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Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on May 7, 2012.

Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver is defending the Harper government's plan to overhaul environmental assessment rules and denying that Ottawa is out to silence charitable groups.

Mr. Oliver responded Monday to complaints from environmental organizations that the government is seeking to silence their criticism as it pushes through legislation they say will gut the federal review process.

Groups are also concerned at the Conservative government's attack on environmental charities, especially those that receive some portion of their revenues from foreign sources.

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Mr. Oliver backpedalled from comments made by Environment Minister Peter Kent that some organizations are essentially engaged in money laundering by taking charitable donations and funneling them to other organizations engaged in political activity.

"I haven't used that term," he said when asked whether he believes charities are essentially laundering money, "and I don't believe people are being accused of criminal activity."

The minister said charitable groups will still be able to receive money from outside sources to finance political activities, so long as they stay within the current guidelines that limit spending on advocacy to less than 10 per cent of total revenue.

"What we've been talking here in respect to charities is making sure the current rules are followed," Mr. Oliver said. "So there is no actual change in that regard at all."

In the March 29 budget, the government ordered the Canada Revenue Agency to step up its compliance activities to ensure charities are following the rules with regard to political activity, noting that there had been concerns raised. While it did not specifically cite environmental groups, Conservative cabinet ministers, MPs and senators have attacked them.

The budget bill tightens the rules under which groups that accept charitable funds from foreign donors, and then channel that money to other organizations engaged in political advocacy – a practice that is legal under Revenue Canada rules.

And it appears to limit foreign donors who can contribute in Canada to those who are engaged in urgent humanitarian works, relief activity in response to a disaster, or pursuing Canada's national interest in the judgment of the minister.

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Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said the government is not defining national interest. "That means it's a political decision to cut off funding to some charity from legitimate, largely U.S.-based charitable foundations and not from other," Ms. May said.

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