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Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq speaks at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute on March 15, 2012.Sean Kilpatrick

Health Canada has turned down funding for an HIV/AIDS charity for fear it might result in advocacy – an indication of a growing tendency within the Conservative government to steer clear of groups pushing causes out of step with its policies.

The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, whose mission is to promote the human rights of people living with or at risk of contracting the virus, has received a significant portion of its funding from Ottawa over its 20-year existence.

But in this year's round of funding applications, 16 of its 20 proposals were rebuffed. Fifteen of those were rejected citing an identical reason: "It was unclear from the details provided in the proposal whether the resource would be used for advocacy purposes, which is ineligible for funding," the health agency wrote in an April e-mail to the group.

That came as a shock to the network's executive director, Richard Elliott. But beyond the cuts and layoffs his organization now faces, he worries this policy of declaring anything related to "advocacy" ineligible for funding is broad and confusing, and will spur organizations to avoid any projects that might be seen as objectionable in order to secure the cash they need.

Steve Outhouse, a spokesman for Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, said the department's policy doesn't mean advocacy groups can't get health funding. They just can't get funding for advocacy-related proposals.

"We don't believe it's appropriate to fund groups to go out and lobby both the federal or other levels of government," he said. "We feel it's a better use of taxpayer dollars to fund programs that are carrying out the stated policy objectives of government. And we work with those groups that want to do that."

Wariness of charities' activism has been the subject of debate in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom for years. "There's baggage around it … that goes way, way back," said Marcel Lauzière, head of Imagine Canada, an umbrella group for charities. But under Canadian tax laws, "there's been no directive around here that advocacy is not something charities can do."

This advocacy kibosh at Health Canada became formal in 2009-10. But Mr. Elliott and others in the field say there's been a creep in that direction since 2006, when a "community advocacy" section was removed from a government list of suggestions for an HIV/AIDS NGO fund.

Health Canada's position takes federal Conservatives' concerns about charities' partisan leanings a step further. In March, the budget set aside $8-million toward measures requiring charities to answer more tax-form questions on their political activities.

Those proposals aren't particularly onerous: Charities' political activities are already regulated by the Canada Revenue Agency. Rules on what political activities charities can engage in haven't changed.

But Imagine Canada's Mr. Lauzière already has his hands full trying to reassure agencies spooked by the heated rhetoric around the issue. The uncertainty, he said, "is pushing some charities to say, 'maybe we shouldn't be doing this,' and that would be the worst possible outcome."

Advocacy, the CRA says, is "not necessarily a political activity, but it sometimes can be." Unless it meets the CRA's political criteria, advocacy is allowed and unrestricted – unless you want Health Canada to pay for it.

Mr. Outhouse said the policy applies to all Health Canada funds, but has been made more explicit when it comes to HIV/AIDS programs because they tend to have "more of an advocacy bent."

"Ultimately, the buck stops with the government of the day," he said. "The decision's been taken by the government that [funding] will not go for advocacy work. … And now the public health agency will not fund advocacy."

The legal network's Mr. Elliott said this is the first time he's had proposals refused not because they constituted advocacy, but because it was "unclear" whether there was a possibility the activity could result in advocacy in some form.

"To me, that's a breathtakingly wide, overly broad criterion for deciding whether the government is going to fund something," he said.

"It creates a chill for civil society organizations, basically to steer clear of anything that might be controversial or that might in some way put you offside with government policy directions because your funding may be at risk if you raise those concerns."

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