Omidvar: The diversity deficit in the boardrooms of Canada’s charities

Good op-ed and practical recommendations by Senator Omidvar:

As we celebrate Black History Month, we continue to hear loud calls for more diversity in newsrooms across the country, in corporations, and in Parliament. Canadians have correctly pointed out a diversity gap in all those power structures.

But the diversity deficit doesn’t end there; it’s also in the boardrooms of charities and non-profits. It’s always been an open secret that, despite the amazing work it does to help Canadians from all backgrounds, the sector’s leadership wasn’t that diverse.

In June last year, I issued an open letter challenging charities and non-profits to take a hard look at themselves, and ask what they could do to increase diversity in the sector. Many heard my call and wanted to do more. The first step was getting data.

After learning about my challenge, Statistics Canada, along with sector leaders, designed a survey to provide the first-ever snapshot of diversity in governance. The recently released survey found that, outside of gender, the boards of charities were not yet inclusive of Indigenous peoples, racial minorities, LGBTQ2+, and the disabled.

From Dec. 4, 2020, to Jan. 18, 2021, 8,835 people completed the survey. Among them, 14 per cent identified as immigrants to Canada; 11 per cent said they belonged to a visible-minority group; eight per cent identified as LGBTQ2+; six per cent said they had a disability; and three per cent identified as First Nations, Metis, or Inuit.

Readers may well ask: Why does it matter who sits on the boards, as long as people receive their services? It matters, because the boards of charities set the course, decide on priorities, determine how money gets allocated and spent, and approve institutional policies ranging from hiring to procurement, from harassment to promotions.

Charities are not an insignificant part of our society. More than 85,000 charities and 85,000 non-profits are registered in Canada. Before the pandemic, they employed close to two millions Canadians and contributed eight per cent to the GDP. What they do and how they do it matters.

Now there’s some hard evidence to stand on, we have a clear way forward. Both the government and the sector must respond.

The government must collect diversity data every year. The StatCan survey is a start, but no further studies have been planned. For the sake of certainty, the Canada Revenue Agency should include questions about diversity on boards of directors on the T3010 and the T1044 tax forms.

This way, the data could be fulsome, disaggregated, and provide an accurate picture of diversity in the sector every year. Based on clear, ongoing evidence, the country and the sector could see if progress is being made.

The government should also compel the sector to disclose its diversity plans, as it did with corporations under Bill C-25. Only 30 per cent of the survey participants said their organization had a diversity plan. That is unacceptable, and the government should require that this information be made public.

I’m encouraged that the sector responded to the survey by saying, “(These data are) an important opportunity for us to look critically at who is at the table and who has decision-making power in our organizations.” Now that the evidence is clear, it needs to take concrete action.

First, charities and non-profits must proactively create diversity plans and publish them for their members and Canadians to see; they mustn’t wait for the government to compel them. Second, the plans should include diversity targets to increase the representation of under-represented groups on boards and in senior management. Last, they should convene a sector-wide conversation about race, racism, and diversity.

If we’re truly determined to stamp out racism, we need all sectors to step up to the plate. Charities and non-profits do so much good for Canadians. Now is the time for them to look inward, be intentional, and truly reflect the diversity of Canada.

Source: The diversity deficit in the boardrooms of Canada’s charities

Diversity of Charity and Non-profit Boards: Statistics Canada Survey

This is a significant and needed survey that Senator Omidvar is championing with Statistics Canada, as she notes below:

I’ve been working closely with Statistics Canada and sector leaders on this important initiative and I am really excited that this will be the first-ever national snapshot of board diversity in the charitable sector. It’s crucial to collect and track this data in order for charities and non-profits to take an intentional approach towards increasing diversity on their boards so that they reflect the diversity of Canada.

Better data helps identify under-representation and opportunities to ensure that charities and non-profit organizations better reflect the communities they serve and I urge those of you on boards to take the time and submit the questionnaire.

