My Master’s Thesis: Uncharitable Chill


An Unchar­i­ta­ble Chill:
A Crit­i­cal Explo­ration of How Changes in Fed­eral Pol­icy and
Polit­i­cal Cli­mate are Affect­ing Advocacy-Oriented Charities

Gareth Kirkby

A major project sub­mit­ted in par­tial ful­fill­ment of
the require­ments for the degree of

Royal Roads Uni­ver­sity
June 2014



Start­ing in 2012, the Cana­dian fed­eral gov­ern­ment deployed denun­ci­a­tory rhetoric against envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions and char­i­ties, increased enforce­ment of reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing resources that char­i­ties devote to “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties,” and added envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions to Canada’s anti-terrorism strat­egy as a poten­tial national threat. Using grounded the­ory and in-depth inter­views with lead­ers of char­i­ties that advo­cate on pub­lic pol­icy issues and with char­ity experts, this study explores if, how, and why these orga­ni­za­tions are affected by, and respond­ing to, pos­si­ble loss of char­i­ta­ble sta­tus. It finds Canada Rev­enue Agency audits tar­get cer­tain char­i­ties; com­mu­ni­ca­tions and other func­tions are affected, along with the abil­ity of these char­i­ties to max­i­mize their socially man­dated demo­c­ra­tic work; and that gov­ern­ment is abus­ing power by using state resources to treat char­i­ties as “ene­mies.” Though there are exam­ples of con­tentious actions, groups are pri­mar­ily using col­lab­o­ra­tive umbrella alliances to pro­tect them­selves from what they per­ceive as gov­ern­ment abus­ing its authority.


advo­cacy, polit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, rhetoric, con­tention, civil soci­ety, social movements



It is clear that thought is not free if the pro­fes­sion of cer­tain opin­ions makes it impos­si­ble to earn a liv­ing. It is clear also that thought is not free if all the argu­ments on one side of a con­tro­versy are per­pet­u­ally pre­sented as attrac­tively as pos­si­ble, while the argu­ments on the other side can only be dis­cov­ered by dili­gent search.
—Bertrand Rus­sell, Free thought and offi­cial pro­pa­ganda, 2000/1922



Table of Contents

An Unchar­i­ta­ble Chill: A Crit­i­cal Explo­ration of How Changes in Fed­eral Pol­icy and Polit­i­cal Cli­mate are Affect­ing Advocacy-Oriented Charities


Lit­er­a­ture Review

  • Gov­ern­ment Reg­u­la­tion of Charities
  • The Role of Civil Soci­ety in Keep­ing Democ­racy Healthy
  • The Bat­tle for Pub­lic Opinion


Pre­sen­ta­tion of Findings

  • Sum­mary
  • Exhibit­ing “Chill”: Chang­ing Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Processes and Structures
  • Gov­ern­ment is Nar­row­ing Society’s Conversation
  • Gov­ern­ment is Cor­rupt­ing Demo­c­ra­tic Relationships






Table of Figures

Fig­ure 1. The fun­nel that dri­ves CRA to audit cer­tain char­i­ties
Fig­ure 2. Gov­ern­ment actions to sup­port the oil indus­try
Fig­ure 3. Alter­na­tive voices “muffled”




An Unchar­i­ta­ble Chill:
A Crit­i­cal Explo­ration of How Changes in Pol­icy Enforce­ment and
Polit­i­cal Cli­mate are Affect­ing Advocacy-Oriented Charities

In 2012, the Cana­dian fed­eral gov­ern­ment increased enforce­ment of reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing resources that char­i­ties devote to “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” and added envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions to the government’s anti-terrorism strat­egy as a poten­tial national secu­rity threat. These actions fol­lowed rhetoric by gov­ern­ment min­is­ters denounc­ing some Cana­dian char­i­ties as act­ing against the national inter­est, and being tied to crim­i­nal and ter­ror­ist organizations.

Also, the gov­ern­ment in 2006 insti­tuted the first of ongo­ing fund­ing cuts for some lead­ing pol­icy advo­cacy orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing char­i­ties, with his­to­ries dat­ing back as far as 90 years (Lafor­est, 2012, p. 189). With these dra­matic changes in mind to what is var­i­ously called the “vol­un­tary sec­tor” or “third sec­tor,” both of which include reg­is­tered char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions, (the first and sec­ond sec­tors being respec­tively the pub­lic or gov­ern­men­tal, and pri­vate or cor­po­rate sec­tor), this project’s cen­tral research ques­tion is posed as fol­lows: How and why are char­i­ties that con­duct advo­cacy related to pub­lic pol­icy being affected by recent fed­eral gov­ern­ment rhetoric and changes to char­i­ta­ble reg­u­la­tions and enforce­ment (i.e., “the cur­rent fed­eral polit­i­cal cli­mate”)? Are, and how are, the struc­tural, oper­a­tional, and dis­cur­sive func­tions (i.e., the charity’s focus on its “mis­sion”) being affected?

A vari­ety of the­o­ries relat­ing to social move­ments and rel­e­vant com­mu­ni­ca­tion the­ory, as well as meth­ods addressed to draw some per­spec­tive from key indi­vid­u­als wit­ness to these changes, are mar­shaled here to sup­port that research ques­tion. I use in-depth inter­views of char­ity lead­ers, and an exer­cise in apply­ing frame the­ory to dis­course, to explore if, how, and why these orga­ni­za­tions are affected by, and respond­ing to, the shift­ing polit­i­cal cli­mate and the accom­pa­ny­ing pos­si­bil­ity of los­ing char­i­ta­ble sta­tus as a result of a stepped-up audit­ing pro­gram. I also draw on Anto­nio Gramsci’s ideas relat­ing to how the active polit­i­cal involve­ment of civil soci­ety, rather than the state, is the major dri­ver for pro­gres­sive change (Gram­sci, 1950 trans. 1996–2007; Buttigieg, 1995).

My greater the­o­ret­i­cal debt is to the work of McCarthy, Tilly, and frame the­ory. I com­pare my inter­view data against resource mobi­liza­tion the­ory (RMT) (McCarthy & Zald, 1997), Tilly’s (2005) con­tention demo­c­ra­tic par­a­digm, ele­ments of suc­cess­ful social move­ments (Tilly, 2004), and frame the­ory for social move­ments (Snow, Rochford Jr., Wor­den, & Ben­ford, 1986) to dis­cover whether they fit the thoughts and per­cep­tions of my par­tic­i­pants and the behav­iours of their char­i­ta­ble organizations.

Together, RMT, con­tention the­ory, and frame the­ory, three approaches to under­stand­ing col­lec­tive action, allow me to bet­ter develop a multi-dimensional under­stand­ing of the behav­iour of the char­i­ties under study than would any one on its own. RMT pro­vides me a lens to under­stand mobi­liza­tion in the con­text of access or loss of access (threat­ened or actual) to a vari­ety of inter­nal and exter­nal resources (Buech­ler, 2013).

The par­tic­u­lar form of con­tention the­ory I use allows insight into the inter­play between gov­ern­ment actions (for exam­ple, reduc­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for orga­ni­za­tions to con­tribute directly to public-policy dis­cus­sions) and the result­ing reac­tions of the char­i­ties under study. Adding into the mix frame the­ory, the sub­jec­tive side of mobi­liz­ing for change (uti­liz­ing a sym­bolic inter­ac­tion­ist approach), adds to my under­stand­ing of the dis­cur­sive choices—actions and reactions—found in both gov­ern­ment and char­ity rhetoric and com­mu­ni­ca­tions (2013, p. 441; Gold­stone, 2010). Com­bined, the the­o­ries are par­tic­u­larly suited to under­stand­ing actions at the inter­stices of social move­ments, polit­i­cal action, net­work inter­ac­tions, and communication.

Notably, resource mobi­liza­tion the­ory focuses on the role of lead­er­ship, finan­cial resources, orga­ni­za­tional skills, and net­work­ing in the suc­cess of indi­vid­ual orga­ni­za­tions and move­ments (McCarthy & Zald, 1977). It sug­gests that groups would be adversely affected by gov­ern­ment actions that dam­age a charity’s rep­u­ta­tion and poten­tial fund­ing, and divert atten­tion and funds from mission-related activ­i­ties, par­tic­u­larly com­mu­ni­ca­tions, instead shift­ing them to resource-expensive admin­is­tra­tive and man­age­ment tasks. Alter­na­tively, Tilley’s con­tention the­o­ries (2004, 2005) sug­gest that groups within social move­ments1 orga­nize alliances and shift reper­toires to push back in order to accom­plish their goals under pressure.

This study pro­vides insight into the actions taken by par­tic­u­lar char­i­ties at a piv­otal moment and in response to the envi­ron­ment cre­ated by a spe­cific gov­ern­ment. The degree of align­ment of the char­i­ties with resource mobi­liza­tion the­ory and/or with con­tention the­o­ries is an indi­ca­tion of their view of them­selves as suf­fi­ciently secure and unfet­tered to “fight back” against per­ceived injus­tice in gov­ern­ment actions toward them; or as vul­ner­a­ble to, and at high risk of, dam­age caused by the state exer­cis­ing the admin­is­tra­tive, legal, and polic­ing power at its disposal.

The argu­ment for this project’s value is defined by how it addresses a gap in the lit­er­a­ture and by the moral urgency of its sub­ject mat­ter. This is the first national aca­d­e­mic study of char­ity lead­ers to dis­cuss the impacts of gov­ern­ment pol­icy on their work since the fed­eral government’s pol­icy and enforce­ment changes and ramp-up of anti-activist rhetoric (Lafor­est, 2011, p. 9). It is the first known communication-oriented aca­d­e­mic paper specif­i­cally focused on these issues, and their impli­ca­tions for civil soci­ety2since the 2011 elec­tion of the Con­ser­v­a­tive major­ity government.

What­ever its orig­i­nal­ity, the sub­stance of this paper is ulti­mately devoted to an issue that is both top­i­cal and of mate­r­ial sig­nif­i­cance for civil soci­ety and the pub­lic good. That issue may be char­ac­ter­ized in this way: when gov­ern­ment actions dis­tract or dam­age char­i­ties that advo­cate on issues of public-policy change, soci­ety itself suf­fers. These char­i­ties pro­vide a pub­lic ser­vice by bring­ing prob­lems and poten­tial solu­tions into pub­lic dis­cus­sion, build­ing social con­sen­sus, and pres­sur­ing gov­ern­ment and cit­i­zens to act (Fung & Wright, 2001; Phillips, 2010, p. 66). In so doing, char­i­ties and other civil-society orga­ni­za­tions simul­ta­ne­ously enhance cit­i­zen­ship and democ­racy, social inno­va­tion, com­mu­nity build­ing, and employ­ment and eco­nomic devel­op­ment (Phillips, 2010, p. 66).




In an “open let­ter” to Cana­di­ans pub­lished in Jan­u­ary 2012 in The Globe and Mail, for­mer Nat­ural Resources Min­is­ter Joe Oliver kicked off an “us” vs. “them” nar­ra­tive push­ing back against oppo­si­tion by envi­ron­men­tal groups to increas­ing nat­ural resources infra­struc­ture, pro­duc­tion, and export (Oliver, 2012). The open let­ter labeled them “rad­i­cal groups” jeop­ar­diz­ing the jobs and finances of “Cana­di­ans and their fam­i­lies” by “seek[ing] to block” extrac­tion and ship­ping of oil and min­er­als to Asian-Pacific economies (Oliver, 2012). Resource extrac­tion “help[s] ensure the finan­cial secu­rity of Cana­di­ans and their fam­i­lies,” wrote Oliver (2012). There fol­lowed a series of sim­i­lar denun­ci­a­tions from the Prime Min­is­ter, other cab­i­net min­is­ters, and sen­a­tors uti­liz­ing par­al­lel rhetoric (CBC News, 2012a, 2012b; Paris, 2012a, 2012b; McDi­armid, 2012).

The appear­ance of this let­ter in The Globe and Mail was the incep­tion of the Cana­dian Con­ser­v­a­tive government’s sus­tained 2012 attack on envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions and assess­ments, inter­na­tional foun­da­tion fund­ing of Cana­dian activist groups, the offi­cial char­i­ta­ble sta­tus of orga­ni­za­tions seek­ing pub­lic pol­icy changes, media access to gov­ern­ment sci­en­tists, and fund­ing of polit­i­cally sen­si­tive sci­en­tific research projects (May, 2012; McCarthy, 2013; Pynn, 2012; Turner 2013a). In Feb­ru­ary 2012, Canada’s anti-terrorism strat­egy was amended to add envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions to the threat list, an action that appeared omi­nous to some observers (Bron­skill, 2012; Leahy, 2013; McQuaig, 2012; Mon­aghan & Walby, 2008, 2011, 2013; Pub­lic Safety Canada, 2013).

These actions occurred at a time of grow­ing pub­lic and civil soci­ety con­cern about the government’s domes­tic and inter­na­tional envi­ron­men­tal record. The government’s emer­gent national eco­nomic strat­egy focused on the expan­sion of the oil sands3 and gas fields, as well as the trans­port and export of bitu­men by pipeline, rail, and tanker (here­after referred to as “oil and gas infra­struc­ture, pro­duc­tion, trans­port, and export.”

The strat­egy, in the words of Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper, was to trans­form Canada into “an energy super­power” (Akin, 2012; Berman, 2012; Dob­bin, 2012; Hoek­stra, 2012; May, 2012; McCarthy, 2013). In this con­text, the open let­ter can be read as the inau­gural act in the government’s attempt to frame envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions as ene­mies in the pub­lic mind at the very time that major con­tentious projects, includ­ing the North­ern Gate­way pipeline, moved toward approval.

The March 29, 2012 fed­eral bud­get drove home the major shift in rela­tions between the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and civil soci­ety (Hoek­stra, 2012). The bud­get made avail­able addi­tional funds for Canada Rev­enue Agency (CRA) to step up audits of fed­er­ally reg­is­tered char­i­ties to ver­ify that no more than 10% of their resources were devoted to “polit­i­cal activ­ity” as defined by CRA.4 At a time when other depart­ments expe­ri­enced reduced bud­gets, CRA received an addi­tional $8 mil­lion in fund­ing for a vari­ety of tasks, includ­ing increased audit­ing, mon­i­tor­ing and edu­ca­tional resources—$5 mil­lion for 2012–13 and $3 mil­lion for 2013–14 (Fla­herty, 2012b, p. 205; McCarthy, 2012b; Waldie, 2012).5

CRA has sub­se­quently hired a ded­i­cated team to focus on audit­ing char­i­ties that engage in polit­i­cal activ­ity (“Char­i­ties pro­gram update,” n.d.). Reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing char­ity spend­ing on polit­i­cal activ­i­ties and gov­ern­ing fund­ing from out­side Canada were also tight­ened (Broder, 2014, p. 208; Car­o­line, 2012). The Globe and Mail news­pa­per later noted that while the bud­get “did not specif­i­cally cite envi­ron­men­tal groups [as the intended tar­get of audits], Con­ser­v­a­tive cab­i­net min­is­ters, MPs and sen­a­tors have attacked them” (McCarthy, 2012b).

An unsigned edi­to­r­ial in The Globe and Mail was crit­i­cal of the government’s accu­mu­lat­ing pol­icy changes and con­fronta­tional rhetoric regard­ing char­i­ties. In that, the paper mir­rored con­cerns of Imag­ine Canada, the national char­ity umbrella and lob­by­ing orga­ni­za­tion, in call­ing it “a cam­paign of intim­i­da­tion” that has “begun to cre­ate a chill among char­i­ties who wish to par­tic­i­pate in public-policy debates” (The Globe and Mail, 2012; Imag­ine Canada, 2012).

Though there has been aca­d­e­mic dis­cus­sion about an “advo­cacy chill” in the char­ity sec­tor since these actions in 2012, and even pre­ced­ing that date (DeSan­tis, 2013, p. 471; Lafor­est, 2012, pp. 190–191; Phillips, 2013, p. 900), there has been no post-2012 national study of how char­i­ties have answered these state­ments and events in word or strate­gic action. This project, based on inter­views with affected char­ity lead­ers and experts as well as dis­course analy­sis of com­men­tary rel­e­vant to this “chill,” is com­mit­ted to dis­cover whether they per­ceive such a phe­nom­e­non occurring.

Fur­ther, if such offi­cial gov­ern­ment dis­cour­age­ment of envi­ron­men­tal advo­cacy by reg­is­tered char­i­ties is con­firmed, this project exam­ines its dimen­sions and impli­ca­tions. More­over, assum­ing a chill is con­firmed, this project is inter­ested in the per­cep­tion of char­ity lead­ers about why the government’s actions are occur­ring, as well as how their char­i­ties and the larger char­i­ta­ble sec­tor are respond­ing now and intend to respond in future.

Lit­er­a­ture Review

Gov­ern­ment Reg­u­la­tion of Char­i­ties
Ital­ian the­o­rist Anto­nio Gram­sci, a source for this paper, the­o­rized that social progress emerges from “civil soci­ety.” “Civil soci­ety” is a con­cept with a long his­tory, dat­ing to Aris­to­tle and receiv­ing a mod­ern iden­tity in John Locke’s 1690 essay Two Trea­tises of Gov­ern­ment. “Civil soci­ety” is the term given to describe the total­ity of those groups, rang­ing from polit­i­cal par­ties to vol­un­teer orga­ni­za­tions to labour unions, that take part in and, through their activ­ity, them­selves con­sti­tute a major dimen­sion of pub­lic life.

