. Joe Oliver, has confirmed that the legislation will move the final decision on pipeline projects from the National Energy Board to the federal cabinet.

Moving the final decision on environmental projects to the federal cabinet enables CRA to argue that any opinions on the merits or problems of a particular application are necessarily political because the ultimate decision is now in the hands of a political body. Previously, the decision-maker on projects that affected the environment was a non-political body such as the National Energy Board. The primary threat to environmental charities is that the decision-making process itself has been made "political" because the ultimate "decider" is Stephen Harper.

The harsh reality of CRA dancing to the agenda of its political master is that any charity engaging in public debate has just become much more vulnerable to CRA charges of "political activities" and the consequent sanctions. The danger is not that the definition of political activities for those engaged as active charitable organizations has changed. However, those donors who fund political activities should have no doubt that, with regards to the charitable sector, the intention of Budget 2012 is to muffle the voices of politically engaged charities and to hinder their funders.