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Taxman targets Canada's environmental charities

Actu - Taxman targets Canada's environmental charities

By writing this, I, Sidney Ribaux, may be breaking all kinds of new rules that the government would like to impose on Canadian charities, but let me make clear from the outset: No administrative or tax rule will ever prevent Equiterre from speaking publicly.

As reported by CBC last Thursday, the Canada Revenue Agency seems to be targeting Canadian environmental groups that speak out on issues such as:

  • climate change
  • tar sands
  • pipelines

At least seven leading environmental groups, including Equiterre, have been subjected to audits by the Agency. The purpose of these audits is to assess whether what we are doing is too political.

As a charitable organization, we are able to provide donors with a tax receipt. This is an important advantage. It is of course reasonable for the government to periodically check up on our finances and activities. But there are more than 85,000 charities in this country, and the Agency is only able to conduct audits on 1% of them a year. The fact that seven of the country's most active environmental groups are all being audited at the same time is not a coincidence.

We are being targeted because what we have to say bothers the government.

At issue:

  • charitable organizations can't spend more than 10% of their resources on political activities
  • charitable organizations must be nonpartisan

An example of political activity would be urging our members to write the Minister of the Environment to get her to oppose a proposed pipeline. An example of partisan activity would be asking our members not to vote for that same Minister in the next election.

Like most Canadian charities, Equiterre complies with these instructions. Political work is obviously essential to the achievement of our goals, but we never spend more than 10% of our resources on political work, since we are also working hard to:

  • educate the public
  • conduct research
  • promote other, better ways of doing things (witness our shared demonstration green building, the Centre for Sustainable Development)

Equiterre is non-partisan, and has never encouraged its members or the public to vote for or against a party or candidate. This does not mean, however, that we won't critique what elected officials say or do.

So what's the problem?

Over the past two years, the definition of what the Agency considers to be a political or partisan activity seems to have been changing. It's becoming clear that the government would like to put more and more limits on what groups like Equiterre are allowed to do.

Will they take away our charitable status because we are too vocal? I don't know, but I wouldn't be suprised if they did, given how things are going.

What is most worrying is not that they have targeted Equiterre. They can not silence us. What worries me is how this will affect smaller groups, which may hesitate from now on to speak up, out of a fear of losing their charitable status.

This government has already publicly denigrated environmental groups, but that hasn't stopped us from denouncing its anti-environmental policies in particular with regard to:

  • development in the tar sands
  • pipeline projects
  • environmental deregulation

My colleagues and I will continue to:

  • oppose development in the tar sands
  • decry the dismantling of laws and institutions designed to protect the environment 

We will continue to ensure that citizens are informed and consulted.

In fact, the actions of this government make the work of groups like ours even more relevant. This is also the case for groups working on women's rights, international development and even progressive religious groups which have also been under systemic attack from the federal government since 2006.

It is essential that charitable organizations be able to intervene on public policy in a nonpartisan way. I have a memory from the 1970s of being in the back seat of a car driven by my uncle, who had a bottle of beer between his legs. This was a socially accepted practice. It was only through the political work of groups against drunk driving that this kind of behaviour came to be viewed as socially unacceptable, causing the mortality rate for road accidents to decrease drastically. The list of public policies that are the result of the work of charitable organizations is long. Do we really want to silence these groups?

Do we really want to say to food banks, "Feed the poor, but, most importantly, don't tell us what we could be doing to reduce poverty"?

If Equiterre loses the right to issue receipts for tax purposes when a citizen makes a donation, it may make our funding more difficult, but we will never stop denouncing projects and policies that jeopardize our children's future, starting with their freedom of expression.

Sidney Ribaux is cofounder and executive director of Equiterre.