More than two dozen B.C. societies have signed on to an October letter that raises concerns about a pending overhaul of the B.C. Society Act, saying the proposed legislation has the potential to intimidate the groups and have a chilling effect on their work.
The October letter, prepared by West Coast Environmental Law and other groups, follows a posting last month in which WCEL said the revamped legislation "invites harassment of societies by any deep-pocketed and litigious opponents."
The province is mulling new legislation for societies as many such groups are involved in debates over proposed resource developments, including the Enbridge Northern Gateway project, LNG-related pipelines and the Trans Mountain Expansion Project.
The province in 2009 launched a process to update its current Society Act, which applies to about 27,000 societies in B.C. Draft legislation was released in a White Paper in August.
The deadline for submitting comments on the proposed legislation, which would be called the Societies Act, is October 15.
The groups that have signed the October letter are concerned about a clause – Section 99 of the proposed legislation – that would allow any person whom the court considers "appropriate" to apply for a court order on grounds that a society is carrying on activities "detrimental to the public interest." Potential litigants could include corporations. Opponents fear the proposal could result in a greater regulatory burden for non-profit groups and more cases for an already overextended legal system.
"A great many – probably the majority – of B.C.'s societies are run by volunteers, on very limited budgets, without experience with the law or the resources to hire lawyers," says the letter from WCEL.
"We believe that court actions filed under s. 99 have the potential to intimidate many societies, and to divert resources away from the valuable work being carried out by societies."
The letter includes the names of 32 supporting organizations, including the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and environmental groups such as Greenpeace Canada, ForestEthics Advocacy and Dogwood Initiative.
The groups want Section 99 to be removed from the draft legislation, arguing that safeguards already exist to protect the public interest and public funds.
The White Paper proposals respond to concerns about the lack of effective "self-help" remedies in the current act, Ministry of Finance spokesperson Jamie Edwardson said Monday in an e-mail.
"Given the self-governing structure of societies and the important role they fill, proposed revisions to the Society Act aim to enhance the accountability of societies. Currently, there are no direct remedies for members of the public who have legitimate concerns about the activities of a society," he said.
The proposals are also subject to change after more consultation, he added.
The proposed legislation opens the door to politically motivated court actions, said Sandy Garossino, a former Crown prosecutor and advocate for charities and non-profit groups.
"Non-profit societies are governed by the Ministry of Finance – that's who they are accountable to," Ms. Garossino said on Monday. "They're not accountable to Joe Blow, who doesn't like what they are doing. Or to a corporation that finds them inconvenient."
The proposal would likely result in a greater regulatory burden for non-profit groups and more cases for an already overextended legal system, she said.
The debate in B.C. echoes some aspects of an ongoing federal debate.
Since 2012, the Canada Revenue Agency has been auditing some charities to determine whether they are following rules that limit spending on political activity to 10 per cent of total resources. Critics, including the NDP opposition, have suggested that the government is misusing the CRA to target political opponents. In August, federal Conservative MPs rejected an NDP request for hearings into the federal audits, saying the motion was an effort to tarnish the CRA's independence.