A Message from Statistics Canada
The objective of this crowdsourcing initiative is to understand who serves on the boards of charity and non-profit organizations. In addition to collecting information about the diversity of board members, we explore topics such as what organizations do, who they serve, and where they are located. This information will help charities and non-profits better understand how their board compares to those of similar organizations.
Your participation is important: Your voice matters 
We want to hear from you, whether you sit on a board of directors or are involved in the governance of charities or non-profits. Please take a few minutes to complete the questionnaire and feel free to forward this email to your peers—the more people participate, the better the data.
Participating is easy and secure 
Click this link to participate:
This data collection is conducted under the authority of the Statistics Act, which ensures that the information you provide will be kept confidential, and used only for statistical and research purposes.
For general enquiries and technical assistance 
Contact us Monday to Friday (except holidays), from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. (Eastern Time):1-877-949-9492 (TTY: 1-800-363-7629*)*If you use an operator-assisted relay service, you can call us during regular business hours. You do not need to authorize the operator to contact us.
For more information about the data collection visit:

Paradkar: Voluntourism by charities like WE is based on faulty ideals of feel-good white saviourism

Good commentary:

“People have gotten used to looking at Africans as objects.”

Education advocate Chizoba Imoka had just finished delivering the Hancock Lecture at the University of Toronto two years ago when she crystallized a certain rage that anyone who seeks to decolonize structures will identify with. “What gives people the confidence to think, you know, you have four weeks off and you’re just going to travel to Africa to save Africa?”

The “saving Africa” kind of volunteering occupies a hefty presence on the Canadian imagination. “Raised funds for Africa” wins praise and opens opportunities for students. “Volunteered in Africa” is a resumé builder for professionals. “But they went to Africa!” is evidence of progressiveness, a stalwart defence against accusations of racism.

“Voluntourism” is a topic that deserves scrutiny during a time when the WE Charity and its tentacular affiliates are in the news for all the wrong reasons including allegations of: messy internal finances; complex relationships among its many arms that even confuse its own staff; a non-transparent speaker system; aggressive run-ins with media; and a relationship with the prime minister that has embroiled him in another ethics scandal.

All of this comes under the umbrella of feel-good white saviourism.

This is not to say charities in general are useless; those that support grassroots organizations can make a difference. But jumping up to save others is pointless if it is primarily self-serving.

Me to We’s volunteer travel site is startlingly honest in that it does not couch the western self-centredness of its mission. “Experience a new culture.” “Get ready for a world-changing adventure.” “An unforgettable team-building experience.” “A truly one-of-a-kind family vacation.”

“It’s never really been about us,” Imoka, who keeps one foot in Nigeria and the other in Canada, told me Wednesday from Edmonton. “It’s always been about the people in the West and what their desires are and what their resumés need to look like and the pictures they need to put up on Instagram.”

The idea of westerners flying in for a couple of weeks to fix another country (while taking a once-in-a-lifetime holiday!) is breathtakingly colonial. Would we welcome planeloads of African kids coming to ogle at our lifestyles and save Canadians? White saviourism means only other people need saving, whether they be on their own lands in other continents or forced on to reserves here. It reproduces relationships premised on white supremacy.

“Getting young people to think about the world beyond themselves, that’s a noble idea,” Imoka said, but “the young white people willing to save us still think we’re the way we are because … there is something deficit about us. So we take the surpluses in the West to go fix the deficits in the Global South.”

This shouldn’t require saying but the world doesn’t actually exist in a western vision of it. People in once-rich nations don’t become poor because they suddenly got lazy or just forgot to educate themselves and keep pace with the times.

“It would be much different if you teach them about the history of the world from an anti-colonial perspective,” Imoka said. “They don’t have wells, let’s go build wells — but why don’t they have wells? What has made it impossible for kids in that community not to do so? That critical thinking that takes a lot of work.”

That critical thinking would make clear that what needs to change is not necessarily in Africa — often perceived as a monolith rather than a varied continent — but global policies here, in the West, in Canada.

Got four weeks off and want to help? Go read up on history. As Imoka had said two years ago, “Take the Canadian foreign policy as your case study to understand how the Canadian foreign policy continues to enable colonization.” Maybe write to your member of Parliament. Fight where the Africans cannot — here, in the West.

