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The Canada Revenue Agency has told a leading environmental group that ads about climate change in the fall election campaign would not threaten its charitable status – even if it has to register as a third-party advertiser with Elections Canada – so long as they do not support or oppose a specific party.

The agency sent a letter to World Wildlife Fund-Canada on Monday at the request of Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier after the organization asked for clarification on July 29 of a notification from Elections Canada that the Canada Elections Act requires organizations to register as third parties to advertise on election issues during the campaign.

WWF-Canada and other environmental charities say they fear that registering could lead to complaints under the Income Tax Act that they are conducting partisan activities, which could cost them their charitable status.

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In the letter, CRA assistant commissioner Geoff Trueman acknowledged a “risk of confusion” because of the differing requirements of the Canada Elections Act, which covers campaigns and the period just prior to one, and the Income Tax Act, which governs charitable status. He said he was referring the matter to the Privy Council Office (PCO), the central bureaucratic department that serves the Prime Minister’s Office.

Charities are not permitted to engage in direct or indirect support for or opposition to a specific party.

Mr. Trueman’s letter did not reassure some of the environmental organizations that have run a “One Earth, One Vote” campaign urging Canadians to press all political parties to have “a strong climate plan that meets our international commitments to keep global warming below catastrophic levels.” Elections Canada says such advertising during the campaign period would trigger a requirement that groups register and report on their activities. That is because Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada, has expressed skepticism about the need for climate action, which makes it an election issue.

Grey areas of the laws could still leave charitable organizations vulnerable if they are subject of a complaint to Revenue Canada, WWF-Canada president Megan Leslie said on Tuesday in an interview. Conservative politicians have long accused environmental charities of engaging in too much political activity. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who has launched an inquiry into their financing, pledged in July to challenge their charitable status if they are believed to have contravened the law through political advocacy.

“It’s a huge problem for us," Ms. Leslie said. "I’m not confident that engaging in political advertising during the campaign won’t be a problem or be seen by some people as breaking the [charities] law” as a result of the requirement to register and report on their activities.

In his letter e-mailed on Monday, Mr. Trueman said registration as a third-party with Elections Canada during the campaign “would not itself constitute support of, or opposition to, any political party or candidate.”

He also said a charity may conduct public information campaigns “on an issue that is also associated with a party or candidate,” a reference to Elections Canada’s trigger for registering as a third-party advertiser. “A charity can do this at any time, inside or outside of an election period, as long as the charity does not refer to, or otherwise identify, the political party or candidate,” the Revenue Canada official wrote.

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Not all environmental organizations are charities. Some groups – including Stand.earth and the Dogwood Initiative – have already registered as third-party advertisers for the campaign. WWF-Canada, Environmental Defence and the Sierra Club of Canada Foundation are registered charities and must refrain from partisan activity, although they are allowed to provide information and education on public-policy issues.

In his letter, Mr. Trueman noted concerns about “overlapping requirements” between Canada Elections Act and the Income Tax Act, and so referred the matter to the Privy Council Office to provide some clarity on how the two laws work together. PCO spokesman Stephane Shank said interpretation of the Canada Elections Act, including the definition of political advertising, lies with Elections Canada. He did not say if the PCO would do anything more on the issue.

In a statement on Tuesday, Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perrault said environmental groups are free to advertise on climate change or any other issue during the campaign. But if they spend more than $500 on ads related to an issue that is “clearly associated with a candidate or party” they must register as a third party, audit their activities and provide names of donors that support the advertising to enhance the transparency of the electoral process, he said, adding the rules have been in place for nearly 20 years.

In response to complaints from the environmental groups that they should be able to run ads based on the scientific fact of climate change, Mr. Perrault said that the act regulating third-party advertising "does not make a distinction between facts and opinion. It is not Elections Canada’s role to make that distinction, no matter how obvious it may appear.”

Environment organizations are looking for further clarification from Elections Canada, and hoping the agency takes a narrow view of what constitutes third-party advertising.

The goal of the Canada Elections Act is to create a transparent and level playing field, said Lori Turnbull, director of Dalhousie University’s School of Public Administration.

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“You want to get involved in electoral politics, you register. Why not? I don’t think I see the problem,” she said. “It’s not about deterring communications; it’s about making sure that we know who’s in the debate and what effect they’re having and what effect money is having.”

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