Would You Mistake a Charity for Radical Extremists?


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

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