Politics and charity can mix
To hear Conservative Senator Nicole Eaton and others tell it, Canada has been invaded by foreign radicals who “are operating under the guise of charitable organizations in an effort to manipulate our policies for their own gain.”
The Senate has launched an inquiry into the issue. In late February, Eaton opened the debate with this flourish: “Honourable Senators, I rise today to open an inquiry that will reveal astounding information. It will make your blood boil and, hopefully, it will prompt us all to action.”
What is this astounding information? “This inquiry is about how billionaire foreign foundations have quietly moved into Canada and, under the guise of charitable deeds, are trying to define our domestic policies.”
If this is an assault on problems with Canadian charities, it is missing its mark. Canadian charity policy could use some reform, but foreign money is simply not the problem it is being made out to be.
What Eaton and others — notably Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver — have in their sightlines are environmental organizations that oppose the oilsands. They hold up foreign donations as evidence that something nefarious is going on.
“Do the charitable and non-governmental organizations that accept enormous amounts of money really represent the interests of Canada,” Eaton asks, “or do they pander to the interests of their foreign masters?”
The issue made an appearance in last month’s federal budget. “Recently, concerns have been raised that some charities may not be respecting the rules regarding political activities.” The budget included $8 million to help the Canada Revenue Agency make sure charities are following the rules.
So who are these charities receiving large sums of foreign money? Should Canadians fear a takeover?
Only if names like Care Canada, World Vision Canada and Ducks Unlimited make you quake in your boots. Oh and Plan International, Right to Play International and the University of Calgary, all near the top of the list of charities receiving foreign money in 2010.
Several such charities recently received votes of confidence from the Conservative government in the form of contracts for CIDA projects with Canadian mining companies. World Vision Canada, which received more than $89 million in foreign money in 2010 (second to Care Canada, at nearly $99 million), is working on a CIDA-funded project with Barrick Gold in Peru. Plan International Canada, number six on the list, is involved in a CIDA project with a mining company in Africa.
And Ducks Unlimited, which conserves wetlands, has also worked with the federal government. It, by far, is the environmental group that receives the most money from outside Canada. (The Fraser Institute reported receiving $1.7 million from outside the country in 2010, more than three times the amount of foreign dollars collected by the David Suzuki Foundation.)
Are these the foreign radicals that threaten Canada?
Well, no. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, Eaton and others are talking about groups such as Tides Canada Foundation, an environmental organization that spends some of its money, including $7.8 million in foreign money it received in 2010, to oppose the oilsands.
The crackdown already shows signs of backfiring if the intent was to silence oilsands critics. David Suzuki has quit the board of the charity named for him so he can talk more freely about environmental concerns. And ForestEthics, which has spearheaded campaigns against the oilsands, says it is giving up its charitable status to take on the federal government.
Those are sensible moves. But that doesn’t mean charities should not get involved in political activity.
Charities are allowed to devote about 10 per cent of their resources to political activity related to their mandate. Only about 500 of Canada’s 86,000 registered charities do, something that, in the view of Toronto lawyer Mark Blumberg, who works with and blogs on charities, is unfortunate.
Charities should be involved in political activities, he says, which does not mean partisan involvement but could be anything from campaigning to get harmful chemicals out of baby bottles or for policy changes that affect the homeless. That is a legitimate, and beneficial, role for the sector, he notes.
Blumberg says the federal budget has given the Canadian Revenue Agency some new tools to make sure charities are doing what they should. Blumberg also thinks Canadian charities should be required to report what they have done to benefit the public each year and their operating structures should be more transparent to make it clear who really controls the charity. He has other reasonable suggestions.
But to go there, the government would have to be interested in thoughtful policy reform. And that’s not what this drive-by fixation with environmental groups is about.
Elizabeth Payne is a member of the Citizen’s editorial board. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org