They do so in that space out­side the state, the econ­omy, and the pri­vate sphere of the home, and here they com­bine with indi­vid­ual cit­i­zens in fos­ter­ing debate and action relat­ing to the state, cor­po­ra­tions, or var­i­ous issues and events of pub­lic impor­tance. The World Bank offers a use­ful def­i­n­i­tion of the term “civil society”:

The term civil soci­ety refers to the wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit orga­ni­za­tions that have a pres­ence in pub­lic life, express­ing the inter­ests and val­ues of their mem­bers or oth­ers, based on eth­i­cal, cul­tural, polit­i­cal, sci­en­tific, reli­gious or phil­an­thropic con­sid­er­a­tions. Civil Soci­ety Orga­ni­za­tions there­fore refer to a wide of array of orga­ni­za­tions: com­mu­nity groups, non-governmental orga­ni­za­tions (NGOs), labor unions, indige­nous groups, char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions, faith-based orga­ni­za­tions, pro­fes­sional asso­ci­a­tions, and foun­da­tions. (The World Bank, n.d.)

The char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions that are addressed in this paper, of course, are con­stituent mem­bers of civil soci­ety. For that rea­son, in dis­cussing these orga­ni­za­tions col­lec­tively, we are like­wise iden­ti­fy­ing them as part of civil soci­ety, and inter­pret­ing what the char­ity lead­ers and experts inter­viewed in this paper say as rep­re­sen­ta­tive to a degree of the char­ac­ter and direc­tion of Cana­dian civil soci­ety at this time.

Reg­u­la­tion of the “vol­un­tary sec­tor.”  Though there is much aca­d­e­mic lit­er­a­ture exam­in­ing Cana­dian vol­un­tary orga­ni­za­tions in Canada, there is less avail­able specif­i­cally on reg­is­tered char­i­ties that advo­cate on behalf of pub­lic pol­icy changes and their rela­tion­ship with governments.

Advo­cacy orga­ni­za­tions include, but are not lim­ited to, char­i­ta­ble, non-profit, and activist groups focused on issues and poli­cies con­cern­ing First Nations, energy, global warm­ing, poverty, home­less­ness, inter­na­tional devel­op­ment, women’s equal­ity, human rights, free­dom of expres­sion, and open media. Their mis­sions, pol­i­tics, and strate­gies vary from those with a pref­er­ence for research, edu­ca­tion, and con­sen­sus build­ing around pub­lic poli­cies, to highly con­tentious and more overtly polit­i­cal groups with a greater will­ing­ness to uti­lize a range of actions up to direct action—and every­thing in between.

Cana­dian researchers are increas­ingly using the term “vol­un­tary sec­tor,” which was adopted in the late 1990s by lead­ers of a wide range of orga­ni­za­tions. The vol­un­tary sec­tor encom­passes some 180,000 orga­ni­za­tions includ­ing: char­i­ties; non-profits; coop­er­a­tives; inter­est groups; com­mu­nity, research, and reli­gious orga­ni­za­tions; social clubs; and self-help and mutual-aid groups (Lafor­est, 2011, p. 4). The cat­e­gory includes much of civil soci­ety; that is to say, the vol­un­tary sec­tor is part of, though not coex­ten­sive with, civil soci­ety, since the lat­ter can include polit­i­cal par­ties, labour unions, and think tanks.

The term “vol­un­tary sec­tor” will appear in this paper when refer­ring to papers writ­ten by other researchers. How­ever, I shall mainly draw on the term “civil soci­ety” in this paper; civil soci­ety delim­its that por­tion of soci­ety that is other than the polit­i­cal gov­er­nors (see a more elab­o­rate def­i­n­i­tion in the “Notes” sec­tion of this paper on page 55). I shall also refer to “char­i­ties,” a fed­er­ally reg­u­lated form of non-profit orga­ni­za­tion with spe­cific tax ben­e­fits, and which are part of civil society.

Rachel Lafor­est is a lead­ing Cana­dian researcher of the rela­tion­ship between the fed­eral Cana­dian gov­ern­ment and the “vol­un­tary sec­tor,” includ­ing char­i­ties that advo­cate on public-policy issues. Lafor­est writes that this rela­tion­ship may be at a his­toric low point (2012 p. 181; 2011, p. 130). Her recent study (2012) inter­viewed 26 vol­un­tary sec­tor lead­ers (not lim­ited to char­i­ties) about the impacts of fund­ing and pol­icy change from 1990 to 2010, con­cen­trat­ing mainly on fund­ing issues. The paper found early evi­dence of a “pro­found advo­cacy chill” fol­low­ing fed­eral fund­ing cuts to high-profile national orga­ni­za­tions that crit­i­cized gov­ern­ment poli­cies (pp. 190–191; see also Levitz, 2010). Lafor­est (2012, p. 190) and Phillips (2011, p. 223 as cited in Lavasseur, 2012) have defined “advo­cacy chill” in terms of orga­ni­za­tions reduc­ing or elim­i­nat­ing their involve­ment in advo­cacy to reduce risk of los­ing gov­ern­ment fund­ing, or expe­ri­enc­ing gov­ern­men­tal sanc­tion or dereg­is­tra­tion. Lafor­est (2012) fur­ther sees it in terms of orga­ni­za­tions avoid­ing speak­ing out in defence of other orga­ni­za­tions so affected (p. 190).

In this paper I shall fol­low their lead, with par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to the per­ceived effect of an advo­cacy chill that intim­i­dates civil soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions; in this study, I define advo­cacy chill in terms of reduced or altered out-bound com­mu­ni­ca­tions, espe­cially that which pub­licly call for changes in gov­ern­ment pol­icy and pri­or­i­ties, or pub­licly chal­lenges gov­ern­ment actions.

Glo­ria C. DeSan­tis (2013) also found evi­dence of “advo­cacy chill” in her explo­ration of chal­lenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties faced by 39 non-profit community-based ser­vice deliv­ery orga­ni­za­tions in Saskatchewan. DeSan­tis stud­ied groups as they jug­gled the needs of their orga­ni­za­tion, its mar­gin­al­ized clients, and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment while attempt­ing to influ­ence social pol­icy devel­op­ment. She dis­cov­ered that orga­ni­za­tions resist advo­cacy chill to vary­ing degrees, notably as they try to “seek out soft spots in order to make pro­gres­sive change” (p. 467).

But the expe­ri­ence of these orga­ni­za­tions is con­tra­dic­tory. They have dif­fi­culty deal­ing with gov­ern­ments while also advo­cat­ing on behalf of changed poli­cies that affect their clien­tele; such gov­ern­ment con­trol there­fore neg­a­tively influ­ences community-based orga­ni­za­tions’ advo­cacy behav­iour (p. 467). Her research was lim­ited by geog­ra­phy and by involv­ing only non­profit service-delivery orga­ni­za­tions that received gov­ern­ment funding.

Laforest’s (2011, 2012, 2013a) works trace grad­ual fed­eral gov­ern­ment with­drawal over two decades from policy-oriented part­ner­ships and direct fund­ing of core oper­at­ing costs of key orga­ni­za­tions. Lafor­est traces the wax­ing and wan­ing of the fed­eral government’s inter­est in reg­u­lat­ing social rela­tions since the Sec­ond World War as polit­i­cal ide­olo­gies shifted. Civil soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions pro­lif­er­ated after the Sec­ond World War in par­al­lel with the nation’s econ­omy and urban­iza­tion (p. 184). By the 1970s, gov­ern­ment tapped civil soci­ety groups, par­tic­u­larly for their input as orga­ni­za­tions rep­re­sent­ing vul­ner­a­ble minori­ties, and expanded core fund­ing for groups work­ing on issues that par­al­leled gov­ern­ment pri­or­i­ties (Lafor­est, 2012, p. 184; Phillips, Lafor­est, & Gra­ham, 2010, p. 193–194).

In the eco­nom­i­cally less vig­or­ous 1980s and 1990s, core fund­ing shrunk but sig­nif­i­cant project fund­ing remained. The influ­ence of civil soci­ety groups, as well as the amount of their gov­ern­ment fund­ing, waned as orga­ni­za­tions in this period tended to crit­i­cize poli­cies that gov­ern­ments had made a mat­ter of pri­or­ity, notably poli­cies relat­ing to eco­nomic lib­er­al­iza­tion and free trade, dereg­u­la­tion, and reduced gov­ern­ment sup­port for social pro­grams. The fed­eral Lib­eral Government’s pri­or­i­ties were influ­enced by the rhetoric of the right­ist Reform Party, which viewed civil soci­ety groups as “vested inter­ests” (Lafor­est, 2012; Lay­cock, 2002, pp. 2,9,10).

The Reform Party, pre­cur­sor to today’s fed­eral Con­ser­v­a­tive Party, was notable for its “pol­i­tics of resent­ment,” accord­ing to polit­i­cal sci­en­tist David Lay­cock (p. 185). With the elec­tion of the Con­ser­v­a­tive Party in 2006, fund­ing cuts hit advo­cacy orga­ni­za­tions hard; six of 26 national vol­un­tary orga­ni­za­tions stud­ied by Lafor­est had to shut down oper­a­tions com­pletely, and 14 orga­ni­za­tions expe­ri­enced fed­eral fund­ing cuts (Lafor­est, 2012, p. 190). “Some exam­ples are notable,” wrote Lafor­est (2012, p. 189). The Cana­dian Coun­cil for Inter­na­tional Co-Operation lost 70 per­cent of fed­eral fund­ing despite a 40-year part­ner­ship with gov­ern­ment. The Cana­dian Coun­cil on Social Devel­op­ment (CCSD) fol­lowed with a loss of all fund­ing despite its national lead­er­ship for 90 years on social pol­icy (p. 189).

Today, researchers sug­gest a tran­si­tion is under­way in how gov­ern­ments weigh the “legit­i­macy” of civil-society groups that they fund. Whereas gov­ern­ments pre­vi­ously rec­og­nized legit­i­macy based largely on the organization’s claims to rep­re­sent a con­stituency, the abil­ity of orga­ni­za­tions to effi­ciently deliver ser­vices val­ued by the gov­ern­ment is now the key mea­sure of legit­i­macy (Ache­son & Lafor­est, 2013; Lafor­est & Phillips, 2013).

In par­al­lel, a new norm around advo­cacy has emerged. Thought a valu­able activ­ity as recently as the 1980s, advo­cacy in deed and even in use of the word itself as a descrip­tor of an organization’s activ­ity, has been rein­ter­preted, grad­u­ally inter­nal­ized by vol­un­tary orga­ni­za­tions as unde­sir­able and even shame­ful, and like­wise deemed an activ­ity that places cred­i­bil­ity and fund­ing at risk (Bur­rowes & Lafor­est, n.d.; Lavasseur, 2012).

The cuts to orga­ni­za­tions engag­ing in advo­cacy have also hurt asso­ci­a­tional net­works, “thereby restrict­ing avail­able routes cit­i­zens can use for mobi­liz­ing claims” and, through this means, wield suf­fi­cient power to influ­ence gov­ern­men­tal out­comes (2012, p. 181). Lafor­est con­cludes that Canada lacks three con­di­tions nec­es­sary to build­ing a strong social infra­struc­ture that sup­ports demo­c­ra­tic participation—an insti­tu­tion­al­ized frame­work, gov­er­nance arrange­ments, and resources—and so is in cri­sis (2012, p. 182).

Char­ity reg­u­la­tions. His­tor­i­cally, the Cana­dian state has reg­u­lated char­i­ties with the twin pur­poses of ensur­ing dona­tions are devoted to char­i­ta­ble pur­poses while also pro­tect­ing the integrity of a tax sys­tem that exempts char­i­ties from pay­ing taxes on their own income, and allows indi­vid­u­als and cor­po­ra­tions to deduct a por­tion of their dona­tion from their yearly declared income (Broder, 2014, p. 210; Phillips, 2013, p. 896; “What role does the fed­eral gov­ern­ment play,” n.d.).

In Canada, to be one of the approx­i­mately 85,000 to 86,000 reg­is­tered char­i­ties approved after appli­ca­tion to the Char­i­ties Direc­torate of Canada Rev­enue Agency (CRA), the government’s tax author­ity, an orga­ni­za­tion must fall into one of four cat­e­gories of pur­pose: relief of poverty, advance­ment of edu­ca­tion, advance­ment of reli­gion, or the broad cat­e­gory of other pur­poses that the courts have upheld as an appro­pri­ate ben­e­fit to the com­mu­nity (“Advanced search results,” n.d.; “What is the dif­fer­ence,” n.d.).

The pur­poses were set out by the House of Lords in 1891 and can be traced to the reign of British monarch Eliz­a­beth I. Though they have been updated in the U.K. and some other Com­mon­wealth coun­tries, the reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing pur­poses, among oth­ers, remain largely unal­tered by Par­lia­ment or the Cana­dian courts, to the detri­ment of both indi­vid­ual char­i­ties and soci­ety gen­er­ally, accord­ing to some char­ity experts, lawyers, and par­tic­i­pants in this study (Broder, 2014).6

A 2010 sur­vey by Imag­ine Canada, the nation’s umbrella orga­ni­za­tion and pub­lic voice for the char­i­ta­ble sec­tor, explored the pub­lic activ­i­ties of 1,625 char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions. They applied CRA guid­ance of “allow­able activ­i­ties,” a pro­to­col that reflects the commonly-held view of the char­ity experts I inter­viewed regard­ing the fine-grained rules guid­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion by char­i­ties in pub­lic debate (empha­sis in original):

Activ­i­ties are con­sid­ered char­i­ta­ble when they are well rea­soned and aim to increase aware­ness of an issue related to the charity’s pur­pose, but do not include a call to polit­i­cal action. While pub­lic aware­ness cam­paigns can­not be the charity’s pri­mary activ­ity, char­i­ties are allowed to devote sig­nif­i­cant orga­ni­za­tional resources to char­i­ta­ble pub­lic aware­ness and pol­icy activ­i­ties. Polit­i­cal activ­i­ties seek to pres­sure the gov­ern­ment on an issue related to the charity’s pur­pose. Activ­i­ties are per­mit­ted if they are non-partisan and if the char­ity devotes sub­stan­tially all of its resources to other, char­i­ta­ble, activ­i­ties. (Lasby & Vodarek, 2011, p. 545)

The study found that 86 per­cent of respon­dents engaged in some form of pub­lic aware­ness and pol­icy activ­ity over the pre­vi­ous year, and a very sig­nif­i­cant 37 per­cent engaged in some form of per­mit­ted polit­i­cal activ­ity over the pre­vi­ous year (pp. 546–547). Most reported engag­ing in polit­i­cal activ­ity only irreg­u­larly or a few times yearly, with only 6 per­cent par­tic­i­pat­ing at least a few times weekly (p. 547) and most polit­i­cal activ­ity focused on provin­cial gov­ern­ments. The most com­mon bar­rier to increased pub­lic aware­ness or polit­i­cal activ­ity was lack of time, though con­cern about lack of impact was an issue among those engag­ing specif­i­cally in polit­i­cal activ­i­ties (pp. 548, 550).

In con­trast to the Imag­ine Canada sur­vey, a 2012 Cana­dian Press analy­sis of the CRA data­base found that only 450 of 85,000 reg­is­tered charities—less than 1 percent—actually reported spend­ing money on polit­i­cal activ­i­ties (Cana­dian Press, 2012b). Other analy­ses show that most char­i­ties come nowhere near attain­ing the thresh­old of the “10% rule” gov­ern­ing resources that can be ded­i­cated to “polit­i­cal activ­ity” (Blum­berg 2012; Blum­berg 2013, The Cana­dian Press, 2012b; Elson, 2011).

A politi­cized process. Through the 2012 changes, the gov­ern­ment has cho­sen to focus on the two goals of false receipt­ing and “polit­i­cal activ­ity,” and the reg­u­la­tory style has shifted from edu­ca­tion and gen­tle nudg­ing by CRA to increased audit­ing and sanc­tion­ing (Phillips, 2013). Susan D. Phillips, a lead­ing researcher on Canada’s vol­un­tary sec­tor, expressed con­cern in 2013 about the new focus: “The main fac­tor at play in Canada … is that gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion has become politi­cized”; it is unlikely that this action, unique among advanced democ­ra­cies, will improve the account­abil­ity and effec­tive­ness of char­i­ties (pp. 884, 896). In another reflec­tion on the politi­ciza­tion of char­ity reg­u­la­tions, Phillips writes:

If there was not already an advo­cacy chill, there cer­tainly is now. Rela­tion­ships between the sec­tor and the polit­i­cal exec­u­tive are more strained than ever, and the reg­u­la­tor is caught in the mid­dle. More than dam­aged rela­tion­ships, the great­est con­se­quence of the recent actions is that the state reg­u­la­tory sys­tem has become politi­cized which, as the reg­u­la­tory lit­er­a­ture has long stressed, is a seri­ous imped­i­ment to its legit­i­macy. (Phillips, 2013, p. 900)

This exam­i­na­tion of the his­tory of government’s role in reg­u­lat­ing char­i­ties puts in per­spec­tive the recent changes and demon­strates a sys­temic prob­lem with government-civil soci­ety rela­tions in Canada.


The Role of Civil Soci­ety in Keep­ing Democ­racy Healthy
To under­stand the impor­tance of recent actions and rhetoric taken by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, and their effects on char­i­ties, both need to be placed in the con­text of the core mean­ing of democ­racy and the processes and insti­tu­tions of rep­re­sen­ta­tion in a healthy democ­racy. The debate around legit­i­macy in the use of power pre­cedes the eighteenth-century emer­gence of mod­ern social move­ments (Tilly, 2004). Cit­i­zens’ votes, cast in a free and fair elec­tion, cer­tainly have a his­tory of con­fer­ring legit­i­macy and author­ity on both a polit­i­cal sys­tem and a gov­ern­ment (Pitkin, 1967 and Rehfeld, 2006 cited in “Polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion,” 2008).

