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
accused them of being "anti-family."
As the founding ED of the Richmond Youth Service Agency
engaged in that campaign. At the time, he found VanderZalm's
attitude "regressive, insensitive to community priorities and personally
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
, 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."
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 &
, 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
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.
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
The Canada Revenue
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
From the early 80s until recently, he explains, he saw a
gradual progression in the understanding and acceptance of policy advocacy by
"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
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
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
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
Community Foundations of Canada
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