It’s not every day that the editorial boards of the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail agree. But that’s exactly what happened this week when the Toronto Star published an editorial calling for an end to politically motivated audits of charities. This echoed a recent Globe and Mail editorial calling for the same thing: “Ottawa should drop the audits and modernize its outdated laws. Free speech should apply to all.”

modernize charity laws to protect free speech

Environmental Defence follows the law and has always done so. Since our launch in 1984, routine federal government audits have confirmed it. But five years ago, an audit occurred that was not business as usual. This time it didn’t matter that we followed the law or that we’d been informed verbally that the audit was fine and we’d receive a written letter confirming the audit’s completion – what mattered was that the former federal government disagreed with our position on environmental issues and tried to use tax law to silence us and the Canadians whose voices we represent.

Despite the former federal government’s efforts, Environmental Defence is not at imminent risk of shutting down. Just as we have over the past five years, we continue to work to resolve this issue with the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) and we have reason to be optimistic that we will be successful. However, we’ve had to spend a great deal of time, energy and legal and staff resources fighting for the right to continue to do what we’ve always done – educate and inspire Canadians about the need to reduce pollution to our environment and protect Canadians’ health.

Back in 2012, when the politically motivated audits were launched, ministers of the former federal government made outlandish public attacks on environmental charities, claiming we were “foreign funded special interest groups” and had a “radical ideological agenda” and insinuated ties to terrorist organizations. In total, over 50 organizations were targeted by the politically motivated audit program.

As the Toronto Star notes, “as many critics, including the Star, pointed out at the time, it was notable, if not outrageous, that the vast majority of the 60 targeted charities were environmental, human-rights or anti-poverty groups that had taken positions apparently antithetical to the government. These audits are extremely costly for small, non-profit organizations and may well chill other groups into silence or mealy-mouthed moderation. The end result looks an awful lot like stifling debate.”

new charity law need to stop the silenceBy law Canadian charities are allowed to push for positive social change. Improvements as diverse as ending acid rain, reducing drinking and driving, and ending smoking in the workplace were all the result of organizations bringing public and government attention to issues that required changes in policy. Most of the organizations behind these changes are charities and together, they voice the Canadian public’s concerns. Canada is a better place to live because of the work of charities on public policy.

The trouble is that the rules and policies that govern what charities can and can’t do are ambiguous, arbitrary and subject to wide interpretation. As the Globe and Mail notes, in Canada our charity law’s “more appropriate modern definition might be: whatever the Canada Revenue Agency and its political masters say it is.”

In the 2015 election campaign, opposition parties made commitments to end the audits and reform the law. And in his mandate letter, Prime Minister Trudeau directed the Minister of National Revenue and Minister of Finance to “allow charities to operate free from political harassment” and create “a new legislative framework for the sector.”

Earlier this year Minister of National Revenue Diane Lebouthillier announced the “winding down” of the political activities audit program. But the Minister allowed 25 audits already underway to continue – even though as the Toronto Star notes, “The Trudeau government has said these charities are being targeted for the wrong reasons and based on unsound rules.”

Currently, the Minister of National Revenue is reviewing the rules that govern charities. Nearly 20,000 Canadians – along with a broad cross-section of charities – have submitted letters to the government’s consultation, calling for a reform of charity law and urging the government to suspend the audits until such legislation is passed.

Around the world other countries – England, Scotland, Australia, and New Zealand – have modernized their charity laws to protect free speech. Canada has fallen behind and it’s time to catch up. (You can help. Take action here.)

Canada must fix its broken charity laws. It’s time for a law that can’t be used to silence voices a government disagrees with. Canadians deserve no less.

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