Oth­ers see democracy’s core as a mat­ter of cit­i­zens, singly and in groups (i.e., civil soci­ety), mak­ing claims to power and demand­ing pol­icy input. For exam­ple, the newly emer­gent democ­ra­cies of East­ern Europe after 1988 expe­ri­enced the rise of an involved and demand­ing civil soci­ety sec­tor of some­times aggres­sive social move­ments in addi­tion to estab­lish­ing par­lia­ments and elec­toral sys­tems of sev­eral vari­eties (Falk, 2008). Bar­bara Falk writes of the impor­tance of dis­sent not only in nations tran­si­tion­ing to democ­racy, but also in already demo­c­ra­tic nations: “Where dis­sent is sti­fled, democ­racy suf­fers and its legit­i­macy is thereby dimin­ished.… . We need to be chal­lenged in order to sur­vive” (2008, pp. 249, 253).

A vig­or­ous democ­racy capa­ble of address­ing society’s chal­lenges requires wide, rather than nar­row, lat­i­tude in shar­ing power through var­i­ous forms of cit­i­zen par­tic­i­pa­tion that go beyond reg­u­larly sched­uled elec­tions. Par­tic­i­pa­tion includes exer­cis­ing a reper­toire of actions such as peti­tions, demon­stra­tions, pub­lic com­ments, labour pick­ets and strikes (Eiken­berry, 2009, p. 13; Lafor­est, 2012; Lafor­est 2013a; Tilly 2004). Democ­racy can be seen not as a des­ti­na­tion or merely a cat­e­gory of gov­ern­ment, but rather as a process, a jour­ney of the ebbing and flow­ing of pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion; this is what U.S. philoso­pher John Dewey saw as the ethics of being, relat­ing, and liv­ing within an ever-improving demo­c­ra­tic sys­tem (Eiken­berry, 2009, p. 132).

From this per­spec­tive, social move­ments and other civil soci­ety actors like char­i­ties and vol­un­tary orga­ni­za­tions, play a vital role in keep­ing democ­racy healthy. Fung and Wright’s (2001) ide­o­log­i­cally inclu­sive (though per­haps not com­plete) approach out­lines six ways that civil soci­ety asso­ci­a­tions enhance democracy:

…through the intrin­sic value of asso­cia­tive life, fos­ter­ing civic virtues and teach­ing polit­i­cal skills, offer­ing resis­tance to power and check­ing gov­ern­ment, improv­ing the qual­ity and equal­ity of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, facil­i­tat­ing pub­lic delib­er­a­tion, and cre­at­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for cit­i­zens and groups to par­tic­i­pate directly in gov­er­nance. (p. 515)

Through reg­u­la­tions and the power of the purse, gov­ern­ment sets the para­me­ters in which vol­un­tary and char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions per­form their social man­dates, in addi­tion to choos­ing whether, when, and how to seek pol­icy input. Cor­po­ra­tions, through direct spend­ing or through foun­da­tion fund­ing, also have power of the purse. How can aggre­gates of peo­ple influ­ence pol­icy, par­tic­u­larly between elec­tions? How do they make claims from a posi­tion of strength? Through con­tentious pol­i­tics, answers soci­ol­o­gist and the­o­rist Charles Tilly.

At the core of a social move­ment is a legit­i­mate claim against oppres­sive power of some kind (Tilly, 2004, p. 3). Tilly (2004) sees social move­ments as a process of assert­ing pop­u­lar sov­er­eignty. “Even in sys­tems of rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment … social move­ments pose a cru­cial ques­tion: do sov­er­eignty and its accu­mu­lated wis­dom lie in the leg­is­la­ture or in the peo­ple it claims to rep­re­sent?” (p. 13). Charles Tilly sees the answer as self-evident.

Tilly, inven­tor of the field of con­tention the­ory and a major con­trib­u­tor to social move­ment the­ory, traces the his­tory of Euro­pean and North Amer­i­can peo­ple orga­niz­ing for change in his 2004 book. Tilly’s work is applied to my project data to under­stand the actions of par­tic­i­pant orga­ni­za­tions when con­fronted by those hold­ing power. The cur­rent actions of Canada’s fed­eral gov­ern­ment is not the first time that social move­ments have been challenged.

Tilly’s his­tor­i­cal study fol­lows the highs and lows of social move­ments, which have not been on the steady upward tra­jec­tory that some pro­gres­sives might expect. His­tory tells us that there is a con­nec­tion between demo­c­ra­tic oppor­tu­ni­ties and the growth or decline of social move­ments, with the accom­pa­ny­ing loss of ordi­nary people’s involve­ment in pub­lic pol­i­tics, writes Tilly (2004, p. 3). Lafor­est, to this point, adds that “[g]overnments have a big role to play in [delim­it­ing] spaces for polit­i­cal action” includ­ing shap­ing terms of access and oppor­tu­ni­ties for par­tic­i­pa­tion, access to resources, and empow­er­ing cer­tain actors as more legit­i­mate than oth­ers (2013a, p. 235).

Two addi­tional the­o­ries related to social move­ments are par­tic­u­larly help­ful in ana­lyz­ing the mean­ings of recent fed­eral actions and par­tic­u­larly the data from in-depth inter­views regard­ing how char­i­ties are respond­ing to the fed­eral actions and chang­ing polit­i­cal climate.

I draw on a sub­set of con­tention theory—the “demo­c­ra­tic pentagon”—as out­lined by Tilly (2005). The rela­tion­ship between civil soci­ety and the state is not sta­ble, even in a democ­racy, writes Tilly (2004, pp. 140–143, 133). Con­tention is always in the air and is the demo­c­ra­tic role of social move­ments. “Con­tentious pol­i­tics runs the range from pop­u­lar rebel­lion to strikes, elec­toral cam­paigns, and social move­ments,” explain three lead­ing social move­ment the­o­rists in a major work that attempted to tie together the var­i­ous splits in social move­ment the­o­ries (McAdam, Tar­row, & Tilly, 2001).

Tilly (2005) elab­o­rates a hypoth­e­sis of how the var­i­ous dimen­sions of the “demo­c­ra­tic pentagon”—capacity, breadth, equal­ity, con­sul­ta­tion, and protection—play out the extent, form, and inten­sity of rela­tion­ships between gov­ern­ments and non-governmental groups includ­ing social move­ments. For exam­ple, broad­en­ing the demo­c­ra­tic polit­i­cal inclu­sion (i.e., “polity”) of non-governmental groups “incites alliance-formation and claims of recog­ni­tion, sat­is­fac­tion, and mem­ber­ship by still-excluded actors,” whereas “nar­row­ing polity mem­ber­ship incites antic­i­pa­tory resis­tance and alliance for­ma­tion by threat­ened polity mem­bers” (2005, p. 434).

Tilly also argues that the suc­cess of social move­ments, oper­at­ing within a suf­fi­ciently open polit­i­cal sys­tem, is tied to effec­tive use of three syn­the­sized ele­ments. The first two ele­ments are the abil­ity to dis­play wor­thi­ness, unity, num­bers and com­mit­ments (i.e., “WUNC” dis­plays), along with a cam­paign of “sus­tained, orga­nized pub­lic effort mak­ing col­lec­tive claims on tar­get author­i­ties” (Tilly, 2004, pp. 3–4). Suc­cess also involves employ­ing a com­bi­na­tion of var­ied forms of polit­i­cal action drawn from a reper­toire of special-purpose asso­ci­a­tions, coali­tions, pub­lic meet­ings, solemn pro­ces­sions, vig­ils, ral­lies, demon­stra­tions, peti­tion dri­ves, state­ments in pub­lic media, and pam­phle­teer­ing (pp. 3–4).

Notable is that all three of these ele­ments are anchored pro­foundly in forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, whether forms of broad­cast­ing and out­reach, per­sonal state­ments, or from peo­ple putting their bod­ies “on the line.” In his 2005 paper, Tilly sug­gests that a gov­ern­ment that is able to deflect, con­strain, and oth­er­wise man­age the var­i­ous forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion from social move­ment orga­ni­za­tions is able to more effec­tively resist their demands with­out sub­stan­tial polit­i­cal penalty (p. 435).

Tilly’s main appli­ca­tion of his 2005 hypoth­e­sis is to his­toric, sweep­ing social move­ments, and he con­cedes that the 37 vari­a­tions in rela­tions along the five axes explored in the pen­ta­gon are rel­a­tively sta­tic rather than dynamic (p. 440). Still, they offer some util­ity, espe­cially when com­bined with other forms of analy­sis uti­lized in my the­sis, for eval­u­at­ing impacts of, and char­ity reac­tions to, shift­ing gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions, provoca­tive announce­ments, and chang­ing polit­i­cal climate.

The sec­ond the­ory is Resource Mobi­liza­tion The­ory (RMT) as expressed by John D. McCarthy and Mayer N. Zald (1977). Their work, a branch of social move­ment the­o­ries, gives cen­tre stage to an empha­sis on

both soci­etal sup­port and con­straint of social move­ment phe­nom­ena. It exam­ines the vari­ety of resources that must be mobi­lized, the link­ages of social move­ments to other groups, the depen­dence of move­ments upon exter­nal sup­port for suc­cess, and the tac­tics used by author­i­ties to con­trol or incor­po­rate move­ments. (p. 1213)

RMT allows for pre­dic­tions of the effects of strong oppo­si­tion from author­ity fig­ures; a cat­e­go­riza­tion of kinds of adher­ents, con­stituents, and ben­e­fi­cia­ries; the impact of crit­i­cism by author­ity and media on donors of money and labour; the impact of eco­nomic indi­ca­tors on an organization’s growth and sta­bil­ity; the fit of an orga­ni­za­tion within its move­ment sec­tor and the role of com­pe­ti­tion; and the impact of an organization’s struc­ture and net­work on its via­bil­ity (McCarthy & Zald, 1977). RMT helps in under­stand­ing the what and why of actions taken by par­tic­i­pant lead­ers’ mission-centred orga­ni­za­tions as they make choices about their responses to the cur­rent polit­i­cal environment.

This sec­tion has demon­strated that civil soci­ety groups and par­tic­u­larly social move­ments have a vital role in keep­ing democ­racy dynamic, and that a healthy democ­racy requires more col­lec­tive involve­ment than that asso­ci­ated with peri­odic elec­toral vot­ing. Civil soci­ety plays its role by ensur­ing that new ideas and dif­fer­ent approaches to the norm receive an airing.


The Bat­tle for Pub­lic Opin­ion
Finally, this study turns to Anto­nio Gramsci’s ideas about pub­lic opin­ion con­nect­ing civil soci­ety and the state (i.e., civil soci­ety and polit­i­cal soci­ety). Though the forms and inten­sity of mea­sure­ment and manip­u­la­tion may have changed since Gram­sci wrote in the 1930s of how the state cre­ates agree­ment within the pub­lic to sup­port its mea­sures (i.e., hege­mony), his recog­ni­tion still holds that when the state wants to ini­ti­ate unpop­u­lar mea­sures, it orga­nizes com­mu­ni­ca­tions and other cul­tural ele­ments within civil soci­ety in an effort to cre­ate favourable pub­lic opin­ion (Gram­sci, Quaderni del carcere (QC), 2, pp. 914–915 as cited in Fontana 2006, p. 72).

Gram­sci viewed pub­lic opin­ion as the polit­i­cal con­tent of the pub­lic polit­i­cal will, often dis­cor­dant and con­tra­dic­tory, with clear win­ning sides that often suc­ceed through more effec­tively dom­i­nat­ing media and pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion (Gram­sci, QC, 2, pp. 914–915 as cited in Fontana 2006, p. 72).

Though gov­ern­ment may have less direct influ­ence than pre­vi­ously over com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels, the impor­tance of influ­enc­ing pub­lic opin­ion to cre­ate hege­monic con­sen­sus or advance counter-hegemonies remains (Fontana, 2006, pp. 72–73). Both the state and its chal­lengers rely on pub­lic opin­ion to legit­i­mate or dele­git­i­mate their power, notes Fontana (2006, p. 72). Pub­lic opin­ion, in a mod­ern, rep­re­sen­ta­tive liberal-democratic polit­i­cal sys­tem where mem­bers of the pub­lic are both overt polit­i­cal actors as well as spec­ta­tors, is incom­pat­i­ble with most, but not all, forms of despo­tism and author­i­tar­i­an­ism. How­ever, the com­mu­ni­ca­tion levers avail­able to gov­ern­ment give it strong influ­ence in form­ing “sen­ti­ments, views, val­ues and beliefs within the groups that con­sti­tute civil soci­ety” (pp. 72–73).

Thus, the fight for pub­lic opin­ion —a largely dis­cur­sive battle—has become the “trench war­fare” of oppos­ing world-views of which Gram­sci wrote (Gram­sci, Selec­tions from the Prison Note­books, p. 243 as cited in Fontana, 2006, p. 58). This con­flict over the cre­ation and direc­tion of opin­ion in civil soci­ety deter­mines the con­tent of the state as forces bat­tle to both attain and main­tain state power (Fontana, 2006, p. 74).




My research used two forms of qual­i­ta­tive meth­ods to col­lect the data ana­lyzed in this study: qual­i­ta­tive inter­views with sub­jects, and frame analy­sis of doc­u­ments related to pub­lic state­ments made by two fed­eral cab­i­net min­is­ters. For the inter­view por­tion of the project, I inter­viewed 21 peo­ple: 16 were lead­ers of char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions; five were rec­og­nized “experts” in the field of char­i­ta­ble organizations—academics, lawyers, for­mer gov­ern­ment staff, and staff at an umbrella organization.

The par­tic­i­pants worked in five provinces. The char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions rep­re­sented five sub-sectors: envi­ron­ment, inter­na­tional devel­op­ment, social ser­vices, research, and con­ser­va­tion; this allowed for basic com­par­isons in expe­ri­ences and per­cep­tions. Early pre-research dis­cus­sions with some char­ity lead­ers revealed ret­i­cence to par­tic­i­pate in a for­mal research study, given the chal­lenges involved in dis­clos­ing poten­tially sen­si­tive inter­nal infor­ma­tion and strate­gies and the highly charged polit­i­cal con­text. Oth­ers were keen to see such a project pro­ceed. There­fore, a num­ber of steps were taken in design­ing this research to pro­tect the iden­tity of par­tic­i­pants and their orga­ni­za­tions. Semi-structured qual­i­ta­tive inter­views were selected to enable trust build­ing between par­tic­i­pant and inter­viewer, and for the par­tic­i­pant to choose how forth­com­ing they wished to be (Lindlof & Tay­lor, 2011, p. 175; Rosen­blum, 1987, pp. 396–397).

In line with this approach, inter­view top­ics rather than direct ques­tions were devel­oped, increas­ing the oppor­tu­nity for par­tic­i­pant and inter­viewer to mutu­ally go “trav­el­ling” together (Sayrs, 1998) rather than the tra­di­tional stac­cato “min­ing” approach of inter­view­ing that can trig­ger neg­a­tive reac­tions (Sayrs, 1998). The fear within the sec­tor had a def­i­nite impact on the pool of par­tic­i­pant lead­ers; some of those inter­viewed were lead­ers will­ing to take a deep breath and trust that a master’s stu­dent would pro­tect their identities.

I received eth­i­cal approval from Royal Roads University’s Human Sub­jects Review Board prior to begin­ning data col­lec­tion, with par­tic­i­pa­tion in the research pre­sent­ing min­i­mal risk. All par­tic­i­pants signed a con­sent form of their choos­ing to reflect their pre­ferred level of anonymity.

I repeat­edly gave all par­tic­i­pants the option to with­draw from the study at any time prior to my sub­mit­ting the the­sis draft of find­ings. Par­tic­i­pants were informed of the pur­pose of the study and the process of research. I gave par­tic­i­pants an oppor­tu­nity to ask ques­tions and dis­cussed my inter­est in the study. Par­tic­i­pants choos­ing not to be named in the doc­u­ment were assured of a high degree of con­fi­den­tial­ity. Though a few par­tic­i­pants chose to sign con­sent forms allow­ing more lat­i­tude for includ­ing data that may enable some to guess their iden­tity, or in the case of two experts con­sent­ing to allow me to fully iden­tify them, I have cho­sen a con­sis­tent approach with the intent of fully mask­ing all per­sonal and orga­ni­za­tional identities.

I used the con­structed grounded the­ory approach of Kathy Char­maz (2006; see also Char­maz & Bryant, 2008) to ana­lyze the inter­view data. The approach offered both sys­temic rigor to “ground” my analy­sis in the data, while also allow­ing a degree of flex­i­bil­ity in col­lect­ing data from dis­parate orga­ni­za­tions and in draw­ing on out­side resources and the­o­ries, and on my own past expe­ri­ence and my dia­logue with the data, to facil­i­tate and deepen my analy­sis (2006, p 2). I ana­lyzed tran­scripts using open and focused cod­ing in an induc­tive process of com­par­i­son within and between cat­e­gories of data. The inter­view tran­scripts pro­vided the pri­mary data to be ana­lyzed, and my inter­pre­ta­tion of the tran­scripts was sup­ported by top­i­cal lit­er­a­ture and theory.

In an iter­a­tive process, my inter­view data was coded, assigned to emer­gent cat­e­gories (which were in flux as analy­sis pro­ceeded), and ana­lyzed and com­pared through writ­ing more than 200 ana­lyt­i­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal memos. Through increas­ingly ana­lyt­i­cal memos, a higher level of the­ory emerged (Char­maz & Bryant, 2008). Using my inter­pre­ta­tion of the data, sup­ple­mented by illus­tra­tive inter­view seg­ments and theory-driven points of analy­sis and con­trast, my aim is to high­light the voices and expe­ri­ences of my participants.

