Environmental Charities Threatened by Government

Ted Hsu
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The Harper government is again showing that it will let nothing — including Canada’s democratic traditions — stand in the way of its headlong pursuit of an economy based on fossil fuel extraction with little regard for sustainability. Some of our most respected environmental charities are being rigorously audited by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), which is threatening their tax status as charities.

CBC News, which first reported the details on Feb. 6, said the list of seven groups being audited “reads like a who’s who in the environmental charity world.” They are The David Suzuki Foundation, Tides Canada, West Coast Environmental Law, The Pembina Foundation, Environmental Defence, Equiterre, and Ecology Action Centre.

oil sands

 The CRA, CBC reported, is examining the political work of these organizations. Charities are allowed to devote 10 percent of their resources for political activity or advocacy, as long as it’s not partisan. If auditors find that a group exceeds this limit, the CRA can revoke its charitable status. This could threaten a charity’s very existence.

The catch is that the CRA seems to be changing the definition of partisan activity. As CBC said, the ban on partisan activity “has been interpreted for years to mean that a group can oppose a government policy but cannot back a specific candidate in an election.” In other words, a charity could criticize development of the Alberta oil sands — which in fact is probably what led to complaints from pro-oilsands groups like Ethical Oil, which then may have triggered audits — but it could not support a political party or candidate.

Inside Climate News reported last week that Environmental Defence has received the results of its CRA audit. “They told us that basically everything we do is no longer charitable,” the head of Environmental Defence, which filed an appeal, told the publication. On the other hand, Ecology Action Centre says on its website that its audit is finished and successful; its charitable status will continue.

There is little doubt about what caused the CRA to undertake its aggressive political audits and apparently change the long-held rules. In its 2012 budget, the Harper government allocated $8 million for special audits of the political activity of charitable organizations.

The threat to these environmental organizations is a threat to all Canadians. As Gillian McEachern of Environmental Defence recently stated:

“For decades, environmental charities have given voice to concerns of Canadians who want a clean and safe environment. Reversing the depletion of the ozone layer, curbing the acid rain crisis, shutting down harmful coal plants in Ontario, protecting national gems like the Great Bear Rainforest and Nahanni River, and removing BPA from baby bottles – all these and more were a result of the efforts of environmental charities and the thousands of Canadians that support them.”

Even if the charities are allowed to keep their status, these audits require vast amounts of time and money to explain and defend their procedures. The audits also distract the groups from their missions, and can have a chilling effect on their activities.

Rather than respect science, debate and the give-and-take of a democracy, the Harper government continues its efforts to subdue any source that challenges its headlong pursuit of fossil fuel development with little regard for sustainability. It has prevented government scientists from speaking publicly about environmental matters, and cut funding for environmental research. It has closed environmental research labs and gutted scores of laws that protected the environment. It has eliminated environmental assessments of many types of projects, and severely restricted the assessment process of others.

Both our environment and our democracy have suffered under this Conservative government.