A hostile environment

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To say we're witnessing some interesting times is akin to stating Harry Potter has a way with wands: it's an understatement.

It seems every day there's a disparaging revelation, a new accusation, pitting charities against federal leaders or special interest groups and vice versa, deepening the ripples in our civil discourse and engagement, emboldening the "us versus them" vernacular and leading to an increase in questions, confusion and debate.

Though the current drama technically affects the entire charitable sector, at the crux of the issue is a group of environmental charities who feel maligned by what they perceive to be increasing efforts at handcuffing their actions and besmirching their reputation. So, what exactly are the issues at the heart of the growing divide? And where will the battle lines play out next?

Radical idea

Let's start in January when Natural Resources Minister, Joe Oliver, received some flak for publishing an open letter saying "environmental and other radical groups" were attempting to block important projects and undermine Canada's economy. "These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda," he said. "They seek to exploit any loophole they can find, stacking public hearings with bodies to ensure that delays kill good projects. They use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada's national economic interest."

Fighting words those.

Then, as if some folks didn't already have their ire up, the federal government's March budget added more weight to the growing divide. It proposed $8 million worth of measures over a two year period to ensure charities didn't veer from the straight and narrow, that they kept their resources aligned with charitable activities and not political ones. These measures were intended to enhance public transparency and accountability.

"Recently, concerns have been raised that some charities may not be respecting the rules regarding political activities," the plan read. "There have also been calls for greater public transparency related to the political activities of charities, including the extent to which they may be funded by foreign sources." That last part was thought by many to have environmental charities in its sights, a group the government has alleged, on various occasions, receives a nice portion of its funding from American charitable organizations.

One step at a time

In April, to stem what he referred to as the bullying of his foundation, environmentalist David Suzuki stepped down from his board so that he could continue to speak out on issues without harming his organization's charitable status. "I want to speak freely without fear that my words will be deemed too political, and harm the organization of which I am so proud," he said in an open letter. "I am keenly aware that some governments, industries and special interest groups are working hard to silence us. They use threats to the Foundation's charitable status in attempts to mute its powerful voice on issues that matter deeply to you and many other Canadians."

Not surprisingly, his action came on the heels of a call by Ethical Oil, an oil sands lobby group, for the CRA to review the charitable status of the David Suzuki Foundation over its political and partisan activity. That an organization chose not to challenge the foundation on facts or information around their work but, instead, put forth a request for a material investigation into their status is simply ludicrous, says CEO Peter Robinson. "Canadians will see through it."

Define this

But the gloves really came off earlier this month when, in two separate interviews, Environment Minister Peter Kent, accused some charitable environmental groups in Canada of "laundering" funds from offshore donors in order to obstruct the environmental assessment process. When asked to name those organizations, Kent declined, stating the current Senate Finance Committee hearings into the charitable status of organizations will eventually proffer the missing links.

Given the chance by CBC host Evan Solomon to re-think his use of the word "launder" — a potentially criminal act (regarded as such only if the source of the money is criminal) — suggesting he may have meant to say something less defamatory, injurious, Kent stood his ground.

In response, environmental groups aligned in their admonishment. "I find it a deplorable comment, it's the worst kind of accusation," states Robinson, explaining how it's particularly abhorrent to make a claim without naming names. "You just cast aspersions which hang over everybody."

Marcel Lauzière, president and CEO of Imagine Canada wrote an open letter to Mr. Kent expressing concern and asking for clarification on his word usage. He reiterated the fact that charities typically spend little on political activities, while their work in advocacy over the years has led to great strides, establishing their role as fundamental in the development of Canadian public policy.

Though Minister Kent refused CharityVillage®'s request for an interview, on Tuesday it was reported he loosened his linguistic grip, stating to a fellow Cabinet minister that his use of the term launder was simply a figure of speech.

Points of interest

Now let's keep a few things in mind. Charities are allowed to engage in limited, non-partisan politics. The average charity can spend a maximum of 10% of their resources on political activities, while smaller ones have an allowance of 20%. Only a minority of charities report engaging in political activity, with a small fraction of their revenues committed to it.

What's more, the government has never stipulated where that 10% can come from. The only thing the CRA asks charities to do is report the amounts they receive. So, the argument follows, as long as the charity is not spending more than its 10% on political activities, it matters not whether the funding is sourced here or there. Right? Perhaps.

In any case, statistics show only two percent of the country's charities received funds from outside Canada. What's even more interesting are the stats released by Imagine Canada that demonstrate international development charities, religious organizations and universities receive the majority of international dollars from amongst the 85,000 or so charities in our country. So why the focus on environmental organizations?

Who knows for sure. In truth, it seems, by implication, the government is questioning how forthright all charities are with their self-reporting. Regardless of sub-sector. Nevertheless, for many, that query is preposterous. "Every charity is very conscious of meeting the regulations of the CRA, of striving to stay onside because the consequences are horrible," states Robinson with emphasis.

There's also the possibility some of this stems from a long-standing confusion between political activity and advocacy, the latter an allowable — some would even say laudable — pursuit. The CRA hasn't defined the distinction clearly, leaving the area in a bit of grey zone, and the source of continued challenges.

Others postulate the government may be growing increasingly frustrated with the effective use by environmental organizations of their resources to oppose projects like the tar sands and the Northern Gateway pipeline. These tactics, they say, are simply attempts to silence the government's critics — or to dissuade them, at the very least, from action.

One organization seemingly on the government's hit list is Tides Canada. Having already answered to questions about foreign money tricking through their charitable arm during a recent Senate inquiry, Tides released a statement this week stating the CRA has been reviewing its books this year, only three years after completing a previous audit. Ironically, the statement immediately followed a press release stipulating the organization was chosen as a leader in transparency and governance by Imagine Canada. President Ross McMillan was unavailable for comment but reiterated in a release that the organization allocates less than one percent of spending of its own initiatives on political activities. "I'm confident we'll see another positive outcome as we really do take seriously our responsibility to act in full compliance with the Income Tax Act and CRA guidelines," he said.

The battle continues

Finally, this Monday a coalition of environmental groups — including Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and the David Suzuki Foundation — launched the Black Out, Speak Out campaign to protest what they call the federal government's "war" against the environment. For the next few weeks they'll be taking out newspaper ads in a bid to draw attention to proposed changes to environmental law contained in the government's latest budget implementation bill. According to the group, the changes will "weaken environmental rules and silence the voices of those who seek to defend them." The campaign will culminate in a far-reaching blackout of their websites on June 4, a symbolic objection to the government's alleged efforts to silence them.

As to whether he feels those continuing efforts will have the effect of curbing the group's advocacy work, Robinson says no. "My guess is, if anything, we're going to get stronger around this because in the face of a consistent and concerted attack you find ways to get stronger," he explains. "The unintended consequence is that you have groups learning how to do this better, to contest messages, to work together more. So no this won't change the efforts of environmental organizations to continue to do the things that Canadians expect them to do."

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is also president of Elle Communications and can be reached at: info@ellecommunications.ca.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and e-mail addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other web sites and e-mail addresses may no longer be accurate.

Photos (from top) via the David Suzuki Foundation. All photos used with permission.

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