For the por­tion of my project involv­ing the analy­sis of doc­u­ments, I used frame the­ory as devel­oped by Ben­ford and Snow (and oth­ers) for appli­ca­tion to social move­ment mes­sag­ing (Ben­ford & Snow, 2000; Snow, Rochford Jr., Wor­den, & Ben­ford, 1986) to under­stand the con­text and con­tent of two texts of par­tic­u­lar impor­tance to this research. Though the the­ory is nor­mally applied for con­struct­ing and ana­lyz­ing the char­ac­ter and course of social move­ments and their mes­sag­ing (Ben­ford & Snow, 2000, p. 611), it also has util­ity in under­stand­ing the fram­ing of gov­ern­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tions, includ­ing in this case the rhetoric of two fed­eral gov­ern­ment min­is­ters as they pro­duce and main­tain mean­ing for their audi­ences (p. 613). The com­mu­ni­ca­tions, which are of par­tic­u­lar impor­tance for this the­sis, were (1) the Jan­u­ary 2012 “open let­ter” from for­mer Nat­ural Resources Min­is­ter Joe Oliver, and (2) a tran­script of the Feb­ru­ary 2014 pre-budget press-conference com­ments by for­mer Finance Min­is­ter Jim Fla­herty (who died in April 2014).

I applied Ben­ford and Snow’s “col­lec­tive action frames” which are con­struc­tions of dynamic, inter­ac­tive, nego­ti­ated rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the world that stim­u­late action on the part of the allies of the framers, draw in bystanders, and/or dis­cour­age action by the adver­saries of the framers. Through mak­ing events mean­ing­ful, col­lec­tive action frames orga­nize expe­ri­ence and guide action (Ben­ford & Snow, 2000, p. 614). Under­stand­ing the intended mean­ing that the min­is­ters’ com­mu­ni­ca­tions are attempt­ing to nego­ti­ate with their audi­ences pro­vides insight not only into the rhetoric itself but also suc­ces­sive actions.

My inter­est in con­duct­ing this research stems from my for­mer career in jour­nal­ism and my writ­ings about the impor­tance of hav­ing the widest pos­si­ble lat­i­tude for non-violent, vig­or­ous pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion. In addi­tion to past work as a jour­nal­ist and media man­ager for cor­po­rate and alter­na­tive print and online media, I have worked in com­mu­ni­ca­tions and served on the boards of direc­tors for char­i­ties and not-for-profits, includ­ing civil-society envi­ron­men­tal and umbrella organizations.



Pre­sen­ta­tion of Findings

Analy­sis of my inter­view data using Charmaz’s con­structed grounded the­ory (which per­mits draw­ing on past aca­d­e­mic research) leads me to sev­eral the­o­ret­i­cal con­clu­sions. Per­vad­ing the data is the pres­ence of strong emo­tions that con­nect the var­i­ous the­o­ret­i­cal find­ings below, and high­light a strong sense of con­fu­sion, fear, and vul­ner­a­bil­ity. The emo­tions con­nect with behav­iour relat­ing to bul­ly­ing or harassment—words used by the participants—or, more accu­rately, a gov­ern­ment tak­ing actions that amount to an abuse of the power and insti­tu­tional processes at any government’s dis­posal in order to advance its par­tic­u­lar short-term pol­icy preferences.

I find that an “advo­cacy chill” is affect­ing char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions that advo­cate on pub­lic pol­icy issues, though it varies in inten­sity and extent from orga­ni­za­tion to orga­ni­za­tion and some orga­ni­za­tions report no chill. The rhetoric and actions of the cur­rent fed­eral gov­ern­ment have also led some orga­ni­za­tions to make changes in oper­a­tional processes and to imple­ment or con­sider struc­tural changes. I find that the chill is par­tially cre­ated and main­tained through a power bal­ance expressed through an ongo­ing con­fu­sion about char­ity reg­u­la­tions and pos­si­ble new inter­pre­ta­tions of those regulations.

I find that there is evi­dence in the data that the gov­ern­ment is attempt­ing, with some suc­cess, to nar­row society’s impor­tant pol­icy con­ver­sa­tions. There is evi­dence that three spe­cific char­i­ta­ble sec­tors are being sin­gled out for CRA attention—environmental, devel­op­ment and human rights, and char­i­ties receiv­ing dona­tions from labour unions. These orga­ni­za­tions tend to con­tribute a dif­fer­ent approach to society’s pol­icy con­ver­sa­tions than the cur­rent fed­eral gov­ern­ment favours. There is evi­dence of what one par­tic­i­pant referred to as an “insid­i­ous” politi­ciza­tion of the admin­is­tra­tive processes of the nation’s tax author­ity, using com­plaints from an orga­ni­za­tion linked to the petro­leum indus­try and the cur­rent fed­eral gov­ern­ment and Con­ser­v­a­tive Party to trig­ger audits of char­i­ties oppos­ing the government’s key eco­nomic policies.

Finally, I find that the data sug­gests that the cur­rent fed­eral gov­ern­ment is cor­rupt­ing Canada’s demo­c­ra­tic processes by treat­ing as polit­i­cal ene­mies those civil-society orga­ni­za­tions whose con­tri­bu­tions to pub­lic pol­icy con­ver­sa­tions dif­fer from gov­ern­ment pri­or­i­ties. This is a new, fourth, dis­cur­sive shift in the fed­eral government’s rela­tion­ship with civil-society since the Sec­ond World War. After clos­ing off most oppor­tu­ni­ties to present pol­icy rec­om­men­da­tions directly to pol­icy mak­ers in the early years of the cur­rent gov­ern­ment, the inter­view data demon­strates that the gov­ern­ment is now, in effect or by design, “muf­fling” or “silenc­ing” the con­tri­bu­tion of char­i­ties to pub­lic debate by “dis­tract­ing” them with the threat and real­ity of CRA audits.

The gov­ern­ment has also poten­tially dam­aged the rep­u­ta­tion of, and char­i­ta­ble dona­tions to, impor­tant pub­lic pol­icy play­ers through rhetoric link­ing them to crim­i­nal and ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions. I find that the char­i­ties are respond­ing mainly in three ways: by focus­ing on their mission-related activ­i­ties; work­ing through umbrella orga­ni­za­tions to strate­gize and develop pub­lic com­mu­ni­ca­tions cit­ing the achieve­ments of char­i­ties to soci­ety; and ensur­ing that their orga­ni­za­tions meet CRA require­ments. This approach, rather than directly con­fronting the gov­ern­ment over its actions tar­get­ing the char­i­ties, are all pre­dicted by Resource Mobi­liza­tion The­ory. The above approach also con­tains ele­ments of resis­tance and col­lec­tive responses as pre­dicted by social move­ment and con­tention the­o­ries; in addi­tion I find that some char­i­ties are also look­ing at more con­tentious col­lec­tive legal and pol­icy responses to the cur­rent polit­i­cal environment.


Exhibit­ing “Chill”: Chang­ing Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Struc­tures, and Processes
Alter­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Asked if there is a “chill” in their orga­ni­za­tion, most par­tic­i­pant lead­ers pointed to minor changes in the con­tent, tone, chan­nels, or fre­quency of their externally-bound com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Some lead­ers replied that there was lit­tle or no change in their organization’s advo­cacy activ­i­ties but that they could see changes ema­nat­ing from other orga­ni­za­tions in their sec­tor. This occurred fre­quently enough that I find it most cred­i­ble that some par­tic­i­pants do not wish to con­cede that the chang­ing polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment has affected their organization’s core work but instead speak of them­selves under cover of speak­ing about others.

A few par­tic­i­pants said they were mak­ing no advocacy-related changes—and in sev­eral cases, no process changes what­so­ever. They were doing this out of a com­mit­ment to their mis­sion, avoid­ance of paper­work and re-allocation of inter­nal staff and bud­get resources, or until there are clar­i­fi­ca­tions of expec­ta­tions from Canada Rev­enue Agency aris­ing from recent audits of their orga­ni­za­tion or of other organizations.

One par­tic­i­pant sees envi­ron­men­tal char­i­ties being par­tic­u­larly care­ful in con­sid­er­ing their options:

Cana­dian envi­ron­men­tal char­i­ties get less than [3%] of char­ity giv­ing. They’re the bot­tom feed­ers of the char­i­ta­ble fund­ing. The resources are too tight to risk them, and so I bet a lot of char­i­ties are doing a cost-benefit analy­sis on their com­mu­ni­ca­tions and the risk posed by CRA audits and the revo­ca­tion of their sta­tus and say­ing, “This isn’t worth our scrutiny.” I’m sure there are lots of char­i­ties … keep­ing their head down. Some­times they were the ones that had their head up, and are why CRA was look­ing at them in the first place. So, I’d say there’s a chill in the sec­tor. (Anony­mous, per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, March 12, 2014)

Sev­eral par­tic­i­pants refer to being more “cau­tious” than pre­vi­ously in their com­mu­ni­ca­tion, ensur­ing that the con­tent matches their approved pur­pose and that the tone can­not be read as par­ti­san. Thus one par­tic­i­pant speaks of chang­ing the tone in web­sites and brochures to sound more “edu­ca­tional” than pre­vi­ously. Two par­tic­i­pants have con­sciously avoided the “right­eous indig­na­tion” of past com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and sev­eral have con­sciously cho­sen to keep a low media pro­file on issues about which they would pre­vi­ously have sought out expo­sure. Speak­ing of a sec­tor where some of the orga­ni­za­tions are said to have gone vir­tu­ally into hid­ing, one par­tic­i­pant com­mented, “Some [orga­ni­za­tions are] more cau­tious than oth­ers but all of us are more cau­tious than is healthy” (Anony­mous, per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, March 5, 2014).

Sev­eral par­tic­i­pants spoke of recently hav­ing been advised by con­sul­tants, lawyers, or their peers to avoid refer­ring to fed­eral politi­cians by their names or by party, but rather by their title, such as “the Nat­ural Resources Min­is­ter said.…” Some par­tic­i­pants have taken that advice while oth­ers refuse, object­ing to what sev­eral char­ac­ter­ize as a bla­tant politi­ciza­tion of the char­ity regulations.

Another par­tic­i­pant, speak­ing of staff, reported, “They’re much more thought­ful and care­ful about what they say and do in any pub­lic set­ting, what they say on the phone, and what they com­mu­ni­cate by email and tex­ting” (Anony­mous, per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Feb­ru­ary 27, 2014).

In con­trast, pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions have much more free­dom for pro­mot­ing their view­point on issues. Cor­po­ra­tions are vir­tu­ally unreg­u­lated in their free­dom to advo­cate at will and deduct costs from taxes, in con­trast to the very tight reg­u­la­tion of the dis­cur­sive activ­i­ties of char­i­ties. They can also deduct from their taxes the full value of a char­i­ta­ble dona­tion, com­pared to the 23 per­cent that indi­vid­ual cit­i­zens can deduct (Anony­mous, per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, March 11, 2014). Both char­i­ties and cor­po­ra­tions are sub­si­dized by tax­pay­ers, so the ques­tion arises as to why one sec­tor would enjoy much more advo­cacy free­dom than the other. One par­tic­i­pant argued, “I don’t see that it’s fair … So I would say the cor­po­rate and non-profit sec­tor can be coun­ter­vail­ing forces in soci­ety that ought to face exactly the same rules” (Anony­mous, per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Feb­ru­ary 25, 2014).

Mod­i­fy­ing oper­a­tional processes. Some par­tic­i­pants use the word “chill” in refer­ring to var­i­ous other non-discursive responses to the fed­eral polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment. Most par­tic­i­pants noted the markedly increased knowl­edge of their staff and man­age­ment about CRA reg­u­la­tions and expec­ta­tions acquired from tak­ing sem­i­nars and webi­nars, peer train­ing, and some­times involv­ing a char­ity lawyer in train­ing at sub­stan­tial cost. Almost all orga­ni­za­tions had markedly upgraded their required track­ing of resources devoted to “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” includ­ing, some­times, that of part­ner orga­ni­za­tions. The sophis­ti­ca­tion of the track­ing process tended to match the orga­ni­za­tion size.

Almost all spoke of one or more of the fol­low­ing: ongo­ing con­fu­sion about the inter­pre­ta­tion of “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” by CRA; a belief that there are “grey areas” in how reg­u­la­tions are to be applied; judg­ing the exam­ples on the CRA web­site of how to apply reg­u­la­tions as “naïve”; and hear­ing from peers that recent audits may be re-interpreting def­i­n­i­tions and pre­vi­ous audit find­ings. That is, even after uti­liz­ing CRA resources and out­side expert train­ing about apply­ing the CRA reg­u­la­tions, and hav­ing expe­ri­enced the rhetoric and policy/enforcement changes, most lead­ers report that they, or their staff, are still con­fused and/or dis­trust the pro­fes­sion­al­ism and neu­tral­ity of a gov­ern­ment department.

Mak­ing struc­tural changes. Some par­tic­i­pants report hav­ing recently made, or are con­sid­er­ing, struc­tural changes to add a non-profit, non-charitable orga­ni­za­tion to their cur­rent non-profit, char­ity for­mat. Given that there are few restric­tions on the amount or kind of polit­i­cal activ­ity that a non-charitable orga­ni­za­tion can under­take, hav­ing two sep­a­rate orga­ni­za­tions, or an orga­ni­za­tion with two dif­fer­ent arms, can be viewed as a “best prac­tice” that reduces risk com­pared to a single-charity struc­ture, and even allows an expan­sion of advo­cacy and new kinds of pro­gram­ming (The Cana­dian Press, 2012a). The dis­ad­van­tages of this strat­egy expressed by lead­ers are that only a char­ity can write tax receipts or receive dona­tions from most foun­da­tions, and admin­is­tra­tive costs rise due to duplication.

The par­tic­i­pant responses reflect Phillips’ (2013, p. 900) argu­ment that the gov­ern­ment has politi­cized the state reg­u­la­tory sys­tem. Almost all char­i­ties have a strong sense of their vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and per­ceive hos­tile intent with this gov­ern­ment. They almost uni­ver­sally view the gov­ern­ment as “attack(ing)” them and expect more of it. Some of them no longer trust the pro­fes­sion­al­ism or inde­pen­dence of CRA, which is unfor­tu­nate because the Char­i­ties Direc­torate had only recently won back cred­i­bil­ity through mod­ern­iza­tion of minor reg­u­la­tions and increased explana­tory com­mu­ni­ca­tions to char­i­ties (Lavasseur, 2012, p. 198).

Until recently, the Char­i­ties Direc­torate was viewed by some as hav­ing overly nar­row inter­pre­ta­tions of reg­u­la­tions and relied on dis­cre­tion and anal­ogy in mak­ing deci­sions, lead­ing to prob­lems with con­sis­tency, fair­ness, and trans­parency in its over­sight (Sossin, 2001 as cited in Lavasseur, 2012, p. 193). Most char­i­ties are respond­ing rel­a­tively quickly to the changed envi­ron­ment in order to pro­tect them­selves through sem­i­nars, lawyer involve­ment, and changes to process and struc­ture. Of par­tic­u­lar inter­est are the large num­ber of changes to externally-bound com­mu­ni­ca­tions reported by par­tic­i­pants, and the vol­un­tary reduc­tion in pub­lic pro­file taken by orga­ni­za­tions nor­mally seek­ing to max­i­mize expo­sure for their public-policy ideas and critiques.

This change in com­mu­ni­ca­tion strat­egy fits the pre­dic­tions of resource mobi­liza­tion the­ory (McCarthy and Zald, 1977) that the sta­bil­ity and growth of indi­vid­ual orga­ni­za­tions and entire move­ments, includ­ing build­ing a cadre of expe­ri­enced staff, is bound by access to needed resources, and is sen­si­tive to exter­nal sup­port and the tac­tics used by author­i­ties to con­trol or neu­tral­ize move­ments. The the­ory high­lights the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of all char­i­ties, but par­tic­u­larly of small and newer char­i­ties, to eco­nomic down­turn, shifts in gov­ern­ment fund­ing and reg­u­la­tions, and geo­graph­i­cally dis­persed sup­port­ers such as is com­mon among Cana­dian charities—all expe­ri­enced in recent years (1977, pp. 1224–1234).

Par­tic­i­pants spoke often of con­fu­sion about char­ity reg­u­la­tions and inter­pre­ta­tions and of the allowed “pur­poses” no longer fit­ting our rapidly chang­ing soci­ety. Experts were quite strong in their crit­i­cism of how out-of-date is the gov­ern­ing leg­is­la­tion, how con­ser­v­a­tive are court inter­pre­ta­tions, and how reluc­tant are recent gov­ern­ments to bring the sec­tor into the cur­rent era as some other nations have done recently. Phillips (2010) agrees, mak­ing an elo­quent plea for mod­ern­iza­tion and atten­tion (rather than what she char­ac­ter­izes as “neglect” by gov­ern­ment and the courts).

The leg­is­la­tion gov­ern­ing char­i­ties in Canada dates back to the United King­dom in 1891, and gov­ern­ments have not responded to requests for updat­ing. The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled on only two char­ity cases in four decades, upheld the sub­stance of the law in both cases, and requested to no avail that Par­lia­ment update leg­is­la­tion to reflect con­tem­po­rary soci­ety (pp. 66–67). Phillips notes that Canada has fallen behind other nations in reform­ing civil soci­ety, includ­ing char­ity reg­u­la­tions, due to a lack of a polit­i­cal vision from gov­ern­ment (p. 70).