Imoka was a teenager, too, when she started Unveiling Africa Foundation, which earlier this month launched a seven-weekend African-centred history program to develop young leaders. “It takes a lot of work to be able to ask foundational questions and takes much, much more work to bring it down to teenagers’ level. It’s difficult to get Instagram pictures for that. It’s not pretty work. It’s thankless work.”

Meanwhile people are still dying, and perhaps charities need to supplement policy work with donations. Unless people are emotionally moved, they don’t part with their money. Charities push the direst situations under our noses to snap us out of our daily pillar-to-post rush. To make us feel good about giving.

But saving Africa, on whose pillaging we’ve based our comfort, isn’t about feeling good. It’s about getting to real solutions. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about supporting those doing the hard work of decolonizing in their areas of specialty.

“It takes a lot of talking and learning and planning,” Imoka said. “You need to know the people on the ground that are getting their hands dirty, working to challenge structures, working to hold their political leaders accountable.”

Solidarity could also mean holding our own leaders accountable.


Open Letter to Directors, Executive Senator Omidvar: Directors, and CEOs of Canadian Charities and Non-Profits

A pointed reminder that charities and non-profits have work to do to improve their board diversity by Senator Omidvar, starting with better data and voluntary disclosure. Any initiative by the big players should report on the four employment equity groups and ideally be synchronized on a fiscal or calendar year basis to facilitate comparisons:

Dear colleagues,

First, let me thank you for the work that you, your staff, and volunteers have done to keep Canadians safe during the pandemic.  Your heroic efforts have not gone unnoticed or unappreciated. I also know that Canadians will rely on you to help them stride slowly, yet confidently, into the recovery stage of this crisis.

But our country also needs to wake up to another crisis. The scourge of racism holds back prospects for security, safety, and opportunity for all its victims. But it has a particularly malignant effect on Black Canadians and Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Canadians recognize this; they have taken to the streets with vociferous demands to address it. Governments, corporations, the media, and other institutions are all taking a hard look at themselves to ask the question: what have we done to recognize and address all kinds of racism?

But what about charities and non-profits?

In June 2019, the Senate Charities Committee tabled its final report. Buried in the 42 recommendations is one that deserves re-examination given the context of the day. In the report we took note of the size, scope, and influence of the sector. We noted that it touches all aspects of our lives, from religion to sports, from seniors to young people. It also wields sizeable heft in other aspects: it contributes 8% to the GDP and employs close to two million Canadians. But what about its diversity?

Sadly, the absence of data gets in the way of answering these questions with any real reliability.  An e-consultation conducted in connection to the Senate study, although not statistically significant, found that more than half of the organizations which responded to the survey did not collect data on diversity of employees or directors.

Further, studies by academic institutions like the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University paint a picture of a sector that may talk the talk but appears to be unwilling to walk the walk. The evidence that is available is not encouraging. Racialized minorities made up 54% of the Greater Toronto Area’s total population in 2017. However, their representation in leadership roles in the voluntary sector falls short. Only 38% of boards analyzed had at least 20% racialized minority leaders, and 19% had none. Equally notable, 38% of senior management teams had at least 20% racialized minority representation, while 52% had none.

The Senate recommended a reasonable start to get data on diversity in the charitable sector. It recommended that the CRA include questions on both the T1044 and the T3010 forms on diversity representation on boards of directors as per the existing employment equity definitions.

In this way, the data could be aggregated to present a picture of diversity in the sector on an annual basis. Based on clear evidence, the country and the sector could see if progress is being made, how and where.

Since the Senate tabled the report, events have overtaken it. Parliament has not met on a regular basis and the Senate Charities report has not yet been debated or approved. However, the need to ensure that leaders reflect the diversity of our country’s population has heightened. The sector does not have the time to wait for the report’s recommendations to be implemented. It must take action now. That action is now in the hands of its leaders.

