“Regressive, insensitive, insulting” – ugly tactics re-emerge

publication date: May 28, 2012
author/source: Janet Gadeski

When an alliance of Richmond, BC social service agencies called for the area's first shelter for abused women and their children in 1975, Minister of Human Resources Bill Vander Zalm accused them of being "anti-family."

As the founding ED of the Richmond Youth Service Agency, Patrick Johnston engaged in that campaign. At the time, he found VanderZalm's attitude "regressive, insensitive to community priorities and personally insulting."

 After decades in the sector, leading a range of organizations that included the former Canadian Centre for Philanthropy, the Canadian Council on Social Development and the National Anti-Poverty Association, he didn't expect to encounter such vitriol again.

But in 2012, when he read the federal government's budget speech and heard accusations of money laundering thrown at dissenting charities, he thought, "We're going right back to where I began my career."

1980s Conservatives engaged respectfully

It's almost inconceivable to think of a time when charities' place at the public policy table wasn't protected in law. But it wasn't that long ago - 1985 to be exact - that Canada's Income Tax Act (ITA) was amended to enable charities to undertake political activity within certain boundaries. Johnston played what he modestly calls "a minor, supportive part" in bringing those changes about.

As he recalls in an interview with Canadian Fundraising & Philanthropy, the issue wasn't controversial at the time.  "Most people didn't notice," he explains. "Ministers were very open to engaging people in the sector." He commends Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's respectful engagement with the nonprofit sector on a host of issues: income security, poverty, health, international development and acid rain.

When the ITA amendments were introduced, it became clear that political activity was permissible. A charity could devote a maximum of 10% of its assets to nonpartisan political activities related to its purpose.

Supreme Court confirmed rights

Though the amendments clarified the financial boundary, behavioral guidelines weren't so clear-cut. "Was leading a demonstration on Parliament Hill, as many of us did, over the line?" he asks. "We simply didn't know."

The Canada Revenue Agency perceived some charities as being too political under its amended rules. Several court cases resulted. Finally in 1998, the Supreme Court said that political activities and advocacy that are ancillary to an organization's charitable purpose are themselves charitable activities.

"That put to rest any lingering doubts about the legitimacy of charities' political activity," Johnston states.

Decades of progress lost

From the early 80s until recently, he explains, he saw a gradual progression in the understanding and acceptance of policy advocacy by charities.

"We were on a two-decade trajectory of development, refinement and clarity regarding permissible activities and CRA's interpretation of the law," he recollects. "There were concrete examples in policy case studies. That's why, when I saw the budget and the actions it proposed, and heard the accusations by [Natural Resources Minister] Joe Oliver, I thought, ‘this is going to move us backwards.' They haven't changed the 10% rule, but it sent a shot across the bow: any charities that are thinking about political advocacy would be less likely to undertake it because of legal concerns."

In Johnston's view, the freeze has already extended beyond environmental charities. "Kairos [an ecumenical NGO focused on international aid] lost its funding in large part, I believe, because they raised difficult questions about the role of Canadian mining companies in South America while the Harper government was trying to develop trade agreements with those countries. There's no other explanation. The Canadian Council on International Cooperation also lost all their funding."

And we don't know what issue will be next. "It's not so far-fetched to suggest that organizations providing women's services could see similar criticism and cutbacks. The chill could be much broader."

Tide of public opinion turning

But he's convinced there's hope, a turning of the tide, in the media's coverage of the unsupported allegations levelled against Tides Canada. More questions are being raised about the appropriateness of the government's accusations and the measures in the budget; more columnists are standing up for the vital place of charities' expertise and advocacy in a civil, democratic society.

"Kent's allegations are so bizarre that he may have done us a favour by being so outlandish in media," he asserts. "I think it was orchestrated. The comments and the Senate hearing are no coincidence."

But Johnston's convinced they don't want to continue being accused of a witch hunt. He foresees that people like Joe Oliver, Nicole Eaton and Peter Kent will be told to tone down their attacks.

Nevertheless, he'd like to see organizations like the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Philanthropic Foundations Canada and Community Foundations of Canada stand with Imagine Canada to play a visible, outspoken role on behalf of Canada's charities.

"They would amplify the critique," he believes.

That amplification is vital to the health of our civil society.

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