In inter­views with researcher Karine Lavasseur (2012), senior man­agers at the Depart­ment of Finance vol­un­teered four rea­sons why they resist updat­ing the char­ity leg­is­la­tion: finan­cial con­sid­er­a­tions, polit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions, lack of con­sen­sus, and divided juris­dic­tion. The depth and breadth of oppo­si­tion, despite the over­whelm­ing sup­port of the char­ity sec­tor itself for updat­ing, left Lavasseur pes­simistic about for­mal mod­ern­iza­tion com­ing from senior CRA admin­is­tra­tors in the near future, though she saw more promise in Char­i­ties Direc­torate man­agers’ tweak­ing inter­pre­ta­tions of rules (pp. 188–193, 197).

By con­tin­u­ing with nar­row, dated reg­u­la­tions lim­it­ing the per­mis­si­ble activ­i­ties and pur­poses of char­i­ties and leav­ing room for sub­stan­tial incon­sis­tency and sub­jec­tiv­ity by admin­is­tra­tors in apply­ing the rules, some par­tic­i­pants in my study sug­gested that the gov­ern­ment fos­ters a cli­mate of uncer­tainty, con­fu­sion, or per­haps unnec­es­sary cau­tion among char­i­ties. The sig­nif­i­cant “grey” areas regard­ing reg­u­la­tions also enables a moti­vated gov­ern­ment to influ­ence admin­is­tra­tors toward increas­ingly strict inter­pre­ta­tions of the poli­cies and facil­i­tates gov­ern­ment bul­ly­ing of the sector.

I find that the char­ity sec­tor is expe­ri­enc­ing a dis­qui­et­ing power imbal­ance regard­ing infor­ma­tion about the cur­rent audits and whether, or how, reg­u­la­tions are being inter­preted dif­fer­ently through these audits than the inter­pre­ta­tions that are com­monly under­stood. There is a need for CRA to clar­ify the “grey” areas con­cern­ing accept­able “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” and “pur­poses.” Pre­vi­ous research found that prior to recent improve­ments by the Char­i­ties Direc­torate in com­mu­ni­cat­ing reg­u­la­tions, the orga­ni­za­tion was not widely viewed as meet­ing the stan­dard of neu­tral­ity, fair­ness, con­sis­tency, and open­ness expected of fed­eral gov­ern­ment admin­is­tra­tors (Sossin, 2001 as cited in Lavasseur, 2012, p. 193).

Since 2001, the Char­i­ties Direc­torate grad­u­ally improved com­mu­ni­ca­tions and tweaked reg­u­la­tions to build trust with char­i­ties, accord­ing to expert par­tic­i­pants and research by Karine Lavasseur (2012). My data sug­gests CRA’s cred­i­bil­ity within the sec­tor is in rapid decline as a result of the stepped-up audits and widely shared anec­dotes about overly strict reg­u­la­tion inter­pre­ta­tions, shift­ing inter­pre­ta­tions, and sus­pi­cion that the orga­ni­za­tion has allowed itself to be politi­cized or has com­pro­mised its neu­tral­ity. Some par­tic­i­pant lead­ers and experts spoke of the need for the next gov­ern­ment to address this power imbal­ance through char­ity involve­ment in writ­ing leg­is­la­tion to match con­tem­po­rary needs, as has the United King­dom in recent years (Lavasseur, 2012, 189).6 Canada’s leg­is­la­tion still treats char­ity as con­sti­tut­ing deliv­ery of ser­vice to soci­ety, such as soup lines for the hun­gry or basic school­ing for the poor. Some par­tic­i­pants have approached oppo­si­tion par­ties to dis­cuss this and other con­cerns as the par­ties develop their plat­forms for the 2015 fed­eral election.

Per­haps updated leg­is­la­tion would rec­og­nize, as some par­tic­i­pants sug­gested, that pub­lic pol­icy input is the twenty-first cen­tury equiv­a­lent to feed­ing the hun­gry in ser­vice to soci­ety, and social media and web cam­paign­ing is the con­tem­po­rary equiv­a­lent to class­room edu­ca­tion for the poor. Soci­ety is more com­plex than it was in the age of Queen Eliz­a­beth I or even Queen Vic­to­ria, the two mon­archs in power when the cur­rent legal frame­work gov­ern­ing char­i­ties was devel­oped. There are dif­fer­ent, new, and arguably more com­plex issues fac­ing soci­ety, many of them highly con­tentious, and they require ful­some pub­lic con­ver­sa­tions. Char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions are among the lead­ing experts in the issues related to their mis­sions, and soci­ety needs to hear their opin­ion about the best pub­lic poli­cies to address them.

Con­tin­u­ing the exam­ple above, in addi­tion to run­ning a soup kitchen to feed the hun­gry or home­less, per­haps a char­ity could be unfet­tered in its abil­ity to sug­gest pub­lic pol­icy issues that would reduce the num­ber of peo­ple requir­ing their ser­vices. Per­haps reg­u­la­tions should ensure equal­ity of pol­icy par­tic­i­pa­tion between char­i­ties and for-profit cor­po­ra­tions. The pri­vate sec­tor has no lim­i­ta­tion on its abil­ity to par­tic­i­pate in pub­lic debates, except in regard to lim­its on allow­able dona­tions to par­ties or can­di­dates, and “third party” adver­tis­ing dur­ing elec­tions in some provinces. The Pem­sel Case Foun­da­tion was recently formed to cat­alyze just such mod­ern­iza­tion of Cana­dian char­ity law. They seek stand­ing in new legal cases in order to encour­age the courts to expand the num­ber of accepted pur­poses, clar­ify and widen the def­i­n­i­tion of accept­able polit­i­cal activ­i­ties, apply Char­ter rights to char­ity reg­u­la­tions, etc. (Broder, 2014).


Gov­ern­ment is Nar­row­ing Society’s Con­ver­sa­tion
Though this qual­i­ta­tive study is not meant to be “rep­re­sen­ta­tive,” par­tic­i­pant lead­ers came from 16 orga­ni­za­tions of var­i­ous sizes, pub­lic pro­files, and bud­gets in five sub-sectors of the char­i­ta­ble sec­tor located in five provinces. Eight par­tic­i­pants, in three sub-sectors, had gone through an audit or other exten­sive expe­ri­ence with CRA in the past two years. Almost all par­tic­i­pants agreed that the over­all increase in audits is a result of increased audit fund­ing in the 2012–2014 fed­eral bud­gets and of gov­ern­ment instruc­tions to exam­ine the “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” of char­i­ties (Fla­herty, 2012a).

Sev­eral par­tic­i­pants also claimed that recent audits are addi­tion­ally closely exam­in­ing with a greater inten­sity and dif­fer­ent out­comes than in past audits, the orga­ni­za­tional “pur­pose” to ensure it is “char­i­ta­ble” and up-to-date, thus con­firm­ing a con­nec­tion between the stated (i.e., offi­cially approved and reg­is­tered) pur­pose and the organization’s cur­rent pro­gram­ming and activ­i­ties. This has the effect of nar­row­ing the abil­ity to join pub­lic con­ver­sa­tions (Anony­mous, per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, March 6, 2014).

Chang­ing inter­pre­ta­tions. A large num­ber of the par­tic­i­pant lead­ers, and some of the five char­ity “experts” also inter­viewed, believed that the most recent audits are inter­pret­ing reg­u­la­tions dif­fer­ently than the infor­ma­tion on the CRA web­site, or taught in webi­nars and explained by char­ity lawyers—but there are no audit find­ings to that effect in cir­cu­la­tion. For exam­ple, some par­tic­i­pants believe that audi­tors have recently been more strictly enforc­ing or re-interpreting reg­u­la­tions requir­ing that “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” (most of which will by nature be dis­cur­sive) con­nect to the organization’s approved “pur­pose”; that means that com­mu­ni­cat­ing out­side of an organization’s government-approved ter­ri­tory can be haz­ardous. The lack of case law on this issue results in legal ambi­gu­ity that may have his­tor­i­cally held char­i­ties back from fully advo­cat­ing on behalf of their mis­sions (Broder, 2014, p. 212).

Tar­get­ing crit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions. Con­trary to the sug­ges­tion of recent media reports (Solomon, 2014), audited char­i­ties are not lim­ited mainly to envi­ron­men­tal organizations—the data shows that many char­i­ties are avoid­ing pub­lic­ity about their audits. Nev­er­the­less, it was the opin­ion of even the non-environmental par­tic­i­pants, includ­ing all “expert” par­tic­i­pants, that the envi­ron­men­tal sec­tor is the pri­mary “tar­get,” to use the most com­mon descrip­tor, of recent audits. Most believed that audits mainly involve orga­ni­za­tions that are focused on cli­mate change, oil sands devel­op­ment, pipeline trans­port, tanker export, and on pro­tect­ing the species and habi­tats of the Alberta and B.C. inte­rior rivers, forests, and coast­lines that would be most affected by the above infrastructure.

Sec­on­dar­ily, many par­tic­i­pants believed inter­na­tional devel­op­ment char­i­ties are con­tin­u­ing to be a focus of gov­ern­ment action; this is a per­sis­tent pat­tern, because international-development char­i­ties have been sub­ject to defund­ing and changes to the asso­ci­ated gov­ern­ment min­istry struc­ture and mis­sion since 2006.

Sev­eral par­tic­i­pants believed that char­i­ties receiv­ing a sig­nif­i­cant degree of fund­ing from labour unions are expe­ri­enc­ing more audits than would be expected in a ran­dom selec­tion process. This may be con­sis­tent with recent gov­ern­ment actions of inter­ven­ing in the col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing process to impose set­tle­ments or order strik­ers back to work, and the unsuc­cess­ful government-endorsed pri­vate mem­bers Bill C-377 that would have added to union paper­work and forced unions to dis­close the names and salaries of all employ­ees paid more than $100,000 yearly (Curry, 2013). Finally, I see evi­dence that a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of audited orga­ni­za­tions have had sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing from Tides Canada Foun­da­tion, which has itself been under­go­ing a per­pet­ual audit since April 2012 (with CRA receiv­ing com­plaints from Eth­i­cal Oil about the Foun­da­tion and Tides Canada Ini­tia­tives Soci­ety). The Tides orga­ni­za­tions have been specif­i­cally or infer­en­tially sin­gled out for crit­i­cism by some media and cab­i­net mem­bers (Anony­mous, per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, May 2, 2014; The Cana­dian Press, 2012c; Ker­na­han, 2012; Oliver, 2012; see also Libin, 2010).

A web post­ing by the Char­i­ties Direc­torate to clar­ify pro­ce­dures dur­ing this period of height­ened audits pro­claimed that most of the approx­i­mately 800 yearly audits are selected ran­domly. Oth­ers are based on com­plaints, CRA follow-up to check on improve­ments since past audits, or because CRA staff noticed some­thing that drew their atten­tion. Also, some audits occur because CRA staff fol­low a trail from an orga­ni­za­tion being audited to other orga­ni­za­tions that have some rela­tion­ship with that orga­ni­za­tion. The “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties team” intends to con­duct 60 “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” audits over four years, in addi­tion to those in the reg­u­lar audit pro­gram (“Char­i­ties pro­gram update,” n.d.).

An “insid­i­ous” selec­tion process. The most com­monly cited answer by study par­tic­i­pants as to “how” groups are selected for polit­i­cal activ­i­ties audits is some ver­sion of the fol­low­ing quote from a participant:

And so the insid­i­ous side of this is that it isn’t a gov­ern­ment direc­tive to audit these envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions. If the CRA takes their polit­i­cal direc­tion, which is to look at the “polit­i­cal activ­ity” of orga­ni­za­tions, and here are some resources to do that, and then they go and see what are the com­plaints against “polit­i­cal activ­ity,” then they can draw the con­clu­sion that that’s how they arrived at this par­tic­u­lar sec­tor. (Anony­mous, per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, March 10, 2014)

The “insid­i­ous” nature referred to is this, accord­ing to some par­tic­i­pants: told to audit char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions for “polit­i­cal activ­ity,” in check­ing past annual fil­ings by char­i­ties, CRA staff would dis­cover that indi­vid­ual envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions and per­haps some inter­na­tional devel­op­ment and human-rights orga­ni­za­tions tend to have higher self-declared “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” than most other orga­ni­za­tions. Look­ing into files, staff would dis­cover indi­vid­ual charities—many, but not all of them envi­ron­men­tal organizations—tend to have more com­plaint let­ters demand­ing CRA audit them and remove their reg­is­tra­tion. Many of the com­plaint let­ters will be from Eth­i­cal Oil and will be dozens of pages long, and some orga­ni­za­tions will have mul­ti­ple let­ters. With the addi­tional funds pro­vided by the 2012–2014 fed­eral bud­gets, CRA will then have the staff resources to audit these orga­ni­za­tions (see Fig­ure 1).

It is impor­tant to note that a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of par­tic­i­pants saw a more direct con­nec­tion between the increased audits and the gov­ern­ment politi­ciz­ing the CRA. Some par­tic­i­pants sug­gested that the gov­ern­ment min­is­ter directly instructed audits be tar­geted to envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions gen­er­ally, groups work­ing on energy pol­icy, or groups that have very pub­licly crit­i­cized the gov­ern­ment. These par­tic­i­pants believed that CRA had com­pro­mised the neu­tral­ity expected of the fed­eral bureau­cracy. Whether direct or “insid­i­ous” influ­ence, most par­tic­i­pants agreed that the gov­ern­ment was abus­ing its power by ensur­ing that cer­tain char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions would be dis­tracted while the gov­ern­ment pro­ceeded with approval of oil and gas infra­struc­ture projects.

From action to dis­trac­tion. Asked why since 2012 the gov­ern­ment has pur­sued the anti-charity rhetoric, new char­ity poli­cies, and stepped-up audits, almost all par­tic­i­pants sug­gested that there is an effort to dis­tract those char­i­ties, par­tic­u­larly envi­ron­men­tal char­i­ties, that speak or act out against the government’s major poli­cies. One par­tic­i­pant argued that the gov­ern­ment does not under­stand the impor­tance of fund­ing, or even tol­er­at­ing “a plu­ral­ity of voices so that we could be sure that pol­icy was informed by dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives, dif­fer­ent views, sup­ported by doc­u­mented evi­dence, and mar­shaled argu­ments.” (Anony­mous, per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, March 5, 2014)

This is the most pop­u­lar vari­ant of the nar­ra­tive as seen by most par­tic­i­pants. That nar­ra­tive is, the gov­ern­ment was threat­ened by the suc­cess of the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment at build­ing pub­lic demand for poli­cies address­ing cli­mate change, oppos­ing oil and gas infra­struc­ture, pro­duc­tion, trans­port, and export. In con­trast, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment focused its national eco­nomic pol­icy on rapid expan­sion of oil and gas exploita­tion. Faced with los­ing the pub­lic opin­ion war over its key eco­nomic pol­icy, the gov­ern­ment opened up a new front in the war. It began using rhetoric to attack the oppos­ing char­i­ties through rep­u­ta­tion dam­age, kept them busy prepar­ing for and react­ing to rhetoric and stepped-up audits, and instilled an inter­nal cli­mate of cau­tion and self-censorship about their exter­nally directed com­mu­ni­ca­tions (see Fig­ure 2.). The mes­sage to orga­ni­za­tions dis­cussing energy projects is a clear, strongly punc­tu­ated “Get out of the way!,” said one par­tic­i­pant (Anony­mous, per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, March 28, 2014).

One charity-law expert noted that the suc­cess of the diver­sion strat­egy does not rest on whether, or how many, char­i­ties are decer­ti­fied of their sta­tus to offer tax receipts. Rather, a change in focus and resources away from ful­fill­ing their mis­sion and instead to audit prepa­ra­tion and con­sult­ing legal advice, along with the impact of fear on com­mu­ni­ca­tions, can have an imme­di­ate diver­sion­ary impact while the government’s resource-based eco­nomic strat­egy is suc­cess­fully rolled out (Anony­mous, per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, March 15, 2014).

Oil: “Eth­i­cal” or “big.” Par­tic­i­pants also gen­er­ally agreed that the gov­ern­ment is pur­su­ing this strat­egy on behalf of the energy indus­try, which they believe has become very pow­er­ful in Canada and has its “water” car­ried by the cur­rent fed­eral gov­ern­ment. The char­i­ties’ per­spec­tive is seem­ingly cor­rob­o­rated by gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments show­ing the pipeline indus­try, in meet­ings with gov­ern­ment offi­cials, for­mally requested spe­cific changes weak­en­ing envi­ron­men­tal leg­is­la­tion that were sub­se­quently imple­mented in 2012 (Scofield, 2013).

Most par­tic­i­pants see his­tor­i­cally close industry-government ties involv­ing a prime min­is­ter who was raised in an oil-industry fam­ily and worked briefly for Impe­r­ial Oil, and a cab­i­net with strong rep­re­sen­ta­tion from Alberta (Aulakh, 2014; Gra­ham, 2013). Said one participant:

The pri­or­ity of this gov­ern­ment is to push through a fairly aggres­sive resource extrac­tion agenda. Um, you know, boost the oil and gas indus­try and the resource-extracting sec­tor in order to max­i­mize the prof­its in those sec­tors. And cre­ate jobs in those sec­tors, sup­pos­edly. And … where it finds oppo­nents, where it finds points of oppo­si­tion, points where it does not fancy what it’s hear­ing, then it will remove them. And it’s very unde­mo­c­ra­tic.… And it’s trou­bling that this party con­tin­ues to enjoy fairly high stand­ings in the polls, given what they have done. (Anony­mous, per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, April 15, 2014)

This would not be the first close work­ing rela­tion­ship between a cor­po­rate sec­tor and a Cana­dian gov­ern­ment. What is dif­fer­ent in this project’s data is most par­tic­i­pants’ direct ref­er­ence to a per­ceived four-way or five-way close rela­tion­ship between the cur­rent fed­eral gov­ern­ment, the gov­ern­ing major­ity Con­ser­v­a­tive polit­i­cal party, an aggres­sive non-profit pri­vate orga­ni­za­tion named Eth­i­cal Oil Insti­tute (and its web­site), the petro­leum indus­try, and, accord­ing to some par­tic­i­pants and media com­men­ta­tors (Pull­man, 2012), Sun Media.