Each charity or non-profit can undertake such a review voluntarily on an annual basis. More importantly, large sector membership-based organizations, like Imagine Canada, Community Foundations of Canada, the Ontario Nonprofit Network, and the Philanthropic Foundations of Canada can request that their members disclose this data on a voluntary basis. Given that the membership of these organizations is large, it would create a significant evidence base from which to draw conclusions. Collected annually, it would give impetus to provide a national picture of diversity in the sector. Because the sector would be in the driver’s seat, it could choose to disaggregate the data to further understand issues of race and intersectionality. Most importantly, evidence could lead to action: the opportunity to compare successes and challenges and share best practices. All without legislation.

The sector could go one step further. It could make disclosure of such information a criterion for all members, thus making it mandatory within their associations. This would send a powerful signal of leadership to the rest of Canada.

Charities and non-profits are often frustrated and hamstrung by the federal government in their efforts to achieve their missions. The sector has urged the government to take it more seriously, as it should. Yet, here is an opportunity to state exactly how serious the charitable sector is on a matter of national urgency. It is time for the sector to lead, to show the way for others, so that others may follow.

I am calling on the sector to take up this call and be a leader and a champion for diversity and inclusion. In the fight against racism, this is not the only step. But it is the first that will bring evidence-based reflections and changes.

I have often been asked if the sector is ready for this change. My observations to date are summed up as follows: the sector’s spirit is willing, but its flesh is weak.

I sincerely hope that you will prove me wrong.


The Honourable Ratna Omidvar, C.M., O.Ont.

Independent Senator for Ontario

Senate of Canada


Political activity audits of charities suspended by Liberals

A significant roll-back of the previous government’s approach:

The Liberal government is suspending the few remaining political activity audits of charities after an expert panel report recommended removing a political gag order imposed on them by the Conservatives five years ago.

As an immediate first step to respond to the panel’s recommendations, National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier “has asked the CRA to suspend all action in relation to the remaining audits and objections that were part of the Political Activities Audit Program, initiated in 2012,” a release Thursday said.

The panel report, also released Thursday, and the suspension together appear to end a long chill for charities that began in 2012, when the Conservative government launched 60 political activity audits, starting with environmental groups that had criticized federal energy and pipeline policies.

A spokesperson for the minister, Chloe Luciani-Girouard, said Thursday’s suspension affects 12 audits, of which seven have resulted in an intention to revoke charitable status.

The program cost environmental, anti-poverty, human-rights and religious charities significant staff resources and legal fees, and brought an “advocacy chill” to the sector, with many groups self-censoring lest they be caught in the Canada Revenue Agency’s net or annoy their auditors.

The Liberal Party campaigned in the 2015 election to end the “political harassment” of charities, but once elected did not quite end the program. Instead, the new government cancelled six of the political activity audits that were yet to be launched, but allowed audits already underway to continue.

That left groups such as Environmental Defence and Canada Without Poverty, which were deemed too political by CRA, still under immediate threat of losing their charitable status. Thursday’s announcement lifts that threat, at least until the government responds to the panel recommendations.

The five-member panel, chaired by Marlene Deboisbriand on the board of Imagine Canada, says Canada’s charity law and regulations are too restrictive and vague. It calls for changes to the Income Tax Act to delete any reference to “political activities” with regard to charities.

Would change enforcement

The change would be “to explicitly allow charities to fully engage, without limitation, in non-partisan public policy dialogue and development, provided that it is subordinate to and furthers their charitable purposes.” The CRA would also dramatically change its enforcement activities.

The panel report, based on wide consultations last fall, also said there was broad consensus in the charity sector that partisan activities — endorsing particular candidates or parties — should remain forbidden.

The panel recommended that a charity’s political activities, whether pressing for a change in government policy or buttonholing a politician, be judged on whether they further the group’s charitable purpose.

The proposed changes would eliminate current rules that restrict a charity’s political activities to 10 per cent of their resources. Critics have argued the rules are unclear on definitions of what constitutes a political act.

