Almost four years ago, the federal government promised to pass a new law that protects the ability of charities to speak out on Canadians’ behalf on important issues like the environment, human health, poverty, and human rights. In December, that promise was kept and for that Canadians should be happy and proud. We now have a updated law that is similar to most other modern democracies.
There are a few key reasons why I think this effort was successful.
- Mandate letters from the Prime Minister containing instructions to make changes were given to the Ministers of National Revenue, Finance and Justice.
- A Panel appointed by government and populated by experts knowledgeable in public policy provided clear direction and advice to the federal government on how to modernize the law. Their advice was also supported by thousands of submissions from Canadians during their public consultations
- Mobilization of the charitable sector by Environmental Defence, Equiterre, Imagine Canada, Private Foundations Canada and others helped to address issues raised by government officials about the proposed improvements
- Canada Without Poverty challenged the legality of the existing prohibitions on public policy work by charities in Ontario Superior Court. They won their case, resulting in the immediate suspension of the existing law and providing further impetus for the government to advance the work of legal reform.
- Canadians continuously supported reform and sent tens of thousands of emails to the Prime Minister and MPs.
Now the federal government is also consulting on the more detailed guidance that will be used to inform charities about specifically what they can and cannot do under the new law. These rules are clear, fair and reflect the spirit and wording of the new law. The key aspects are provided below.
- A charity is free to advocate for any change to a law, policy, or decision of government that would further its stated charitable purpose (e.g. protection of the environment in Environmental Defence’s case)
- The advocacy work should relate to the charity’s stated charitable purpose and the activities, when considered together with the charity’s stated charitable purpose, would provide a benefit to the public
- That the information in the advocacy activities that are undertaken be truthful, accurate, and not misleading and can include: research, disseminating opinions, advocacy, mobilizing others, representations to elected and non-elected officials, providing forums and convening discussions, and communicating on social media
- Charities are prohibited from devoting any part of its resources to the direct or indirect support of, or opposition to, any political party or candidate for public office
- Informing the public about the policy positions of political parties and candidates is allowed
Taken collectively, these new rules mean that charities need no longer fear audits or other sanctions from the Canada Revenue Agency if they are pursuing advocacy work that is key to their purpose as an organization. For Environmental Defence, this means we can use all of the tools at our disposal to ensure that the Canadian environment is protected now and into the future. Thank you to all of you who worked on this important issue with us, and for helping us enhance the ability of charities to speak out on issues that matter to us all.