10/13/2012 04:40 EDT | Updated 12/13/2012 05:12 EST

What If Charities Go Silent?

How fares freedom of expression in Canada? As part of Non-Speak Week, PEN Canada blogs on the health of that most fundamental of freedoms.

While you're reading this, nearly two million employees are busy trying to make our world a little bit better through their work at Canada's more than eighty thousand registered charitable organizations.

Some of these organizations are household names. When natural disaster strikes, for instance, many Canadians turn to charities like the Canadian Red Cross, CARE, Oxfam, or UNICEF. Other lesser known charities reflect the full spectrum of our public priorities: education, environmental protection, health care, children's well-being, youth engagement, seniors' supports, poverty reduction, help for the homeless, and more.

Canadian charities are allowed to devote 10 per cent of their resources to political activity - a vital aspect of any democracy - but most of the time they focus on other endeavours. They connect citizens to front line services when they're in need, helping them find work or shelter or food. They welcome newcomers and help make Canada feel like home. They do research and help educate us about our communities, ourselves, and each other.

Charities also work together to find solutions to social, economic and environmental problems that governments may have neglected. In a climate of fiscal austerity, non-profits often fill the void left by a scarcity of government funding for public programs and services. They also function as a social conscience, raising alarms when problems have grown too big to ignore. At the charitable organization I work for, we focus on putting forward well-researched solutions to the challenges of our time.

The federal government acknowledges that charitable organizations make a "valuable contribution to the development of public policy in Canada." In other words, charitable organizations are a vital pillar of our democracy.

In return for their good works, charities enjoy strong public support: 22.2 million Canadians made a financial donation to a charity in 2004, and they volunteered almost two billion hours of their time in that same year.

Until recently, few of us have had a reason to think about charities beyond the value of their good works. However, a deep chill has settled upon Canada's non-profit sector as a result of a federal initiative to ensure that the Canada Revenue Agency more rigorously monitors the activities of charitable organizations.

Tides Canada, which works on "issues like water and oceans, environmental conservation, climate and energy solutions, food, the arctic, social inclusion, and civic engagement," is among the first to be singled out for an audit - despite the fact that its president asserts that only about one per cent of Tides' efforts is devoted to political activities, all of which are non-partisan.

There has been much public speculation about the motive behind the new initiative, with explicit suggestions that charities focused on conservation and climate issues may be targeted. Regardless of the motive, Tides has become the poster child among Canadian charities fearing similar treatment.

In boardrooms across Canada, charities are soberly deciding what the new measure will mean for their own work. Some are determined to simply lie low until the political climate warms up. Others are taking more drastic measures.

The distinguished environmentalist David Suzuki has left the board of his own charitable foundation to avoid becoming "a lightning rod for criticism and government attacks that would undermine its work". Philanthropic Foundations of Canada worries "that foundations will say to themselves, it's just not worth getting involved in funding charities that seem to be involved in doing any kind of advocacy or public policy work that involves making public statements, when in fact all of that is perfectly legitimate ..."

The president of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, one of Canada's oldest foundations, says: "I think what we have to be concerned about is the fear that people have to speak up or take a position on an issue of public importance. The regulations are clearly laid out so people feel that they're able to do so, and in many cases have a responsibility to do so, to speak up on behalf of underprivileged or dispossessed or vulnerable populations. There's a need for informed debate, a diversity of views, on these kinds of issues, and this sector is good at doing that."

Canadians expect charities to observe the rules, but it is decidedly un-Canadian to jeopardize their charitable status simply because their work reveals weaknesses in government policies. Especially when these very charities are attempting to address the root causes behind major societal problems such as poverty or climate change.

What does it say about our democracy when corporations can devote endless resources lobbying to change policy in their own interest while charities that work on behalf of the public interest risk losing their voice?

Put it another way: What happens to our democracy when the voices of Canada's charitable organizations, the social conscience of this country, go silent?

Trish Hennessy is director of Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Ontario.