Is campaigning for political changes a charitable pursuit? The line between the political and the charitable tends to shift around depending on which country you’re asking: in Australia, since very recently, the answer is a pretty resounding “yes”. In the US, England and Wales, and Scotland, the answer is essentially “yes, but…”. In Canada, however, the line has shifted further and further towards “no, but…”. Canadian charities are limited to certain kinds of ‘political activities’, and even then they are not allowed to expend on them more than 10% of their resources (meaning money and people power – including volunteer hours, for which they can’t even issue charitable receipts).
In 2012, the scrutiny on these activities stepped up when the CRA launched a special audit program to investigate charities’ political activities to the tune of $13.4 million. The first casualty of the audit was the charitable registration of Dying with Dignity Canada, which lobbies for choice in physician-assisted dying for the terminally ill. There has been a lot of push back, especially by charities (such as those who do environmental work) who suspect they are being targeted by the Federal Government. This is without even touching on the very debatable issue of whether it is actually constitutional for the CRA to regulate charities’ political activities. The CRA, for its part, denies that it takes any political direction from the Government.
The push-back reached a new level recently when the charity Canada Without Poverty sent its president, Harriett McLachlan, to speak out against the audit program before the United Nations Human Rights Committee. CWP was motivated by the fact that it has been under continuous audit for three years now. They are getting their opportunity as part of the UNHRC’s annual review of a selection of the signatories of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which this year includes Canada. ICCPR signatory states must self-report their treaty implementation every five years, and NGOs are invited by the UNHRC to include their own reports as part of that submission.
CWP’s argument is that the 10% limitation rule is in violation of Canada’s international human rights commitments because it curtails NGOs’ freedom of expression and assembly under the ICCPR. They also argue that the audit program constitutes “rigorous enforcement…against charitable organizations perceived to be expressing political views that are in opposition to the current Government’s policy”, which has “created a chill on free public discussion, debate and action regarding policy issues and legislation….”
The actual outcome of CWP’s action will result at most in some recommendations from the UNHRC to Canada which they would encourage Canada to publish, and may result in ongoing monitoring, but ultimately there is no way to enforce the recommendations. Nonetheless, Canada is essentially being embarrassed on the national stage for its treatment of the charitable sector. This is a national stage that includes players like Australia, which recently decided that political activities are essentially unrestrictedly charitable, which only cast Canada in an even more unfavourable light by comparison. This escalation shows the extent to which Canadian charities’ frustration has mounted over the course of the audit program. We wonder how this will impact the forthcoming federal election.
 CWP’s full submission can be read here: http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CCPR/Shared%20Documents/CAN/INT_CCPR_CSS_CAN_20755_E.pdf