Source: Political activity audits of charities suspended by Liberals – Politics – CBC News

Charities push back against Liberals on political audits

Interesting given that the mandate letter of National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier includes the following commitment:

Allow charities to do their work on behalf of Canadians free from political harassment, and modernize the rules governing the charitable and not-for-profit sectors, working with the Minister of Finance.  This will include clarifying the rules governing “political activity,” with an understanding that charities make an important contribution to public debate and public policy.  A new legislative framework to strengthen the sector will emerge from this process. –

Apparently, this will only be on a go-forward basis:

Some Canadian charities are reviving a campaign to get tax auditors off their backs after the Liberal government delivered what the charities say is a half-measure in ending “political harassment,” a promise from the 2015 election campaign.

At least 14 charities, including the Sierra Club Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund, launched a letter-writing campaign and petition this week calling on the Liberal government to stop all political-activity audits started by the Harper Conservatives in 2012.

“Charities under audit for political activities from the previous government are still under audit,” says a statement on a website, created by a charities coalition last year.

“These audits need to end immediately. Reform of the rules that allowed these audits must begin.”

Some 54 charities were caught by CRA’s political-activities audits, and five were given notice they would lose their charitable registrations, meaning they could not offer tax receipts to donors.

Critics have said the rules restricting political activities are unclear, and that the audits effectively gagged some groups, a phenomenon dubbed “advocacy chill.”

Optimism dampened

The charities sector had been heartened by the Liberals’ platform, which promised to “allow charities to do their work on behalf of Canadians free from political harassment.”

But the optimism was soon dampened. On Jan. 20, National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier said 24 political-activity audits currently underway will continue their course, and the five groups under notice of deregistration will not be spared, though they can appeal.

The only change was that auditors would be stood down in six cases of charities scheduled for political-activity audits that had not yet begun, and the $13.4-million program would eventually be wound up.

Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, which is facing deregistration, said in an interview: “Let’s recognize what actually happened with the previous government and put an end to this.

“We are trying to escalate the importance of action on this issue. So we’re going to relaunch and encourage people to contact the minister and the prime minister to get them to act on their commitments.”

Source: Charities push back against Liberals on political audits – Politics – CBC News

Political-activity audits of charities being wound down by Liberal government

Expected and welcome:

The Liberal government is winding down the political-activity audits of charities that were begun by the Harper government — but there’s no amnesty being offered to the two dozen charities already caught in the program.

Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier announced the reversal today, saying results so far indicate that charities have largely been following the rules restricting political activities.

“The results of the political-activities audit program have shown that the charities audited have been substantially compliant with the rules regarding their involvement in political activities,” she said in a release.

“In light of these outcomes, the program will be concluded.”

The controversial program was launched with fanfare in the 2012 Conservative budget, with funding that grew to $13.4 million and was supposed to ensnare 60 charities over five years. The program was launched as two Conservative cabinet ministers, Joe Oliver and Peter Kent, vilified environmental charities for interfering in the government’s pipeline and energy policies.

The first wave of audits hit environmental groups but later waves expanded to include poverty, human-rights and international-development charities. Critics said the audits not only were costly for poorly funded groups to defend themselves, but created an “advocacy chill” as some charities self-censored to appease auditors.

Violations not generally political

Lebouthillier said only five of the charities caught by the program were notified they would lose their charitable status — but said their violations of charity rules generally didn’t result from their political activities but from other violations the auditors discovered.

The Canada Revenue Agency never released the names of all the targeted charities, though many came forward to identify their troubles in the news media.

The announcement Wednesday is good news for six unidentified charities who had been targeted for audits that had not yet begun. But the 24 charities still in the throes of unfinished political-activity audits will continue to be scrutinized until the auditors’ work is finished.

The minister said in making that decision she was respecting the arm’s-length relationship between her office and the Charity Directorate.

“The independence of the Charity Directorate’s oversight role for charities is a fundamental principle that must be protected,” she said in a release.

“The minister of national revenue does not and will not play a role in the selection of charity audits or in the decisions relating to the outcomes of those audits.”

Source: Political-activity audits of charities being wound down by Liberal government – Politics – CBC News

Critics say Fraser Institute letter highlights ‘enormous lack of clarity’ in charity-audit rules | Toronto Star

How the Fraser Institute can maintain this kind of letter by former Ontario Premier Harris is non-partisan defies credibility and common sense:

A fundraising letter written by Fraser Institute senior fellow and former premier Mike Harris criticizing the Ontario government highlights a double standard in the way the Canada Revenue Agency audits charities, critics charge.

