Charities muzzled in election

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      Which issue should be at the top of the federal political parties’ platforms this election?

      Ann Livingstone
      Executive director, Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users

      “[Stopping] the prohibition of drugs. We have tons and tons of dealers selling to the mentally ill and addicted people.”¦Pot is sold by children at school, but, if you’re underage, you’ve got to get organized if you want alcohol. As a parent, I can’t stand that these drugs are not regulated.”

      Scott Hannah
      President, Credit Counselling Society

      “Go to campus the first week, and there’s every opportunity to expand your credit [with student loans and credit cards]. If you’re taking on debt, you should legally have to get information about it because we see the aftermath of that.”

      Dave Quist
      Executive director, Institute of Marriage and Family Canada

      “Federal income splitting. Now, each member of the family is taxed as an individual. In many other countries, they can be taxed as a unit, pay less tax, and choose how to spend it on education, childcare, or bills. It lowers taxes for single-parent families, too.”

      Camyar Chai
      Executive director, Leave Out ViolencE (LOVE) B.C.

      “Youth between 13 and 21 are falling through the funding cracks.”¦These are the ones who, if we don’t take care of them now, they’ll be the next set of homeless people. But they’re in a great position to pull themselves out of it.”¦If youth got the vote, it might help. They’re a lot less apathetic than older people.”

      Chickens in battery cages, sows in tiny stalls, and laws that permit transporting cows for more than two days straight with no food, water, or rest. New animal-rights legislation should be at the top of the federal party platforms, according to Stephanie Brown, the director of the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals.

      “This issue just doesn’t seem to have the traction it does in other countries,” Brown told the Georgia Straight. “I don’t know why this is, but it is.”

      Shauna Sylvester, the founder of the now-defunct Institute for Media, Policy, and Civil Society, thinks it’s because Canada’s charity law stinks. Here’s why: CCFA—which is largely volunteer-run—is trying to conduct a major federal animal-rights campaign virtually on its own because most other anticruelty organizations in Canada are charities (think SPCA). The Income Tax Act limits charities to using 10 percent of their resources for “political activities”. Exceed that, Sylvester explained, and the Canada Revenue Agency can revoke charitable status and force an agency to dissolve.

      Canada lags behind all other western democracies on this, including the U.S. and the U.K., which have looser restrictions on their charities’ political involvement, according to Sylvester.

      What’s the effect? If the restrictions were looser, she told the Straight, “you’d see a far healthier, robust debate about the issues at election time. It wouldn’t be about personalities. It wouldn’t be driven by what parties do and don’t want to talk about. It would be driven by issues that are important, because citizens tend to form groups when they want to talk about something. And they want to express themselves.”

      To that end, the Vancouver Centre Green party riding association wrote a resolution asking for a revision and update to charity tax laws. Candidate Adriane Carr explained that the resolution was destined for the Green party’s policy convention, which is now cancelled due to the October 14 election. It notes that the threat of dissolution is “putting a cold chill on democratic discourse and debate”.

      The Straight contacted the NDP, Liberal, and Conservative parties, but none have developed a policy on this.

      Charity laws were reviewed in 2001 as part of the Voluntary Sector Initiative, which was an undertaking that aimed to improve relations between the federal government and the nonprofit sector. Instead of reforming laws, though, it produced a policy statement in 2003 that clarified what is and is not considered a “political activity”.

      Meeting with elected officials? That’s charitable. Asking members to write a letter to an MP on an issue? Political. Partisan activities—endorsing a candidate or a party—are prohibited in Canada and elsewhere.

      Charities lawyer Richard Bridge thinks there are two reasons we have the laws we do.

      “It’s government not wanting to be subject to these campaigns, and the desire to say enough is enough and carry on with their business,” he explained to the Straight in a phone interview from Middleton, New Brunswick. “And, the tax policy that’s underlying this is based on the premise that taxpayers should not have to subsidize the political views of voters through charity law.”

      Sylvester, however, pointed out that taxpayers subsidize corporate lobbying, just not citizen lobbying. When the Kyoto accord was being debated, she said, businesses were able to buy ads and conduct public- and political-awareness campaigns, and then write the expenses off their taxes. However, environmental charities were shut out of the conversation, she said, due to tax-law restrictions on their political activities. The Romanow commission on health care in Canada missed out on hearing from dozens of health-related charities, she said, because they were afraid to speak out.

      The spectre of dissolution for charities is beyond a “cold chill”, Sylvester believes—it’s a deep freeze.

      Indeed, too much advocacy cost the Friends of Clayoquot Sound its charitable status in 2001. Board member Shirley Langer told the Straight it continues to operate as a nonprofit but with a diminished budget, as it can’t provide tax receipts. Like CCFA, it’s alone in robustly advocating for the region’s environmental issues, as other agencies in the region are charities.

      The CCFA’s Brown noted that being a nonprofit without charitable status is a “double-edged sword”, as she can lobby governments but has trouble filling the agency’s coffers without the lure of a tax receipt.

      The 10-percent rule has wide-reaching consequences

      > Canada has about 84,000 registered charities.

      > In 1999, the Canada Revenue Agency refused to grant the Greenpeace Environmental Foundation charitable status. It cannot issue tax receipts.

      > In 2007, David Suzuki was at the centre of a debate about how much time he can spend criticizing government environmental policy. He said he was being “hounded” by the CRA.

      > In the U.K., up to 49 percent of a charity’s work can be political.

      > In the U.S., it’s up to 20 percent.

      > Over the past 12 months, the CRA has revoked the status of 45 Vancouver- area charities, for a variety of reasons.

      > Over the past 12 months, the Vancouver area has seen 94 new charities registered.

      Sources:;;the Globe and Mail;Shauna Sylvester