Fall 2018

Newsletter Archive


Charities Role in Public Policy Recognized

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A momentous change happened for charities in the middle of July, and you probably didn’t notice.

If you devoutly read the front page of all the newspapers and online news agencies... you will NOT have seen this item. I’m pretty sure it was not on page 2 to 15 either, but it is huge for social justice groups in Canada.

A recent court ruling struck down the federal government’s ability to limit charities involvement in public policy. It maintains the restrictions against partisan activity or activities outside an organization’s charitable mandate - which charities didn’t want changed anyway.

So what does this mean?

It means hordes of charity people will be crawling all over the legislature and parliament buildings so thickly you won’t even be able to see the buildings themselves, and even more money will be funneled from disruptive foreign powers to undermine democracy in Canada.

Just kidding... (though that picture has been painted). It will actually look pretty similar to the average Canadian. The most common response will be, “Weren’t you already involved in the policy conversations?” Yes, we were trying to, but it was like running through molasses.


People are generally surprised to know there is no specific legislation governing charities in Canada. What does exist are a handful of clauses buried in the Income Tax Act, all based on legislation first drafted in 1601 (yes, you read that right, 1601).

So, to try and govern charitable activity through a tax code, using 400-year-old concepts, various tax-related guidelines were developed. The biggest was that - prior to this ruling - charities were able to devote no more than 10% of their resources to “political activities,” and no resources to “partisan activities” (i.e., supporting a particular political party or candidate). The hammer was big; exceed this limit and you could lose your charitable status.

Convoluted guidelines were developed that looked like this (NB: these were actual guidelines):

  • Charities can ‘educate’ politicians, but not suggest policy changes;
  • Charities tell people about a problem with a law, but not tell them what to do about it; and
  • Charities can comment on the problems with a policy, but you have to present the counter argument as well (as a colleague said, “So the cancer charities would have to present the pro-disease argument...?”)

So really, what does this new ruling mean?

First of all, it means clarity, clarity on the questions of what charities can or cannot do, clarity on the value of charities in the policy conversation.

Secondly, it means a removal of the chill that comes from not knowing if your federal government will suddenly target your sector with multi-million-dollar audits to see if you spent 11% of your resources trying to change public policy instead of just 10% (sadly, not a hypothetical example).

Thirdly, it means a levelling of the playing field because corporations, citizen groups, industry lobby groups, professional associations, non-profit groups, unions, politicians, citizens, and my cat had no restrictions on their
welcome to the policy table, but charities had arbitrary limits.

Fourthly, it means that instead of eternal symptom management, charities can bring their expertise to the policy table to address root problems (that’s what Miistakis’ Conservation Policy and Planning theme is all about)

Finally, and most importantly, it means the importance of charities’ voices in policy discussions is recognized and validated.

So, what does this mean for Miistakis specifically?

Again, it will look very similar: still no partisan activity; still trying to identify source policy issues; still working with our colleagues in various levels of government to figure out improvements to those policies. But we no longer will need to do this with one hand tied behind our back, and one eye over our shoulder. It means how much we approach the policy dimension is based on a critical assessment, not an arbitrary limit.

And now I don’t have to figure out which 10% of my computer keyboard was the most political.

Geek out on charity law by reading the ruling here.