The letter takes swipes at the province for lacking a “credible plan” to balance the provincial budget within two years, and goes on to criticize Ontario’s debt and the province’s unemployment rate.

“As my fellow Ontarian you must be outraged — that is why I am writing to you today to help us educate Ontarians about the severity of Ontario’s problems and the potential solutions,” Harris writes.

The letter asks the reader to “join in the pursuit of policies that will re-establish Ontario as the envy of Canada” by financially supporting the Fraser Institute’s new research program.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and her Liberal government aren’t mentioned in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Star.

The letter is drawing criticism because while charities are permitted to engage in political activities as long as they don’t spend more than 10 per cent of their funds doing so, the Fraser Institute claims the Harris letter isn’t political, and that the group doesn’t engage in any political activities.

Critics argue the letter cuts to the heart of the problem they see in the way the Canada Revenue Agency audits charities.

“This is a great example of the enormous lack of clarity in the rules governing charities and inconsistency in the application by the CRA of those rules,” says NDP MP Murray Rankin, his party’s Canada Revenue critic.

“I just want a level playing field where other charities that may not be aligned with the Conservative government are subject to the same rules,” he said, adding the CRA’s rules are “all over the place.’’

Since Jan. 1, 2012, the CRA’s Charities Directorate has completed roughly 2,000 audits of charities through its regular audit program, and identified more than 50 charities for “political activities” audits.

The government budgets $13 million a year for these political “super audits,” as some people refer to them.

Critics charge that charities espousing views that run counter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government — including some environmental groups — have been unfairly and disproportionately targeted for the political activity audits.

Charities that have been subjected to these audits say having to pull together the paperwork for the inspections is a daunting process. Several groups have voiced concerns the audits are intended to silence them.

The president of the Fraser Institute, a right-leaning think-tank and registered charity, says “in no way” is the Harris letter political.

“It’s written by a long time senior fellow of the Fraser Institute, Mike Harris. All of the data in the letter is based on Fraser Institute research,” says president Niels Veldhuis, who adds that his organization is non-partisan.

Veldhuis says his organization has been audited by the CRA three times — the last time being in the late 1990s.

Groups that have been audited since 2012, however, say it’s a stretch to say there’s nothing political about Harris’ fundraising letter.

“We would not have it signed by an ex-politician especially with that level of profile as a Conservative politician,” says Bruce Campbell, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a non-partisan research body devoted to social, economic and environmental justice issues.

In order to address the critics, the Government needs to be more transparent on the criteria used and needs a few high profile examples of right-leaning organizations that are being audited.

Given the last time the Fraser Institute was audited was in the late 1990s, perhaps it could volunteer for an audit?

Critics say Fraser Institute letter highlights ‘enormous lack of clarity’ in charity-audit rules | Toronto Star.

To suggest Ottawa targets charities violates a vital public trust – Griffiths’ Apologetics

Griffiths might have a case if the Government and CRA were transparent about the audits underway and the charities targeted. But without even acknowledging this lack of transparency on the Government’s part, his defence has no credibility and ironically mirrors those who only see a conspiracy by not seeing any cause for concern.

It is the Government’s rhetoric and handling of the audits that has damaged the public trust. Groups are simply exercising their democratic rights in raising legitimate concerns regarding the apparent selective choice of charities for audit. Sad:

Yet this we all know: some charities spend far more than 10 per cent of their revenues on political activities and do so flagrantly. This abuse of the public trust by a small group of charities is what Revenue Canada’s “political” audits is cracking down on, and rightly so. The assertion that groups with a “left,” or for that matter, a “right” political orientation are being disproportionally singled out by the Charities Directorate is nonsense. What Revenue Canada is doing is focusing its audits on charities that publicly engage in advocacy (on their websites, in publications, through events, etc.) to determine if they are violating the 10 per cent cap and/or are involved in prohibited activities. Don’t just take my word on it. The director-general of the Charities Directorate, a career public servant, has gone on the record to rule out ideological biases in the audit process: “We are not targeting charities that have particular political leanings.”

