` Columbia Journal - Business: Squashing Public Debate in Canada
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Squashing Public Debate in Canada

BY IVAN BULIC (SPEC COORDINATOR) - "The day that the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the appeal of international communism, North American sickos in search of a cause switched to animal rights and environmental issues," said Charity Watch organizer George Barkhouse. " There are already a number of these organizations in trouble in Canada because of my work."

Charity Watch is funded by the pro-gun lobby group Hunt Action United States and the white supremacist Heritage Front and uses Canada's antiquated charity tax laws to go after public interest organizations such as the Friends of Clayoquot Sound, the Sierra Club of Canada, the Toronto Wildlife Centre, CAVEAT - a national victim's right action group, and the Schad Foundation which funds Ecotrust Canada and the David Suzuki Foundation. Backhouse is not alone in muzzling public debate. Vancouver's Fraser Institute wants to change what it claims are lax charity regulations that let grass-roots organizations participate in the exclusive sphere of public policy debate. Both the Fraser Institute and Charity Watch are themselves registered Canadian charities.

Canada's Charity Law is based on Queen Elizabeth I's 1601 Statute of Uses that defines charities as groups that feed, clothe or educate the poor and destitute. In exchange groups get tax advantages such as being able to issue tax-deductible receipts for donations. Last year 80,000 registered charities in Canada issued tax-receipts. Many are churches and schools. But they also include all branches of the Canadian Legion, army and navy cadets and sports teams. The Legion has a long-standing and well-financed lobby in Ottawa that regularly pushes for more military spending and argues against any weakening of Canada's military ties to the Pentagon.

Environmental and social justice groups qualify as charities because of their public education function. Charities can spend up to 10 percent of their funds on what Revenue Canada defines as "political advocacy." The only other groups who issue tax receipts are federal political parties who can give a far bigger deduction that those issued by environmental groups.

"If anybody really wanted to put the screws to an organization and say 'you're being too political under the Charities Act' it would be very easy," said Valerie Langer of the Friends of Clayoquot Sound. "I think that if you look at Oxfam or the organizations that we love for doing good work all of these organizations could be targeted."

Last year Langer's group was audited by Revenue Canada and lost their charitable tax number for being "too political." Carl Juneau of the Charities Directorate, Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, admitted Langer was investigated following complaints from Barkhouse. Others managed to keep their tax numbers after lengthy and costly audits. But audits and number crunching isn't the only way environmental and peace groups have been targeted.

In September 1997, military intelligence monitored a meeting of peace and environmental activists in the SPEC building in Vancouver. In a memo released to the 1997 APEC Inquiry, Canadian Forces intelligence officer Major R. J McCutcheon described a meeting at which UBC professor Dr. Michael Wallace, representatives from SPEC, End the Arms Race and Veterans Against Nuclear Armament discussed US war games at the Nanoose Bay torpedo test range north of Nanaimo.

"Of concern with APEC 97 is Dr. Mike Wallace of UBC who is writing submissions to newspapers," McCutcheon wrote. His memo links SPEC with 60 other "anti-economy" and "anti-APEC" groups, which he gives varying degrees of "threat" assessments.

Shauna Sylvester of Vancouver's Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society sees Canada's outmoded system of defining charities as the main stumbling block for public groups contributing to policy debates. Without being able to issue tax receipts, many organizations' risk losing revenue and cutting their ability to carry on their work. Rather than take the risk, many keep quiet. Others such as SPEC and the Friends of Clayoquot pay the price.

In a well-researched study, Let Charities Speak, Sylvester recommends changing charity laws to broaden the definition of education, expand spending on advocacy to 49 per cent of a charity's revenues and create an advocacy code of ethics. Sylvester's ideas aren't radical. France, Germany the United Kingdom and even the US have already implemented similar regulations. But Canada's political establishment isn't receptive to increased public debate.

Speaking in the House of Commons last fall, Ontario Liberal MP John Bryden said "political debates should be left to professional politicians and registered political parties." A motion to amend the Charities Act was defeated. Public interest groups and environmental organizations will continue to look over their shoulders every time they issue a press release, speak with an elected official or attend a public meeting.

The Columbia Journal
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