Charity audits threaten to silence those seeking change: report

Dene Moore
National Affairs Contributor
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Charity audits threaten to silence those seeking change: report

Political pressure from charitable organizations has resulted in tougher drunk driving laws and health warnings on cigarettes.

But a crackdown on political activities by environmental, labour and human rights groups under the current Conservative government threatens to silence those who would challenge the status quo, warns a new report by the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria.

“Calling for a change in laws is considered political,” Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the centre, tells Yahoo Canada News.

Charitable organizations are living in fear that speaking out will earn them an audit, and potentially see them lose their charitable status, he says.

“If we’d had this kind of fear … we never would have cleaned up the Great Lakes; we never would have gotten drunk driving laws; we never would have gotten dioxins out of pulp mill pollution…. We’d likely still have lead in gasoline.”

The report, prepared for the environmental group DeSmog Canada, says the federal government allocated $13.4 million in its 2012 budget for audits of the political activities of charitable groups.

Under the law, charities are not to spend more than 10 per cent of donated funds on political work.

Since then, more than 52 charities have been audited by the Canada Revenue Agency. Those groups include the David Suzuki Foundation, Tides Canada, West Coast Environmental Law, the Pembina Foundation and the Ecology Action Centre.

“Since several of these organizations had previously criticized government policies, many observers accused government of using audits to intimidate and silence opposing political views,” says the report.

Charities being silenced?

A chilling effect has been felt throughout the charitable sector, the report says.

The crackdown has been accompanied by changes to environmental laws that limit participation in regulatory reviews by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and the National Energy Board, at a time when several pipeline projects are under consideration.

It also followed an open letter from then-natural resources minister Joe Oliver accusing environmental groups of trying to “hijack” the regulatory process for their “radical ideological agenda.”

“It seems to be part of a pattern of discouraging criticism, discouraging open debate,” Sandborn says. “It’s very worrisome.”

There is evidence environmental, development and human rights groups, as well as charities receiving donations from labour unions are being targeted, the report says.

But under attack in the House over the audits last fall, the parliamentary secretary to the revenue minister said no one was being targeted.

“The idea that professional men and women who work within CRA in an arm’s length auditing process, maintaining the integrity of the system, could somehow fall under political influence is simply wrong,” Conservative MP Gerald Keddy told reporters.

Legislation governing charitable activities in Canada should be changed, the law centre urges.

There is too much potential for political interference and the penalties for breaching the cap are too harsh, their report says.

It makes several recommendations, including a better definition of political activities under the law and a higher, clearer spending limit.

The report also calls for creation of an independent Canadian Charities to regulate the charitable sector.

Government should allow charitable organizations to pursue political activities as their primary objective, the law centre says.

“Political doesn’t mean supporting the Conservatives, supporting the NDP, supporting the Liberals,” Sandborn says.

“Under the current rules it’s political for Amnesty International to call for a change in the laws around slavery, to outlaw international slavery.”