Sev­eral par­tic­i­pants see an unprece­dented level of col­lab­o­ra­tion in these relationships—and view them as anti-democratic. If this close and inter­ac­tive rela­tion­ship exists, some par­tic­i­pants assert, this would have the effect of “fix­ing” demo­c­ra­tic processes so that impor­tant public-policy con­ver­sa­tions were short-circuited in order to inevitably bias the out­come toward friends of the gov­ern­ment and muf­fle other voices.

It would be a cor­rup­tion of demo­c­ra­tic process for a gov­ern­ment or the polit­i­cal party asso­ci­ated with that gov­ern­ment, to col­lab­o­rate in found­ing, and respond­ing to the demands of, an activist orga­ni­za­tion that also func­tions to advance the inter­ests of a par­tic­u­lar cor­po­rate sec­tor; and for the gov­ern­ment to use the levers of the state to reduce the influ­ence of civil soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions that have a dif­fer­ent view from the gov­ern­ment on cer­tain poli­cies, all in order to aid a par­tic­u­lar cor­po­rate sec­tor that donates to the party of the gov­ern­ment in power.

Eth­i­cal Oil was founded by Alykhan Velshi, who in 2011 left a job as com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor for then-federal Immi­gra­tion Min­is­ter Jason Ken­ney to set up an orga­ni­za­tion to pro­mote Canada’s oil sands as an alter­na­tive to oil from Mid­dle East­ern dic­ta­tor­ships with their low labour, human-rights, and envi­ron­men­tal stan­dards (Deep Cli­mate, 2011). Velshi worked with Ezra Lev­ant, a Fraser Insti­tute grad­u­ate, to launch an updated blog site and the Eth­i­cal Oil Insti­tute in early 2011 after Lev­ant wrote the suc­cess­ful book, Eth­i­cal Oil (Deep Cli­mate, 2011). As well as step­ping aside for Stephen Harper to run as a can­di­date in Cal­gary South­west in 2002 (Price, 2011), Lev­ant is known and cel­e­brated by many for his aggres­sive inter­view style on his Sun News TV talk show (Blatch­ford, 2014).

Velshi returned to Ottawa and a pro­mo­tion to direc­tor of issues man­age­ment in Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper’s office (Aulakh, 2014). Eth­i­cal Oil went on to run a series of expen­sive TV ads (Price, 2011) and con­tin­ues to be run by peo­ple close to the Con­ser­v­a­tive party and cur­rent gov­ern­ment (Deep Cli­mate, 2012; Price, 2012). Sev­eral par­tic­i­pants’ orga­ni­za­tions have received copies of com­plaint let­ters sent to CRA by Eth­i­cal Oil, and some par­tic­i­pants are aware of orga­ni­za­tions that have received more than one com­plaint let­ter. Most par­tic­i­pants believe the Eth­i­cal Oil complaints—which the data sug­gests tar­get orga­ni­za­tions work­ing directly or indi­rectly on energy issues—help CRA decide which char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions to audit. Lev­ant has also used his TV show to encour­age view­ers to file com­plaints with CRA. An envi­ron­men­tal blog­ger argues that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, and Sun Media have cre­ated an “echo cham­ber that turns indus­try talk­ing points into national news” (Pull­man, 2012).

Eth­i­cal Oil has con­sis­tently refused media requests to release details of its con­trib­u­tors and alleged rela­tion­ship to energy pipeline com­pany Enbridge Inc., other than to point to the con­tri­bu­tion but­ton on their web­site (Aulakh, 2014; Price, 2012). Envi­ron­men­tal groups, includ­ing Green­peace Canada, have won­dered if “Big Oil” is work­ing through the osten­si­bly inde­pen­dent Eth­i­cal Oil (Dem­bicki, 2011). Green­peace Canada filed an April 2014 com­plaint with Elec­tions Canada ask­ing it to inves­ti­gate whether the Con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment has col­luded with Eth­i­cal Oil in con­tra­ven­tion of elec­tion laws (Ball, 2014; McCarthy, 2014).

Ana­lyz­ing the “open let­ter” fram­ing. A fram­ing analy­sis of the rhetoric of two cab­i­net min­is­ters sup­ports the par­tic­i­pants’ views of the rea­sons for the government’s actions. To ana­lyze the rhetoric of gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments, I used a form of frame the­ory devel­oped by social move­ment the­o­rists (Ben­ford & Snow, 2000; Snow, Rochford Jr., Wor­den, & Ben­ford, 1986) to under­stand the char­ac­ter and course of social move­ments (Ben­ford & Snow, 2000, p. 611).

Ben­ford and Snow’s fram­ing process can also be applied to decod­ing the sig­ni­fi­ca­tion processes involved in com­mu­ni­ca­tions orig­i­nat­ing with gov­ern­ment as they seek to pro­duce and main­tain nego­ti­ated mean­ing for their var­i­ous audi­ences (p. 613). Ben­ford and Snow (2000) break down the var­i­ous fram­ing tasks involved in stim­u­lat­ing a shared and nego­ti­ated mean­ing between framer and audi­ences as the for­mer seeks agree­ment and/or action related to the com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Effec­tive col­lec­tive action frames help peo­ple under­stand the mean­ing of events in the “world out there,” orga­nize people’s expe­ri­ences, and guide action (p. 614). Their ulti­mate intent is to mobi­lize allies and demo­bi­lize adver­saries (Snow & Ben­ford, 1988, p. 198 as cited in Ben­ford & Snow, 2000, p. 614). They do this through a com­bi­na­tion of at least some of the fol­low­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic and vari­able fea­tures: prob­lem diag­no­sis, delin­eat­ing bound­aries between “good” and “bad”, pro­posed solu­tions, a moti­vat­ing call to arms and con­struc­tion of appro­pri­ate vocab­u­lary, abil­ity to cover a large range of prob­lems, flex­i­bil­ity and inclu­siv­ity of ideas, breadth of scope, res­o­nance, and cred­i­bil­ity (pp. 616–620).

I applied the con­cept of Ben­ford and Snow’s “col­lec­tive action frames” to Nat­ural Resources Min­is­ter Joe Oliver’s (2012) open let­ter, and an “unof­fi­cial” CBC tran­script of for­mer Finance Min­is­ter Jim Flaherty’s 2014 pre-budget press con­fer­ence (for a news report con­tain­ing Flaherty’s rel­e­vant com­ments, see Curry & McCarthy, 2014).

Apply­ing the the­ory, I con­clude that Oliver’s let­ter is an activist doc­u­ment, an attention-getting com­mu­ni­ca­tion that I believe inau­gu­rated an embry­onic new right­ist ide­o­log­i­cal cam­paign cen­tred on robust devel­op­ment of the nation’s petro­leum resources, and one uti­liz­ing rhetoric par­al­lel­ing that of Eth­i­cal Oil. Oliver con­structed pow­er­ful col­lec­tive action frames that incor­po­rated, some­times repeat­edly, all three “char­ac­ter­is­tic fea­tures” and at least three (and I would sug­gest four) out of four “vari­able fea­tures” of effec­tive col­lec­tive action frames iden­ti­fied by Ben­ford and Snow (2000).7 In 560 every­day, often emotion-laden words, Oliver cre­ated a highly salient world view pur­port­ing to be a log­i­cal, rea­son­able, fair and just job-creating counter to the increas­ingly pop­u­lar main envi­ron­men­tal frame about get­ting off society’s car­bon addic­tion to stop cli­mate change.

Flaherty’s 85 words at a press con­fer­ence con­flated char­i­ties, crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tions, and ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions in under 45 sec­onds and warned that the gov­ern­ment was going to take action (Curry & McCarthy, 2014). He built upon a theme estab­lished by Oliver, for­mer Envi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Peter Kent (CBC News, 2012c; Paris, 2012), and Pub­lic Safety Min­is­ter Vic Toews (McCarthy, 2012a, 2012c) and his own pre­vi­ous bud­get announce­ments since 2012 (Dunn, 2013).

Apply­ing Ben­ford and Snow’s (2000) approach sug­gests that in addi­tion to being highly salient to the party base, Flaherty’s state­ment man­ages to quickly skate across the main three “char­ac­ter­is­tic fea­tures” and one or two “vari­able features”—twice. Inter­est­ingly, some par­tic­i­pants thought it had been a step too far for all but the “red-meat” Con­ser­v­a­tives and prob­a­bly back­fired in terms of influ­enc­ing pub­lic opin­ion. Both com­mu­ni­ca­tions show gov­ern­ment min­is­ters, who have accused char­i­ties of being par­ti­san, work­ing as move­ment activists and par­ti­sans in rela­tion to civil soci­ety rather than in rela­tion to oppo­si­tion parties.

Play­ing for “likes.” There was almost uni­ver­sal agree­ment among par­tic­i­pant lead­ers that Oliver’s let­ter and the sub­se­quent rhetoric and actions are fore­most about keep­ing energy-based char­i­ties busy and dis­tracted while the gov­ern­ment pushes through its energy-industry expan­sion strat­egy. Dis­tracted peo­ple do not com­mu­ni­cate often, and peo­ple afraid of com­mu­ni­cat­ing in a way that could draw the atten­tion of CRA may not com­mu­ni­cate effectively.

This bat­tle for pub­lic opin­ion reflects the think­ing of Gram­sci (1950, trans. 1996–2007; Gram­sci as cited in Durham & Kell­ner, 2012, pp. 34–36). Gram­sci wrote that the future of polit­i­cal progress belongs to those able to con­vince the mid­dle class and mobi­lize a move­ment out of con­structed pub­lic opin­ion (Gram­sci, 1950 trans. 1996–2007; Buttigieg, 1995). Today, civil soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions, par­tic­u­larly envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, are astute at seg­ment­ing pop­u­la­tions and build­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels to reach them. The hege­monic con­sen­sus that we are a nation inevitably built on min­ing and export­ing our nat­ural resources has eroded in tan­dem with the growth of envi­ron­men­tal­ism and eco­nomic diver­si­fi­ca­tion (Black­well, 2014; Gal­loway, 2012).

Los­ing the pub­lic rela­tions bat­tle for expand­ing oil and gas infra­struc­ture itself, the gov­ern­ment opened a sec­ond front by tar­get­ing rep­u­ta­tions of adver­saries in a direct appeal to pub­lic opin­ion: the pub­lic opin­ion “trench war­fare” pre­dicted by Gram­sci (SPN, 243 as cited in Fontana, 2006, p. 58). The government’s rhetoric and $16.5-million pro-petroleum devel­op­ment TV ads are par­al­leled by oil and pipeline indus­try multi-million dol­lar cam­paigns car­ry­ing a dom­i­nant mes­sage of the “inevitabil­ity” and “Canadian-ness” of resource devel­op­ment (Cry­der­man, 2013).

Sev­eral par­tic­i­pants believed it has back­fired and resulted in increased dona­tions and a mem­ber­ship bump for at least some orga­ni­za­tions. A tele­phone sur­vey con­ducted by one of Canada’s lead­ing charity-sector umbrella orga­ni­za­tions The Mut­tart Foun­da­tion (2013a) found the government’s rhetoric and actions had not appre­cia­bly hurt the rep­u­ta­tion of char­i­ties, though envi­ron­ment, inter­na­tional devel­op­ment, and reli­gious char­i­ties have had a slight decline, per­haps sug­gest­ing minor gov­ern­ment suc­cess at dam­ag­ing the sector’s reputation.

Almost 80 per­cent of the nearly 4,000 Cana­dian adults sur­veyed “trust” char­i­ties (a num­ber that has remained nearly con­stant for 13 years), com­pared to 33 per­cent for fed­eral politi­cians and 44 per­cent for major cor­po­ra­tions. Envi­ron­men­tal char­i­ties fell to 67 per­cent of respon­dents trust­ing them “a lot” or “some” from 72 per­cent in 2008 (Mut­tart, 2013a, 2013b). Some 93 per­cent of Cana­di­ans con­sider char­i­ties impor­tant, and 88 per­cent believe char­i­ties gen­er­ally improve our qual­ity of life.

As Gramsci’s writ­ings pre­dict, char­i­ties that advo­cate on behalf of public-policy issues are now turn­ing to umbrella orga­ni­za­tions such as Imag­ine Canada to build fur­ther pub­lic sup­port for both the orga­ni­za­tions and their mis­sions (Quaderni del carcere (QC), 2, pp. 914–915 as cited in Fontana 2006, p. 72; Fontana, 2006, pp. 72–73). Some char­i­ties are also slowly work­ing through their own sub-sectoral orga­ni­za­tions to share infor­ma­tion and are con­sid­er­ing smaller public-relations campaigns.

Most par­tic­i­pant lead­ers and experts rec­og­nized that char­i­ties are not with­out their own col­lec­tive power and influ­ence. There was a strong con­sen­sus among par­tic­i­pants that they need to com­mu­ni­cate upbeat sto­ries about the ben­e­fits that char­i­ties and civil soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions have brought Canada (e.g., smok­ing reg­u­la­tions, sav­ing lakes from acid rain, reduc­ing drunk dri­ving) and their future poten­tial if they are allowed to con­tinue advo­cat­ing for pub­lic pol­icy changes.

Sev­eral empha­sized that becom­ing defen­sive or fram­ing them­selves as vic­tims of gov­ern­ment abuse would be counter-productive. Now largely blocked from their tra­di­tional approach of influ­enc­ing pub­lic pol­icy through con­sul­ta­tions at the fed­eral level, par­tic­i­pants from envi­ron­men­tal char­i­ties spoke of impend­ing cam­paigns aimed at solid­i­fy­ing sup­port for envi­ron­men­tal issues so that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment will have to change its course—an orga­niz­ing and cam­paign response of build­ing pub­lic opin­ion sup­port to pull the gov­ern­ment toward new poli­cies. Some par­tic­i­pants were plan­ning for pro-active legal cases, includ­ing one that would argue that the prime min­is­ter had abused author­ity in deploy­ing state resources against charities.

Inter­est­ingly, almost none of the par­tic­i­pants favoured an empha­sis on the overtly pub­lic con­tentious actions that Tilly (2005) would seem to pre­dict. For exam­ple, in 2012, envi­ron­men­tal char­i­ties led the very pub­lic Black Out, Speak Out cam­paign to oppose Bill C-38’s reduc­tions in envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and accom­pa­ny­ing stepped-up char­ity audits, joined by more than 500 civil-society orga­ni­za­tions and tens of thou­sands of aver­age cit­i­zens. Sev­eral inter­view par­tic­i­pants specif­i­cally noted that they oppose dupli­cat­ing that overtly con­tentious approach, while a cou­ple specif­i­cally called for more along that line. But almost all par­tic­i­pant lead­ers favoured a pub­lic adver­tis­ing cam­paign, run by Imag­ine Canada and unit­ing the char­ity sec­tor, that would fea­ture an upbeat mes­sage of pop­u­lar pub­lic poli­cies that were first advo­cated by char­i­ties; most agreed that any pub­lic cam­paign should avoid directly crit­i­ciz­ing the cur­rent government.

I argue, based on my data, that though the above pre­ferred actions include ele­ments of resis­tance and col­lec­tive responses as pre­dicted by social move­ment and con­tention the­o­ries, char­ity lead­ers appear gen­er­ally reluc­tant to pri­or­i­tize open con­tention over the government’s anti-charity rhetoric and actions for three reasons.

First, at this par­tic­u­lar pol­icy moment for envi­ron­men­tal and inter­na­tional devel­op­ment orga­ni­za­tions (e.g., impend­ing show­downs over pipeline trans­porta­tion, inter­na­tional food secu­rity and con­tro­versy over the inter­na­tional behav­iour of Cana­dian min­ing com­pa­nies), those groups are con­cen­trat­ing on their mis­sion goals rather than open­ing up a new time-and-money-consuming front directly chal­leng­ing the fed­eral government’s actions tar­get­ing char­i­ties, despite their strong sense of vul­ner­a­bil­ity if the gov­ern­ment is not pushed back. In doing so, char­i­ties are con­cen­trat­ing for strate­gic and mission-related rea­sons on their social change aims by solid­i­fy­ing pub­lic sup­port for pub­lic pol­icy issues such as stop­ping expan­sion of the oil sands and pipelines.

Sec­ond, openly fight­ing back against the anti-charity rhetoric and actions may increase their vul­ner­a­bil­ity to CRA cen­sure for vio­lat­ing “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” regulations.

Third, the char­ity struc­ture itself works against directly con­fronting the gov­ern­ment to pro­tect char­i­ta­ble sta­tus, and cre­ates incen­tives for tem­per­ate and care­fully cal­i­brated posi­tion­ing to main­tain a pos­i­tive rep­u­ta­tion with indi­vid­ual and foun­da­tion donors who want the group to focus on the mis­sion and not draw neg­a­tive atten­tion. A bet­ter fit for most char­ity lead­ers inter­viewed is the behind-the-scenes build­ing of col­lab­o­ra­tive alliances within and between char­ity sec­tors with an accom­pa­ny­ing focus on encour­ag­ing a “pos­i­tive” and “upbeat” adver­tis­ing cam­paign by Imag­ine Canada.

