After the chill

by Jini Stolk

Many of us are feeling a bit warmer…and freer…since Minister Diane Lebouthillier’s announcement calling off the Canada Revenue Agency’s political activities audits. This much criticized review of charities’ involvement in public awareness and advocacy was unveiled in the 2012 Federal Budget which provided CRA with $13.4 million to track down charitable scofflaws. The program always looked to me like a nationwide SLAPP suit, meeting its goal of silencing unwelcome political disagreement just by existing.

As expected, the audits uncovered few actual examples of charities breaking the rules around allowable political activities. Of the five completed audits that resulted in a determination to revoke charitable registration, my guess is that all five organizations will be exercising their right to appeal.

Ever since my August 2015 post on Fear of Advocacy I’ve been meaning to write again about why charities need to be free to contribute to public debate. I was going to re-emphasize that the CRA itself acknowledges (in its published policy CPS-022) that Canadian charities “have experience, expertise and ideas that should be used to help government develop better public policies and programs,” and that BoardSource just added advocacy to their list of the Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards. In honour of the rule that charities devote no more than 10% of their resources to allowable political activity, I was going to call my new post Getting to 9.9%.

But I couldn’t write it. I found that the political activities regulations and reporting procedures were so loosely defined, subject to arbitrary interpretation, and onerous that I couldn’t in good conscience advise organizations to push the advocacy boundaries. Schedule 7 of the T3010 charitable return requires charities to detail all “political activities” (without clearly defining what that means) and to assert that they haven’t engaged in anything that “explicitly communicates to the public that a law, policy or decision of any level of government inside or outside Canada should be retained, opposed, or changed” or “encourages the public to contact an elected representative or public official” and urge them to do so.

These requirements remain on the books, and serve to contradict the CRA’s assertion that “Canadian society has been enriched by the invaluable contribution charities have made in developing social capital and social cohesion.” Can we still do this while self-censoring and scrupulously monitoring our twitter accounts, blogs, and LinkedIn profiles to ensure that no one – not even in the comments section – urges public action or makes a statement that could be interpreted as partisan?

The next step for our new government is to rethink the role of charities in public discussion and advocacy for social change, and bring CRA’s rules more closely in line with countries like the Netherlands, Britain, and the United States. It’s another welcome change to see that Minister Lebouthillier is planning to do just that.

The Ontario Nonprofit Network will be much involved in this process but anyone with a lawyer/activist on their board might want to dive into this discussion. I’d be very glad to see arts organizations play a leading role: our sector, after all, has a long history of fighting legal challenges to free expression. Gallery owner Av Isaacs, who died this month, was a warrior for the right of artists to create and exhibit according to their own aesthetic and perspective, no matter how unpopular, shocking or even “disgusting” – or how far they went “beyond walls.”

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