Skip to main content

As a concept, charity has its roots in 17th-century English law. But the more appropriate modern definition might be: whatever the Canada Revenue Agency and its political masters say it is.

An Ottawa-based charity recently filed suit to stop the CRA from stripping its tax-exempt status, on the ground it has been too politically active. Lawyers for Canada Without Poverty argue their client's constitutional right to free expression is being violated unreasonably. They're not wrong.

The case is a vestige of the former Conservative government's 2012 decision to pour millions into targeted CRA audits of charity groups – something many in the charitable sector denounced as a witch hunt. The Liberals halted all new audits this past January, but allowed 24 probes to continue.

Story continues below advertisement

If the decision seems dubious in terms of fairness, well, so does the law.

Our government provides some level of preferential tax treatment to all kinds of politically active organizations, not least political parties themselves. Labour unions, which are nominally about negotiating contracts, are not shy about using their freedom of speech to influence the partisan sphere.

Register as a charity, however, and there is a dense web of rules governing what you can and can't do. For example, a charity can commission research recommending a legislative change, take out an ad, stage a march on Parliament Hill and hand out placards.

But it must also strictly limit how much it "explicitly communicates to the public that a law, policy or decision of any level of government inside or outside Canada should be retained, opposed, or changed." Some political activism is allowed, just not too much. The line is mostly a matter of bureaucratic discretion.

Traditionally, charitable status has boiled down to a question of purpose – helping strangers, say, or contributing to the betterment of society – which was fine in Elizabethan times, before private corporations and non-profit agencies existed.

Charities shouldn't become vehicles for electing or defeating governments; that's not their role. But they are no longer a unique creature, entirely separate from other non-profit social institutions that can speak their minds. Ottawa should drop the audits and modernize its outdated laws. Free speech should apply to all.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter