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Between 2000 and 2015, representatives from Canada's 10 leading think tanks appeared at least 216 times before parliamentary committees and were cited in the Canadian media almost 60,000 times. It gave them and their research priceless exposure and influence in shaping government policy.

But at what price to Canadian democracy?

There is little doubt that the research conducted by Canadian think tanks often enriches public-policy debates. While they claim to be independent, however, most think tanks rely on funding from wealthy benefactors, corporations, unions or lobby groups seeking to push their own causes.

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Yet, few Canadian think tanks will tell you who exactly is funding them, or, if they do, how much they get from such benefactors. Indeed, think tanks here lag well behind their peers in the United States and Britain in providing detailed disclosure on their sources of funding. That's according to the first-ever report on Canadian think tank transparency by Transparify, a non-profit initiative that has been scrutinizing these organizations in other countries since 2014.

"This presents a clear danger to Canadian democracy," Transparify executive director Hans Gutbrod says of the spotty disclosure standards at Canadian think tanks. "At their best, think tanks are capable of strengthening public debate, developing policy solutions and highlighting little-discussed problems. However, they can also distort public discourse."

Just ask Donald Abelson, a political-science professor at the University of Western Ontario, whose 2016 book Northern Lights examines the policy-making role think thanks play in Canada.

"Although those who labour at think tanks often claim to serve the public interest, they do not represent parliamentary ridings or congressional districts, nor do their names appear on ballots," writes Prof. Abelson, who worked on the Transparify report set to be released on Tuesday. "They are policy experts who interact regularly with policy-makers and the public for the purpose of shaping public opinion and public policy in ways that satisfy their institutional interests and those of their generous benefactor."

The Transparify report, an advance copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, reveals that the most active and influential Canadian think tanks provide little or no disclosure about their funding. Transparify ranked the Conference Board of Canada, the Fraser Institute and the Pembina Institute as "highly opaque." The Conference Board and Pembina were awarded zero out of five stars, while the Fraser Institute earned a single star.

That contrasts with the Centre for International Governance Innovation, which received five stars and was deemed "highly transparent" by Transparify. CIGI was set up in 2001 with a $30-million endowment from BlackBerry founders Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis and matching funding from Ontario and federal governments. That makes it unique in that most think tanks do not accept or receive public funding. But at least CIGI is upfront about where it gets its money.

There is hope that others will follow. A few of the top 10 Canadian think tanks (based on parliamentary committee appearances and media citations) moved to improve their disclosure between the time Transparify initially contacted them in April and completed compiling its data in September. In April, the average transparency score among the top 10 was a miserable 1.5 stars. But by September, the average rating had risen to 2.4 stars. To earn a two-star rating, think tanks must at a minimum disclose a list of their largest donors, but not necessarily the amounts given.

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The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, for instance, got two stars from Transparify. But the think tank has committed to disclosing its funding to a four-star standard by 2019. To meet that standard, it would need to disclose the names of all donors who provided at least $5,000 (U.S.), or about $6,400 (Canadian), and the broad amount given by each.

Even so, there is no way for Transparify or anyone else to determine whether think tanks that appear to be highly transparent really are. The International Institute for Strategic Studies had been rated "broadly transparent" in Transparify's 2016 report on British think tanks. But Bahrain Watch, a group that promotes democracy in the Middle Eastern kingdom, subsequently obtained documents showing the IISS had received £25-million ($44-million) from the Bahraini royal family that the think tank had not disclosed.

That led Transparify to create an entirely new category. IISS now gets a "deceptive" rating and zero stars from Transparify.

So, the bottom line for Canadians looking for policy guidance from think tanks? Caveat emptor.

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