But why would anyone want to target charities?
After all, charitable organizations are among the most moderate civil society organizations. They are not normally drawn to highly contentious actions. They tend to do research and speak about policy based on that research.
Environmental charities, for example, have historically drawn on the research of government and academic scientists to advocate to society and government evidence-based policy options. (With recent federal government layoffs of a large number of scientists including world-famous authorities, our country lost our early-warning environmental radar systems—see Chris Turner’s excellent book, The War on Science, for more information.)
Environmental charities tend to educate the public and the powerful about what we can do. They show us how our personal choices can reduce our carbon footprint, and reduce toxic chemicals and troublesome additives in our food and cosmetics, for example—hardly the stuff of “radical extremist groups” referred to in Joe Oliver’s open letter in the Globe and Mail.
The same sort of practical spirit pervades charities in other sectors, whether international development, human rights, emergency aid, poverty, housing, social services, HIV prevention, women’s health, cancer research, hospitals, universities, or research institutes.
This is surely not a new notion for the current federal government? I bet some cabinet ministers have donated to charities over the years—perhaps even to some of the very popular ones now undergoing audits thanks to their own actions.
In the case of environmental charities, their work on issues that might upset the petroleum industry and its spin-offs are pretty predictable. Charities know they can’t be directly confrontational or their status can be revoked. So they educate, participate in public processes, speak through the media, teach us how to reduce our personal carbon use, advocate for specific policies that would reduce carbon emissions. And sue the government if it ignores due process, as the government has a demonstrable record of doing.
Using public education, building public opinion, using the courts when the government, regulators, or the petroleum industry breaks the law: all of these are moderate actions. They involve “working within the system.” Most of them qualify as “charitable activities” and the rest are allowable “political activities” that are allowed up to 10 percent of a charity’s resources. There’s nothing unprecedented or inherently partisan in any of this list. They are actions that I dare say most Canadians would want from charities that advocate on public policy options.
To get charity status, with its attendant tax breaks, involves conscious consent to wear a straight-jacket. You can speak up for the best policies within a limited range. They must connect to your “purpose,” one of four reasons for existence that a new charity chooses and Industry Canada and Canada Revenue Agency affirms. They can either be “political activities” (e.g., “please call your MP to ask them to put this policy in place”) up to 10 percent of resources, “charitable activities” that build on specific knowledge—for example, speaking in favour of a concluding recommendation found in a research report that your organization commissioned.
The more confrontational language, the peaceful direct action, the suggestion that a new party should be elected, those sorts of things: they’re not what charities do. They’re what grassroots and community organizations do (and they also are rarely “extremist” by any reasonable definition of the word.) And the charities I interviewed knew the difference.
Surely the cabinet does too? So, why would they call charities “extremist” and audit them for “political activities?” That’s for another blog entry.
Meanwhile, check out my Master’s thesis.
I am a former journalist and media manager who recently completed my Master’s thesis for Royal Roads University and now work as a communications professional. I have earned a Webster Award of Distinction, among other awards, for my reporting. Follow me on Twitter: @garethkirkby