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Charitable organizations: A pillar of democracy

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Photo: Eric Constantineau/Flickr

While you're reading this, about two million employees are busy trying to make our world a little bit better through their work at Canada's 80,000-plus registered charitable organizations.

Some of these charitable organizations are giants among goodwill agencies. When natural disaster strikes, for instance, Canadians turn to charitable organizations such as the Canadian Red Cross, CARE, Oxfam, or UNICEF.

Canada's charitable organizations reflect the full spectrum of public priorities: environmental protection, education, health care, children's well-being, youth engagement, seniors' supports, poverty reduction, help for the homeless, and more.

They're allowed to devote 10 per cent of their resources to public advocacy -- a vital aspect of any democracy -- but most of the time, Canada's charitable organizations are focused on other endeavours.

They connect citizens to frontline services when they're in need, helping them find work or shelter or food.

They welcome newcomers and help make Canada feel like home.

They do research and education that helps Canadians better understand their community, themselves and each other.

Sometimes they partner with each other to advance solutions to social, economic and environmental problems that our governments neglect.

Certainly in a climate of fiscal austerity, non-profit charitable organizations fill the void left by a scarcity of government funding for public programs and services.

They're also the social conscience of Canada, raising alarms when a social problem has grown too big to ignore and, as the charitable organization I work for does, advancing well-researched solutions to the challenges of our time.

Our own federal government acknowledges charitable organizations make a "valuable contribution to the development of public policy in Canada."

In other words, charitable organizations are a vital pillar of our democracy.

In return for their good works, charitable organizations enjoy strong public support: 22.2 million Canadians made a financial donation to a charity in 2004 and they volunteered about two billion hours of their time in that same year.

Until recently, we never really thought about charitable organizations beyond the value of their good works. However, a deep chill has settled upon Canada's non-profit sector as a result of a federal initiative to deploy the Canada Revenue Agency to more rigorously monitor charitable organizations' activities.

Tides Canada, which works on "issues like water and oceans, environmental conservation, climate and energy solutions, food, the arctic, social inclusion, and civic engagement", is among the first to be singled out for an audit -- despite the fact that its president asserts Tides devotes only about one per cent of its efforts to political activities, and always in a non-partisan way.

There has been much public speculation about the motive behind the crackdown, with explicit suggestions that charitable organizations focused on conservation and climate issues may be targeted. Regardless of the motive, Tides has become the poster child among Canadian charities fearing similar treatment.

In boardrooms throughout charitable organizations across Canada, sober conversations are taking place about what this crackdown on charities could mean for their own work. Some charities are determining to simply lie low until the political climate warms up. Others are taking more drastic measures.

David Suzuki, among the world's most respected environmentalists, has left the board of his own charitable foundation to avoid becoming "a lightning rod for criticism and government attacks that would undermine its work."

Philanthropic Foundations of Canada worries "that foundations will say to themselves, it's just not worth getting involved in funding charities that seem to be involved in doing any kind of advocacy or public policy work that involves making public statements, when in fact all of that is perfectly legitimate…"

The president of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, one of Canada's oldest foundations, says: "I think what we have to be concerned about is the fear that people have to speak up or take a position on an issue of public importance. The regulations are clearly laid out so people feel that they're able to do so, and in many cases have a responsibility to do so, to speak up on behalf of underprivileged or dispossessed or vulnerable populations. There's a need for informed debate, a diversity of views, on these kinds of issues, and this sector is good at doing that."

Canadians expect charitable organizations to observe the rules, but the prospect of threatening their charitable status simply because their work reveals weaknesses in government policies feels decidedly un-Canadian. Especially when those charities are attempting to address the root causes behind major societal problems such as poverty or climate change.

What does it say about our democracy when corporations can devote endless resources lobbying to change policy in their own interest while charities that work on behalf of the public interest risk losing their voice?

Put it another way: What happens to our democracy when the voices of Canada's charitable organizations, the social conscience of this country, go silent?

Photo: Eric Constantineau/Flickr

Trish Hennessy is director of Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Ontario. A variation of this blog post was published in the weekend Huffington Post as part of PEN Canada’s blog series examining freedom of expression for Non-Speak Week.

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