I argue, based on par­tic­i­pant input and con­sis­tent with both social move­ment the­ory and resource mobi­liza­tion the­ory, that with lim­ited resources and time, these char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions are first pri­or­i­tiz­ing their mission-related social change activ­i­ties rather than directly and pub­licly fight­ing the cur­rent fed­eral government’s rhetoric and actions tar­get­ing char­i­ties. Thus the direct con­tention pre­dicted by Tilly’s (2004, 2005) the­o­ries that deal with long-term arcs of social move­ment alliance build­ing and con­tention, is trans­lated in this sit­u­a­tion into char­i­ties con­tin­u­ing to focus and advo­cate on mis­sion issues rather than coun­ter­ing the rhetoric and actions tar­get­ing them. It is even more firmly in line with the short term empha­sis on care­ful stew­ard­ing of resources in McCarthy and Zald’s (1977) resource mobi­liza­tion theory.

Orga­ni­za­tions that are small in com­par­i­son to many other char­i­ties (e.g., health char­i­ties are rel­a­tively bet­ter resourced) do not have the resources required to fight on two fronts; par­tic­i­pant orga­ni­za­tions all had less than 100 staff, some well-known orga­ni­za­tions were under 40 staff, and some were under five. The mon­e­tary and rep­u­ta­tional advan­tages of main­tain­ing a char­ity struc­ture make it too risky for most char­i­ties, when other options are avail­able, to pri­or­i­tize an openly con­tentious front to get the gov­ern­ment to cease its tar­get­ing actions.


Gov­ern­ment is Cor­rupt­ing Demo­c­ra­tic Rela­tion­ships
“Muf­fling” and “vil­i­fy­ing” dis­sent. The cur­rent gov­ern­ment has imple­mented a well-documented series of actions since 2006 to defund gov­ern­ment depart­ments, sci­en­tific projects, indi­vid­ual sci­en­tists, civil-society groups and projects that do not fit its ide­ol­ogy or pri­or­i­ties, and to shut down or reduce assess­ments and pub­lic input processes that could delay or threaten gov­ern­ment pri­or­i­ties (“Hit list,” n.d.; “Stephen Harper’s fir­ing range,” 2011; Turner, 2013b). Most par­tic­i­pants said that after cut­ting direct fund­ing and some project fund­ing for their and other orga­ni­za­tions, the gov­ern­ment is now mov­ing to the next step: mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for orga­ni­za­tions that advo­cate on pub­lic pol­icy issues to ben­e­fit from tax ben­e­fits avail­able to other orga­ni­za­tions that avoid address­ing pol­icy and that instead limit them­selves to a tra­di­tional service-delivery approach to charity.

Most par­tic­i­pants inter­preted gov­ern­ment actions as an attempt to silence or at least “muf­fle” envi­ron­men­tal voices and per­haps inter­na­tional devel­op­ment voices at the very time that oil and gas infra­struc­ture, pro­duc­tion, trans­port, and export is being eval­u­ated and built at home, and Cana­dian min­ing com­pa­nies are com­ing under scrutiny abroad. Sev­eral par­tic­i­pants referred, some­times repeat­edly in the inter­view, to the pack­age of gov­ern­ment actions as “vil­i­fy­ing” or “demo­niz­ing” dis­sent. Tilly (2004, p. 3) and Lafor­est (2013a, p. 235) remind us that gov­ern­ment has unique power in being able to, at least tem­porar­ily, sti­fle healthy social movements.

Tilly’s “demo­c­ra­tic pen­ta­gon hypoth­e­sis” sup­ports the sug­ges­tion that the gov­ern­ment intends to muf­fle or silence oppo­si­tion dur­ing this crit­i­cal period of approv­ing energy projects. Tilly (2004) the­o­rizes that the suc­cess of a social move­ment can be largely pre­dicted based on its abil­ity to uti­lize a reper­toire of com­mu­ni­ca­tions com­posed of dis­play­ing wor­thi­ness, unity, num­bers and com­mit­ments (“WUNC” dis­plays), along with a cam­paign of “sus­tained, orga­nized pub­lic effort mak­ing col­lec­tive claims on tar­get author­i­ties” and a vari­ety of media and com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels includ­ing ral­lies and state­ments in pub­lic media (pp. 3–4). By get­ting orga­ni­za­tions to decrease and alter these com­mu­ni­ca­tions, or so the demo­c­ra­tic pen­ta­gon hypoth­e­sis pre­dicts, gov­ern­ments can effec­tively resist their demands with­out sub­stan­tial polit­i­cal penalty (Tilly, 2005, p. 435). But the hypoth­e­sis also pre­dicts that mobi­lized groups that have been shut out of impor­tant con­sul­ta­tions by gov­ern­ment will dis­rupt the processes and will more likely rein­force their iden­ti­ties as claim-makers (2005, p. 436).

Apply­ing Falk’s (2008) writ­ing on dis­sent is instruc­tive on this point. “Where dis­sent is sti­fled, democ­racy suf­fers and its legit­i­macy is thereby dimin­ished,” Falk warns. “We can sur­vive the assaults of those who are against ‘our way of life’—but only if we our­selves safe­guard our own peace­ful efforts at con­stant improve­ment via con­tentious and dif­fi­cult argu­ment, held in the pub­lic sphere, and there­fore able to be broad­cast and debated widely” (pp. 249, 253).

Most par­tic­i­pant lead­ers repeat­edly referred to the government’s objec­tive as “muf­fling,” “silenc­ing,” or “shut­ting down” dis­sent to their resource-based eco­nomic strat­egy. Tilly’s demo­c­ra­tic hypoth­e­sis believes the gov­ern­ment could avoid pay­ing an elec­toral penalty if it suc­ceeds. But if groups respond to attempts to silence them by ramp­ing up per­haps risky pub­lic con­tention, it could affect the government’s pop­u­lar­ity. In any case, data shows the lead­ers per­ceive that democ­racy itself has been dam­aged by the accu­mu­lated gov­ern­ment rhetoric and actions tar­get­ing char­i­ties whose mis­sion includes con­tribut­ing to pub­lic conversations.

See­ing “ene­mies” instead of pol­icy dis­agree­ment. Lafor­est (2012) writes of three fed­eral dis­cur­sive shifts that together largely dis­man­tled the post-war sys­tem of rep­re­sen­ta­tive input regard­ing gov­er­nance and pol­icy from civil-society orga­ni­za­tions (p. 188). These shifts were a “neu­tral” neolib­eral man­age­ri­al­ism that strength­ened dur­ing the eco­nomic stag­na­tion of the 1980s and 1990s and reflected a reduced appetite for an activist gov­ern­ment; a dis­cred­it­ing of polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion and a view that gov­ern­ment fund­ing of civil soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions was exces­sive mar­ket­place inter­ven­tion (i.e., that orga­ni­za­tions should sur­vive or die based on their abil­ity to attract non-government fund­ing that demon­strates pub­lic sup­port for their mis­sions); and a push toward direct cit­i­zen engage­ment using polls, tele­phone access, pub­lic meet­ings, and even­tu­ally web con­sul­ta­tions (Lafor­est, 2012, pp. 188–190; but also Lafor­est & Phillips, 2013, pp. 5–7).

I see in the data a fourth dis­cur­sive shift in which the cur­rent gov­ern­ment reframes civil soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions as adver­saries, and even as polit­i­cal or national ene­mies, when they oppose key gov­ern­ment poli­cies, and not as experts who hap­pen to dis­agree on public-policy approaches. Instead of bring­ing those orga­ni­za­tions in for dis­cus­sions, as Tilly’s demo­c­ra­tic pen­ta­gon hypoth­e­sis would sug­gest is most pro­duc­tive, the cur­rent fed­eral gov­ern­ment treats those with oppos­ing views as “hos­tiles” to be defeated. Par­tic­i­pants per­ceive that their gov­ern­ment is telling them to “get out of the way” and “shut up, we won.”

I argue that the gov­ern­ment has assumed an aggres­sive pos­ture and adopted par­ti­san rhetoric that paints ide­o­log­i­cal oppo­nents as national secu­rity threats and con­nected to crim­i­nal­ity. The gov­ern­ment also adopted aggres­sive harass­ment actions using bureau­cratic insti­tu­tions and the nation’s bud­get in order to force its agenda. By fram­ing those with pol­icy alter­na­tives as threats to eco­nomic secu­rity, national secu­rity, and as crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tions, the gov­ern­ment plays to their core base’s attrac­tion to their tough-on-crime agenda. By invok­ing demo­niza­tion through pub­lic rejec­tion of advo­cates of alter­na­tive pub­lic poli­cies, the government’s frame cre­ates a highly salient good ver­sus evil nar­ra­tive that they per­haps hope will attract sup­port beyond their core and that some lead­ers worry will pave the way for future actions that might not oth­er­wise be accept­able to aver­age Canadians.

Inter­views with the par­tic­i­pants are loaded with emo­tional lan­guage or terms that speak directly or indi­rectly of unequal power rela­tion­ships, con­fu­sion and vul­ner­a­bil­ity, and per­cep­tions of unfair­ness. The tone of voice some­times does not match the mea­sured choice of words. One par­tic­i­pant spoke of feel­ing just “annoyed” at the actions taken by the gov­ern­ment, main­tain­ing a calm and mea­sured tone at first but even­tu­ally rais­ing his/her voice. But in speak­ing of some other orga­ni­za­tions, this par­tic­i­pant rep­re­sents them as “feel­ing anger,” “feel­ing fear,” a “pal­pa­ble” fear, because they are becom­ing des­per­ate in the cur­rent polit­i­cal cli­mate and loss of fund­ing (Anony­mous, per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, March 10, 2014).

Other par­tic­i­pants raised a long list of ways that the orga­ni­za­tions, their staff and mis­sion are made vul­ner­a­ble, includ­ing: gov­ern­ment chang­ing reg­u­la­tions on a whim; inter­pre­ta­tions of long­stand­ing reg­u­la­tions allegedly chang­ing within CRA; rep­u­ta­tion dam­age from the rhetoric of gov­ern­ment min­is­ters; fund­ing loss due to rep­u­ta­tion dam­age or fund­ing changes; loss of char­i­ta­ble sta­tus and asso­ci­ated loss of fund­ing; loss of gov­ern­ment fund­ing, hav­ing to turn increas­ingly to the cor­po­rate sec­tor for fund­ing; loss of access to gov­ern­ment pol­i­cy­mak­ing and rep­re­sen­ta­tive legit­i­macy (see Lafor­est & Phillips, 2013); and staff lay­offs. Inter­view data revealed a strong, though not uni­ver­sal, emo­tional com­mon­al­ity in the char­i­ties’ responses to the rhetoric, dis­trac­tions, and audit­ing frus­tra­tions, their declin­ing direct access to public-policy influ­ence, and short-term dif­fi­culty in respond­ing directly to power.

A power imbal­ance between civil-society orga­ni­za­tions and elected gov­ern­ment is noth­ing new; what is new are the unex­pected actions that have the tone of par­ti­san­ship. Some par­tic­i­pants expressed shock at what they saw as the government’s will­ing­ness to repeat­edly dam­age the entire char­i­ta­ble sec­tor because of its antipa­thy toward envi­ron­men­tal­ists. Some par­tic­i­pants used emotion-laden words in describ­ing what they per­ceived as the gov­ern­ment using the nation’s tax depart­ment to “harass” one or sev­eral sec­tors while fram­ing it to the pub­lic as fight­ing crime. Par­tic­i­pants spoke of frus­tra­tion with hav­ing to absorb such pun­ish­ment as the gov­ern­ment exer­cises its power to poten­tially dam­age their dona­tions, upset their staff and sup­port­ers, divert them from the mis­sion that their mem­bers and board expect ful­filled, and force them to spend money on lawyers and appeals of CRA audits.

Expressed emo­tions reflect par­tic­i­pants’ expe­ri­ence of vary­ing amounts of dis­trac­tion from their mis­sion work, threats to their sur­vival, and staff job insecurity—all height­ened by most par­tic­i­pants’ belief that the gov­ern­ment has made that cal­cu­la­tion and that there is lit­tle that the groups can do in response in the short-term. Even the defi­ant stances of some of the par­tic­i­pants high­light their vul­ner­a­bil­ity. Ver­sions of the terms “bully,” “harass,” and “demo­nize” are used by many of the par­tic­i­pants to sum up the com­bi­na­tion of actions taken by the gov­ern­ment. Almost all see it as an abuse of power, out of line with the demo­c­ra­tic tra­di­tions of the coun­try and the pre­vi­ous incre­men­tal progress toward a con­struc­tive rela­tion­ship between char­i­ties and elected gov­ern­ment noted by civil soci­ety researchers (Lafor­est, 2009, 2011, 2013b; Lafor­est & Phillips, 2013).

Tilly (2004, p. 128) notes that de-democratization con­sists of a government’s moves away from breadth and equal­ity of cit­i­zen­ship, bind­ing con­sul­ta­tion of cit­i­zens, and pro­tec­tion of cit­i­zens from arbi­trary action by agents of the gov­ern­ment. Look­ing at the his­tory of social move­ments pro­mot­ing democ­racy, Tilly (2004, p. 142) writes that democ­ra­ti­za­tion has suf­fered to the extent that gov­ern­ments destroyed, deflected, dis­persed, ignored, or co-opted social move­ment coali­tions and their trust networks.

In out­lin­ing a multi-dimensional con­tin­uum of rela­tions between gov­ern­ments and civil soci­ety, Tilly (2005, p. 432) notes that gov­ern­ments with fre­quent use of raw power demon­strate aspects of “total­i­tar­i­an­ism” or “pop­ulist author­i­tar­i­an­ism” in form as they tend to avoid bind­ing con­sul­ta­tions and exhibit arbi­trary actions by its agents. This is not to sug­gest that the cur­rent fed­eral gov­ern­ment is on the verge of total­i­tar­i­an­ism, but rather to high­light that the shift in how it wields power, as expe­ri­enced by civil soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions since 2006, is mov­ing in the direc­tion of reduced demo­c­ra­tic vigour.

Par­tic­i­pants broke into camps on the ques­tions of whether and why the cur­rent gov­ern­ment had a delib­er­ate strat­egy to under­mine civil soci­ety (includ­ing, but far from focus­ing exclu­sively on, char­i­ties) through defund­ing, fol­lowed by anti-union leg­is­la­tion (as two par­tic­i­pants spoke of), and now work­ing toward remov­ing char­i­ta­ble ben­e­fits for orga­ni­za­tions that work on public-policy issues (see Fig­ure 3). Some saw no strat­egy, but rather per­ceived an accu­mu­lated series of actions taken for var­i­ous tem­po­rally lim­ited tac­ti­cal rea­sons that nonethe­less caused unin­tended dam­age (“though not unwel­come,” as one par­tic­i­pant put it) to civil soci­ety, pub­lic dis­course, and col­lec­tive claim-making (Anony­mous, per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, March 11, 2014). Sev­eral lead­ers strongly rejected the first per­spec­tive, argu­ing that though it was attrac­tive at first blush, it had the feel of a con­spir­acy the­ory; one leader noted in good humour that Canada does not have such “grand nar­ra­tives” (Anony­mous, per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, March 10, 2014).

In the end, the exis­tence, or not, of a strat­egy to delib­er­ately cor­rupt demo­c­ra­tic process and plu­ral­ity of voices is not the core issue. Rather, what mat­ters is the effect: all par­tic­i­pants see a result­ing politi­ciza­tion (Phillips, 2013, 2009) and cor­rup­tion of the demo­c­ra­tic process (whether tac­ti­cal or strate­gic) and some ques­tion the recent neu­tral­ity, inde­pen­dence, and pro­fes­sion­al­ism of the bureau­cracy. Most also hold that there is an accu­mu­lated cor­ro­sion of oppor­tu­ni­ties for claim-makers to con­tribute to the for­ma­tion of pub­lic policy.

It mat­ters that ques­tions have also been pub­licly raised, whether prov­able or not, about the government’s role in cre­at­ing a non-profit orga­ni­za­tion (i.e., Eth­i­cal Oil) that filed com­plaints with CRA against envi­ron­men­tal and other orga­ni­za­tions that by CRA admis­sion (“Char­i­ties pro­gram update—2014”) were later used to help choose which char­i­ties to audit; and that a wide swath of char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions have had their rep­u­ta­tions put at risk by what one par­tic­i­pant referred to as “ludi­crous” rhetoric.

A clause in the 2014 fed­eral bud­get sug­gests that the gov­ern­ment plans to widen their tar­get­ing of civil-society orga­ni­za­tions, and hence per­haps pre­vent char­i­ties from struc­turally adapt­ing to advo­cacy chill. Adding non-profit, non-charitable arms, as is being con­sid­ered by some inter­viewed char­ity lead­ers to con­tinue an advo­cacy role, may not help char­i­ties stay on the right side of the CRA reg­u­la­tions about “polit­i­cal activities.”

A well-known char­ity leader, while announc­ing his organization’s audit through his reg­u­lar blog (Camp­bell, 2014), also noted the 2014 bud­get ref­er­ence to a “pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion on the income-tax frame­work for non-profit orga­ni­za­tions” to ensure the tax exemp­tion they enjoy is prop­erly tar­geted “and not sub­ject to abuse” (Fla­herty, 2014, p. 267). These words, though as a blog post­ing they qual­ify as a mat­ter of the pub­lic record and are cap­tured out­side of my par­tic­i­pant sam­ple, will seem famil­iar to char­ity leaders.




