03/19/2012 12:33 EDT | Updated 05/18/2012 05:12 EDT

Why the Senate is Right to Investigate Anti-Oil Sands "Charities"

It's a fact of life that there's a finite amount of charitable dollars to go around in this country. Canadian families can set aside only so much for donations, and a dollar allocated to the Diabetes Foundation is a dollar that doesn't go to the Heart and Stroke Foundation or the United Way. That's why our government offers us -- and the charities -- a bit of help, by subsidizing, through tax refunds, donations to registered charities. The subsidy is designed to ensure that Canadians can give more than they otherwise might, while it's arguably only just that a donor shouldn't have to rely on after-tax dollars to help the sick and the poor, instead of leaving government to do the job.

But the federal government has the right to at least insist that this is the kind of good and helpful work that's being done: that's why it has rules about how much money groups that get those subsidies are allowed to put towards fighting political campaigns. A dollar spent on pamphlets attacking a Premier or Prime Minister, after all, is a dollar that can't be used to cure diseases or protect endangered species or feed the hungry. A registered charity can spend some of its money on things like protests, but only a very small portion. And it's not allowed to express political opinions at all. Now, it's a free country: Any group that wants to can go out and raise money and spend all day long hollering about this politician or that industry; it just shouldn't expect taxpayers to help pay for it with those write-off subsidies.

Unless they're attacking the oil sands, that is. There are groups in Canada right now who call themselves charities, who collect all the subsidies that registered charities enjoy, and yet do almost nothing but spend all day long hollering attacks against the oil sands. Far from limiting their political protests, their very existence centres around political activism -- and political activism of a very particular type: to attack Canadian business and jobs. And the federal government is paying for it. At least it is for now: A few weeks ago, the Canadian Senate launched an inquiry into anti-industry "charities" and how they get their money. It's about time that someone did.

If it weren't for the special arrangements that these groups enjoy, you wonder if they'd even be able to survive. Groups like the Dogwood Initiative and Forest Ethics actually work every day to take prosperity away from Canadians, by standing in the way of energy infrastructure projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline. But they probably aren't terribly worried about what average Canadians think about them deliberately "mobbing the mic" at the public hearings into Gateway (seriously, that's the name Dogwood gave its campaign to sign up as many of their activists as possible, bogging down the hearings process). Dogwood gets its money from another charity, Tides Canada, which gets a lot of its money from foreign donors. Dogwood's foreign backers don't care about Canadian jobs and prosperity. They don't care if we can afford to build more schools and hospitals.

Forest Ethics is another car on Tides Canada's taxpayer subsidized train: that's the group that gets U.S. corporations to boycott Canadian products as a political statement against our oil sands industry -- not exactly a charitable project. But Tides gets charitable status to collect foreign money, and then gets tax breaks to give that money to these zealously anti-oil sands groups, who get more tax breaks. They're moving around huge sums of money used to attack Canada's energy industry and taxpayers get stuck with a bill for their services. That can't be what Ottawa intended when it created special charitable tax exemptions.

Ottawa, in fact, says it wants to strengthen the Canadian economy. It says it wants to expand the oil industry and the federal government has spoken favourably about the scores of jobs and economic spinoffs that the Gateway project will bring. And yet, the Canada Revenue Agency is taking money from working Canadians every day to help pay for foreign-backed activists that attack and sabotage those very projects. The Senate inquiry plans to look into the legitimacy of these very odd and disturbing arrangements. But you don't need an inquiry to know that there's something definitely very wrong here.