Accusations outweigh evidence in attacks against Tides Canada

publication date: May 25, 2012
author/source: Janet Gadeski

Foreign-funded. Radical. Money laundering. With language like that filling media reports and commentaries every day, you'd think Tides Canada CEO Ross McMillan would have a pile of journalist's calls to return. But those calls don't always come when they should, according to his mid-month conversation with Hilborn eNEWS.Janet Gadeski photo

Globe and Mail reporter Gary Mason published a column on May 10 repeating the assertions of blogger Vivian Krause that Tides Canada funneled charitable gifts to Vision Vancouver, an organization that backed the re-election campaign of Mayor Gregor Robertson and an ineligible donee.

"Mr. Mason never bothered to pick up the phone," McMillan emphasizes. "We have never, directly or indirectly, through intermediaries or obscure means, provided any support of any kind to any political party, campaign or candidate for office."

To many in the nonprofit sector and beyond, the tactics look like a smear campaign fuelled by the accusations of highly-placed Conservatives including Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, Environment Minister Peter Kent and Senators Nicole Eaton and Percy Mockler.

He and other Tides Canada representatives have been asked several times, though, to account for the CRA audit.

"I will never know where this audit came from," he muses. "There's certainly a narrative of some interests and companies concerned about our funding of environmental charities. It's possible that it [the audit] is complaint-driven. It's also possible that it's simply a follow-up on a few points of guidance we received in the first audit, connected with the way our grant recipients describe our work on their websites."

Environmental grants modest in light of overall funding

The amount of Tides Canada funding devoted to oil sands issues does seem to be out of proportion to the rhetoric it's generated. Last year, the foundation granted just over $600,000 to organizations focused on the environmental impact of the oil sands projects and related pipelines, a modest 3% of its total grant outlay.

"I get really frustrated by assertions that we grant ‘massive amounts' of funds to these kinds of initiatives," McMillan explains. "When we have discretionary control over the use of the funds, we focus on working with governments and a number of the corporations now active in the oil sands to find solutions."

McMillan maintains that any non-Canadian funds coming into the foundation are properly tracked, identified according to CRA regulations and granted to charities who themselves comply with CRA-enforced boundaries on charities' political activities.

Speak out even more, McMillan urges

It's possible that many people, including some journalists and politicians, aren't familiar with the distinction between political partisanship (which is forbidden to charities), political activity (which is allowed so long as it's relevant to a charity's core purpose and uses no more than 10% of its budget), and other forms of advocacy related to the charity's objectives (which are not limited by CRA).

The issue is much bigger than Tides Canada, McMillan believes. "This is about silencing critics of the government and moving the pipeline forward." Yet he's convinced the attention is shedding some unexpected light.

"People and the media are raising questions about the role of charities," he notes when asked about the broader implications of the controversy. "Just in the past few days, I've begun to feel good about the media coverage on broader issues related to charities."

He sees that as a healthy process, one that could make the public more aware of charities' right to speak out on policy issues, and the significant contributions they've made to such discussions in the past.

"Don't back down. Don't be cowed," he advises, addressing other charities contemplating advocacy. "It's a great opportunity for the sector to become better educated on allowable political activity, on doing more advocacy where it's germane to your charitable purposes."

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