Analy­sis of my inter­view data using Charmaz’s con­structed grounded the­ory leads me to sev­eral the­o­ret­i­cal con­clu­sions. I find that an “advo­cacy chill” is affect­ing char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions that advo­cate on pub­lic pol­icy issues, though it varies in inten­sity and extent from orga­ni­za­tion to orga­ni­za­tion and some orga­ni­za­tions report no chill. I find that there is evi­dence in the data that the gov­ern­ment is attempt­ing, with some suc­cess, to nar­row society’s impor­tant pol­icy con­ver­sa­tions. Finally, I find that the data sug­gests that the cur­rent fed­eral gov­ern­ment is cor­rupt­ing Canada’s demo­c­ra­tic processes by treat­ing as polit­i­cal ene­mies those civil-society orga­ni­za­tions whose con­tri­bu­tions to pub­lic pol­icy con­ver­sa­tions dif­fer from gov­ern­ment priorities.

I find that the char­i­ties are respond­ing mainly by focus­ing on their mission-related work, work­ing through umbrella orga­ni­za­tions to strate­gize and develop pub­lic com­mu­ni­ca­tions cit­ing the achieve­ments of char­i­ties to soci­ety, and ensur­ing that their orga­ni­za­tions meet CRA require­ments, rather than directly and pub­licly con­fronting the gov­ern­ment over its actions tar­get­ing the char­i­ties. They are also look­ing at more con­tentious col­lec­tive legal and pol­icy responses to the cur­rent polit­i­cal environment.

This paper has iden­ti­fied con­cerns about a vari­ety of actions and use of admin­is­tra­tive resources by the gov­ern­ment that, taken together, amount to what I argue is a cor­rup­tion of gov­ern­men­tal process; an abuse of power that sets an unfor­tu­nate prece­dent; and, if con­tin­ued, fore­bodes accu­mu­lated dam­age to civil soci­ety, open debate, and effec­tive demo­c­ra­tic decision-making. I have argued that the cur­rent fed­eral gov­ern­ment has taken actions toward civil soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions, and par­tic­u­larly char­i­ties that advo­cate on behalf of pub­lic pol­icy change, that dif­fer quan­ti­ta­tively and qual­i­ta­tively from past Cana­dian gov­ern­ments. Past fed­eral and provin­cial gov­ern­ments have uti­lized rhetoric to chal­lenge ideas advanced by civil-sector organizations.

What is unprece­dented is the cur­rent government’s deeply con­fronta­tional fram­ing of “demo­niz­ing” rhetoric and its cou­pling of that rhetoric with action. This action entails specif­i­cally politi­cized use of the asso­ci­ated gov­ern­men­tal reg­u­la­tory body (the Char­i­ties Direc­torate at CRA) to pur­sue harass­ing actions seem­ingly designed to “muf­fle” and “dis­tract” cer­tain char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions from pub­lic debate about impor­tant, timely issues while also affect­ing bystander char­i­ties (Lafor­est, 2012, 2013b; Phillips 2010; 2013).

Most par­tic­i­pants believe that, through one of sev­eral prof­fered processes, envi­ron­men­tal groups are being sin­gled out for audit­ing of “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties,” and data sug­gests that inter­na­tional devel­op­ment orga­ni­za­tions and union-funded orga­ni­za­tions are sec­ondary tar­gets. Most par­tic­i­pants also express con­cern with what they see as unprece­dented influ­ence of the petro­leum and energy indus­try over a Cana­dian government.

Par­tic­i­pants have, to vary­ing degrees, made changes to their inter­nal edu­ca­tion processes regard­ing CRA reg­u­la­tions, have altered inter­nal processes to match CRA expec­ta­tions, and have changed or are con­sid­er­ing changes to their orga­ni­za­tional struc­ture. They are not uni­form in their acknowl­edged extent of changes to their exter­nally bound com­mu­ni­ca­tions; most report some degree of changes to con­tent, tone, chan­nel, or fre­quency of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, with sev­eral acknowl­edg­ing major changes and oth­ers lit­tle or no sub­stan­tial adjustments.

Schol­ars sug­gest a well-functioning democ­racy cre­ates con­di­tions that encour­age dis­cur­sive and active cit­i­zen involve­ment in find­ing cre­ative solu­tions to dif­fi­cult prob­lems and con­tentions (Falk, 2008; Eiken­berry, 2009; Lafor­est 2012, 2013a, Tilly, 2004). The cur­rent fed­eral government’s actions are instead caus­ing at least some char­i­ties that advo­cate on behalf of pub­lic pol­icy issues to reduce their com­mu­ni­ca­tions activ­ity and pull back from fully con­tribut­ing to impor­tant national conversations.

The government’s var­i­ous rhetor­i­cal and reg­u­la­tory actions lead me to con­clude that Canada is expe­ri­enc­ing a new, fourth dis­cur­sive shift regard­ing civil-society orga­ni­za­tions, (Lafor­est, 2012, p. 188), one in which the gov­ern­ment views as hos­tile, and treats as ene­mies, those orga­ni­za­tions that advo­cate for poli­cies that dif­fer from gov­ern­ment strate­gic plans, and responds at a level of rhetoric and action that, com­bined, is beyond tra­di­tional Cana­dian norms of governance.

My data affirms early obser­va­tions by Lafor­est and Phillips (2013) that orga­ni­za­tions affected by this government’s defund­ing are work­ing with umbrella orga­ni­za­tions to expand pub­lic per­cep­tion of their impor­tance (p. 10). Rather than accept­ing the gov­ern­ment power unchal­lenged, most par­tic­i­pant lead­ers are involved in for­mal and infor­mal dis­cus­sions intended to find an effec­tive col­lec­tive response to the cur­rent polit­i­cal cli­mate, while also suc­ceed­ing, to var­i­ous degrees, in keep­ing orga­ni­za­tional resources focused on mis­sion activities.

This study has found that, in respond­ing to the cur­rent polit­i­cal cli­mate and audit threat, char­i­ties that advo­cate on pub­lic pol­icy issues are respond­ing most strongly in line with a pre­dic­tion offered by resource mobi­liza­tion the­ory (McCarthy & Zald, 1997). That the­ory pre­dicts that attacks by the state and threats to fund­ing and even con­tin­ued exis­tence cause orga­ni­za­tions to divert costly inter­nal resources to address the threats and act with cau­tion. In respond­ing exter­nally, the orga­ni­za­tion would tend to seek low-risk, low-resource alter­na­tives, in this case part­ner­ing with other orga­ni­za­tions to uti­lize the resources and cred­i­bil­ity of umbrella orga­ni­za­tions in cre­at­ing upbeat strate­gies that present the char­ity sector’s past accom­plish­ments and future potential.

The above approach also con­tains some ele­ments of resis­tance and col­lec­tive responses as pre­dicted by social move­ment and con­tention the­o­ries (Tilly, 2004, 2005). But the resis­tance gen­er­ally stops short of the more contention-centred push­back against gov­ern­ment excesses sug­gested by Tilly’s demo­c­ra­tic pen­ta­gon hypoth­e­sis (Tilly, 2005). The require­ment for gov­ern­ment sanc­tion to access the finan­cial and legit­i­macy ben­e­fits of char­i­ta­ble sta­tus (Lavasseur, 2008 cited in Lavasseur, 2012) makes these orga­ni­za­tions less able to respond through open con­tention; speak­ing to a master’s stu­dent required guar­an­tees of con­fi­den­tial­ity from most char­ity lead­ers and three of five experts.

Still, the char­i­ties are blend­ing in some con­tention. Most are resist­ing gov­ern­ment attempts to dis­tract them by mak­ing a point of try­ing to focus key resources on con­tin­u­ing their mis­sion activ­i­ties such as oppos­ing energy projects (even as most par­tic­i­pants report that com­mu­ni­ca­tions have been toned down in one or more ways); build­ing pre­vi­ously under­ex­plored cross-sector char­ity links; adding non-profit non-charitable arms allow­ing a wider range of activ­i­ties; prepar­ing for a proac­tive court case; help­ing run the provoca­tive Voices/Voix web­site track­ing actions of the cur­rent gov­ern­ment affect­ing civil soci­ety; work­ing to get polit­i­cal par­ties to include in their 2015 elec­tion plat­forms com­mit­ments to make changes to char­ity law and pol­icy that will de-politicize the reg­u­la­tory and con­sul­ta­tion processes; and (in the case of non-profit, non-charitable orga­ni­za­tions) tar­get­ing vul­ner­a­ble fed­eral rid­ings with infor­ma­tion campaigns.




1 Charles Tilly, (2004, p. 7) defines social move­ments as a dis­tinc­tive way of pur­su­ing pub­lic pol­i­tics, a polit­i­cal com­plex of cam­paigns, claim-making per­for­mances, and pub­lic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the cause’s wor­thi­ness, unity, num­bers, and com­mit­ment (WUNC). John Medearis views social move­ments as “col­lec­tive chal­lenges mounted by rel­a­tively mar­ginal groups against pow­er­ful elites and dom­i­nant ide­olo­gies” (2005, p. 54). Because soci­eties have unequal power rela­tion­ships, social move­ments face sys­tem­atic bar­ri­ers to their being and their ideas that chal­lenge insti­tu­tions and prac­tices (p. 54). There are var­i­ous schools of social move­ment theory.

Alain Touraine (2002) traces their his­tory from class strug­gles and strug­gles for free­dom and equal­ity; to those incor­po­rat­ing national lib­er­a­tion strug­gles; to the new 20th cen­tury move­ments con­cern­ing iden­tity and cul­ture, peace and envi­ron­ment; and to the new inte­gra­tion of civil-society orga­ni­za­tions chal­leng­ing eco­nomic glob­al­iza­tion and capitalism.

2 Anto­nio Gram­sci wrote about “civil soci­ety” while sit­ting in a jail cell in Fas­cist Italy. Gram­sci sep­a­rated soci­ety for pur­poses of cat­e­go­riza­tion into polit­i­cal soci­ety (gov­ern­ment offi­cials and politi­cians) and civil soci­ety (aver­age cit­i­zens and their orga­ni­za­tions) and believed that civil soci­ety, rather than the state, is the major dri­ver for pro­gres­sive change (Buttigieg, 1995, pp. 19, 28; Gram­sci, 1950 trans. 1996–2007). There has been ongo­ing debate about which cat­e­gory includes busi­ness, which holds strong col­lec­tive power and influ­ence in cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties (Bar­ber, 1998, p. 4; Buttigieg, 1995; Fontana, 2006, p. 55). In prac­tice, though, Gram­sci saw the cat­e­gories as inter­twined, con­nected by the con­cept of hege­mony: that is, the strug­gle by those with gov­ern­ing power to con­vince the larger pub­lic, mainly through per­sua­sion but with force as needed, to con­sent to the gov­er­nors’ beliefs, val­ues, and actions (Fontana, pp. 54–55; Gram­sci 1950, note­book 4, §38; Gram­sci as cited in Durham & Kell­ner, 2012, pp. 34–36).

Build­ing con­sent is achieved through the “trench war­fare” of pub­lic opin­ion bat­tles between the gov­er­nors and those who oppose the gov­er­nors, using such insti­tu­tions as media, schools, and the church (Fontana, pp. 72–74; Gram­sci, 1950, note­book 3, §119). Dom­i­na­tion, coer­cion or armed force is directed against orga­ni­za­tions the gov­ern­ment deems as antag­o­nis­tic (Fontana, 2006, p. 55). Inter­est­ingly, the World Bank def­i­n­i­tion of civil soci­ety excludes the cor­po­rate sec­tor, but includes “the wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit orga­ni­za­tions that have a pres­ence in pub­lic life, express­ing the inter­ests and val­ues of their mem­bers or oth­ers, based on eth­i­cal, cul­tural, polit­i­cal, sci­en­tific, reli­gious or phil­an­thropic con­sid­er­a­tions. Civil Soci­ety Orga­ni­za­tions there­fore refer to a wide of array of orga­ni­za­tions: com­mu­nity groups, non-governmental orga­ni­za­tions (NGOs), labor unions, indige­nous groups, char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions, faith-based orga­ni­za­tions, pro­fes­sional asso­ci­a­tions, and foun­da­tions” (The World Bank, n.d., “Defin­ing civil society”).

3 This paper uses the term “oil sands” to describe the mas­sive Cana­dian deposits of tar-like heavy crude bitu­men mixed with sil­ica sand, clay min­er­als, and water. Though the term “tar sands” dom­i­nated both com­mon and gov­ern­ment usage for decades, it seems that in recent years the oil industry’s rebrand­ing of the deposits as “oil sands” or “oil­sands” has come to dom­i­nate indus­try, sci­en­tific, gov­ern­men­tal, and com­mon usage. In the inter­ests of pro­mot­ing open con­ver­sa­tion, this paper adopts the con­tem­po­rary label (“Alberta’s Oil Sands 2006,” 2006).

4 In an “update” bul­letin, the Char­i­ties Direc­torate noted that as of Jan­u­ary 31, 2014, 31 audits for polit­i­cal activ­i­ties com­pli­ance were in var­i­ous stages of com­ple­tion (of a planned 60 over four years). All four char­i­ta­ble pur­pose cat­e­gories were included. Two char­i­ties reg­is­tered to relieve poverty were in process, three to advance reli­gion, four to advance edu­ca­tion, and 22 estab­lished for other pur­poses ben­e­fi­cial to the com­mu­nity in a way the law regards as char­i­ta­ble. “Char­i­ties we are audit­ing under the lat­ter cat­e­gory include those estab­lished to pro­mote health, uphold human rights, pro­mote ani­mal wel­fare, pro­tect the envi­ron­ment, as well as com­mu­nity orga­ni­za­tions” (“Char­i­ties pro­gram update—2014”). One year after the Nat­ural Resource Minister’s open let­ter to Cana­di­ans and an increase in funds for audit­ing, the media reported only one char­ity had its sta­tus revoked by CRA: Physi­cians for Global Sur­vival, a group of physi­cians pro­mot­ing nuclear dis­ar­ma­ment (Webb, 2013). A 2012 analy­sis by Cana­dian Press found that only one of the top 10 foreign-funded char­i­ties could be con­sid­ered in any way an envi­ron­men­tal organization—the pro-hunting group Ducks Unlim­ited Canada. Most of the 1,950 char­i­ties receiv­ing inter­na­tional funds are aid orga­ni­za­tions, reli­gious insti­tu­tions and schools (Cana­dian Press, 2012c).

5 It has been erro­neously reported that the $8 mil­lion was ded­i­cated to audit­ing. In fact, it has been applied addi­tion­ally to increas­ing edu­ca­tion and infor­ma­tion activ­i­ties and improv­ing trans­parency with new report­ing require­ments for char­i­ties (“Char­i­ties pro­gram update — 2014”; Waldie, 2012).

6 The U.K. Char­i­ties Act of 2006 sep­a­rated the Char­ity Com­mis­sion from the tax author­ity. Among other things it now lists 13 char­i­ta­ble pur­poses; Canada allows four (Lavasseur, 2012, p. 189).

7 Col­lec­tive action frames have three char­ac­ter­is­tic fea­tures and five vari­able fea­tures. The for­mer are: 1a) diag­nos­tic fram­ing which iden­ti­fies the blam­able sources of the prob­lem and 1b) bound­ary and adver­sar­ial fram­ing which delin­eates the bound­ary between “good” and “evil” and iden­tify pro­tag­o­nists and antag­o­nists; 2) prog­nos­tic fram­ing, which sug­gests a pro­posed solu­tion or plan of attack and pro­posed strat­egy for doing so, and 3) moti­va­tional fram­ing, which is the “call to arms” and rel­e­vant vocab­u­lary, all designed to cre­ate a sense of saliency appro­pri­ate to the sit­u­a­tion. The vari­able fea­tures are: 1) prob­lem iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and direc­tion of attri­bu­tion, which seeks to cre­ate a frame that cov­ers mul­ti­ple prob­lems and so can increase buy-in and thus mobi­liza­tion capac­ity; 2) flex­i­bil­ity and inclu­siv­ity, which seeks to allow for growth and broad­en­ing of sup­port and action; 3) inter­pre­tive scope and influ­ence, in which ide­ally a pow­er­ful “mas­ter frame” has emerged that is larger than any one social move­ment and of which Ben­ford and Snow iden­ti­fied eight in the year 2000 and which I sug­gest should also include “ter­ror­ism frames” today; 4) res­o­nance, which is tied to cred­i­bil­ity and rel­a­tive salience (Ben­ford & Snow, 2000).





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    I blog often and I gen­uinely appre­ci­ate your infor­ma­tion. This arti­cle
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  • Emily Crober

    the orga­ni­za­tions can do what­ever they want with­out char­i­ta­ble sta­tus. Your the­sis is a if mess of talk. You should be able to get your point out in a few small paragraphs.

  • Gareth

    Thanks, Emily, for your com­ment. It’s cer­tainly good to hear from a for­mer CRA employee. Sorry to hear that the the­sis was too long for you. I agree that brevity is always a good objec­tive, though a the­sis is expected to be longer than “a few small para­graphs,” as you say.. I hope you’ll be happy to hear that the the­sis was nom­i­nated by my school for a Gov­er­nor General’s Gold Medal award and also earned a Pub­lic Ethnog­ra­phy Award from Royal Roads Uni­ver­sity. If you’ve fol­lowed my writ­ings, you’re aware that I do not lay blame at the foot of CRA staff, but rather at the door of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment for polit­i­cal inter­fer­ence in cre­at­ing a “fun­nel” that nudges CRA to the out­comes desired by the gov­ern­ment. Check out my blog for more details on that.

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