And now we get to the deeply damaging part of this debate. The inference, repeated over and over in the media, that Revenue Canada officials are following the political direction of Stephen Harper’s cabinet, right down to the specific charities being selected for “political” audits. Such a contention is oblivious to how the federal civil service actually operates vis-à-vis its political masters.

As is the case thousands of times every day across the government, public servants in the Charities Directorate are setting about interpreting and acting on how best to bring about a specific policy outcome set out by Parliament. In this instance, nothing more and nothing less than ensuring that political activities by the charitable sector are in line with the current law and policy. To obviate the public’s trust in this basic process of governance – especially on the part of a department whose work is as sensitive as Revenue Canada’s – through wild speculation is the height of civic irresponsibility. If there are facts to back up the allegation that Revenue Canada is being partisan or ideological in its auditing of charities then we do indeed have a serious problem; one worthy of a vigorous national debate. But absent such a bombshell we are harming the public’s legitimate belief in the independence and competency of the federal civil service.

The debate we should be having is how charities could be more active participants in public policy discussion and formation. Should we be raising the 10 per cent cap on political activities? Can “think tanks” by virtue of what they do be charities? Are the legal definitions of what is or is not a legitimate charitable purpose too prescriptive for 21st-century Canada? All important questions, the answers to which will most certainly not be found in more conspiratorial parsing of Revenue Canada’s audit of political activities in the charitable sector.

To suggest Ottawa targets charities violates a vital public trust – The Globe and Mail.

Silence of the charities – Renzetti

Elizabeth Renzetti on what appears to be selective criteria in CRA charity audits:

If you look at the 52 groups that have been targeted for audits since the Harper government’s 2012 crackdown on political activity by charities, it’s not hard to see what joins them: advocacy of causes that the Conservative government thinks are, by its own admission, “radical.” I don’t actually know the full list, because it’s not been revealed, but last year the CBC revealed the names of seven environmental charities, including the David Suzuki Foundation and Tides Canada. The free-speech group PEN Canada and human-rights advocates Amnesty International were also targeted. Some 400 academics signed a letter denouncing the audit into the political activities of the progressive think tank Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The CRA swears up and down that there is no political motivation to the audits, but how is the public to know? The agency doesn’t reveal who is the target of its audits, nor how they’re prepared. Charities live in fear of catching the eye of Sauron.

“Among environmental groups right now there’s a broad reluctance to speak out,” says Calvin Sandborn, director of the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre. “It’s kind of like in Nixon’s America where you didn’t want to be the enemy that he’d sic the IRS on.”

The law students working with Prof. Sandborn recently released a report on the troubling legal underpinnings of the current audit system, and its need for reform. (Mr. Harper’s government may not have been the first to target charities, but it was certainly one of the more vehement, setting aside $13.4-million for audits shortly after adding “environmentalists” to the roster of threats Canada faces.)

Canada’s charities are hobbled in a bunch of ways, the report found. The CRA’s rules around what constitutes “political activity” are murky and confusing; there is little transparency about how those rules are applied; charities subject to audit often have to spend precious resources putting together documents for auditors and providing legal training for staff; and most important, many charities are self-censoring for fear of breaching the 10 per cent rule and facing shutdown by the CRA.

Although the report does not come to any conclusions about whether the current spate of audits are politically motivated, it does find the threat alone has a sinister chilling effect: “The important thing is that the audits themselves – and the mere perception that they may be targeted – are clearly silencing charities that have much to offer society.”

Other countries around the world don’t hobble the political advocacy of their charities the way Canada does. In some countries, like the Netherlands, lobbying by charities is encouraged. In others, like England, the body that oversees charities is an independent entity at arm’s length from government (in Canada, the CRA falls under the remit of the Minister of Revenue.) In the U.S., charities that spend too much on political activities (already set at a far more generous level than here) are taxed rather than shut down.

Silence of the charities – The Globe and Mail.