As the government clamps down on environmental groups and charities over baseless allegations of impropriety, it also moves to gut Canada’s environmental-assessment process.
These days, Canada seems to be a country of monologues. On complex and multifaceted issues like the environment or the economy, we are increasingly dividing ourselves along partisan lines, pushing our own agendas, and entirely dismissing any counterarguments, debate, discussion, or dialogue. The federal budget is worrisome evidence of this trend.
The matter of Canada’s environmental review and assessment process – especially pertaining to the controversial Northern Gateway Pipeline – is a case in point. Starting with a pre-emptive strike in an open letter by Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver in January that called environmental groups “radicals” who “don’t take into account the facts,” any opposition to the pipeline is being maligned, effectively limiting the ability for those opposed to the pipeline to voice their opinions.
This trend continued last week when a scheduled review-panel hearing at Bella Bella was cancelled due to peaceful protests, perhaps foreshadowing what will become par for the course under the government’s newly unveiled plan to “streamline” environmental assessments, including those related to the Northern Gateway Pipeline. The plan will see the government cut the number of federal departments involved in environmental assessments from 40 to three and will hand significant oversight responsibilities to the provinces in order to eliminate “red tape.”
When the government initially proposed a comprehensive dialogue and consultation process on the pipeline, there was an expectation that it would involve a willingness to consult more than one side. The groan-worthy cliché applicable here is that it takes two to tango – or, since this inevitably revolves around Alberta, it takes a whole room of folks to line dance. But if you’re going to lock half the supposed invitees out of the hall on the night of the big dance, then why bother telling them about the event in the first place?
The Canadian federal government seems to be a bit nervous about its dance partners in this important consultation. The 2012 budget has earmarked an additional $8 million for the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) to use for “education and compliance” with the goal of ensuring that charities “provide more information on their political activities, including the extent to which these are funded by foreign sources.” For those who have been living under a rock (or a pile of sticky, toxic bitumen sludge), this is in response to allegations that certain Canadian charities are accepting foreign funds to finance their opposition to the oil sands.
To be clear, there is absolutely no law, policy, or regulation preventing non-profit groups from accepting foreign funding. Yet, by even suggesting that there is some impropriety in accepting such funds, the government is stifling these groups.
The issue of how much charities can engage in political activities is a bit trickier. Under the existing regulations, whereby the CRA interprets the Income Tax Act, charities can utilize up to 10 per cent of their human and financial resources engaging in non-partisan political activity. However, it is unclear to many, including myself, exactly what is permitted to contribute to that 10 per cent, and that lack of knowledge could discourage charities from engaging in any public advocacy at all.
An experienced contact tells me that with appropriate and accurate accounting and reporting, most charities will likely find that their allowable political activities account for far less than 10 per cent. But that requires taking the time to understand the rules and document all activities, and that is something many smaller, cash-strapped charities may not feel they’re in a position to do. To put things in perspective, the CRA page that defines political activities has 14 sections and two appendices, clocking in at just fewer than 10,000 words.
Many of us likely grossly underestimate the size of the charitable sector in Canada. According to the CRA’s own numbers, there were a staggering 2.4 million Canadians employed by charities in 2007, accounting for about seven per cent of our GDP. Compare this with the oil and gas industry, which employs about 800,000 Canadians and accounts for about 4.8 per cent of our GDP.
By forcing charitable organizations to devote more resources to accounting, and thus hampering their ability to do their work, the government may very well be harming the Canadian economy. Given the government’s justification for monitoring these organizations in the first place – to ensure the oil and gas industry can move forward reasonably unhindered for the sake of economic growth – forgive me for being a tad confused.
Again and again, we are told that advocacy against the oil sands is threatening the stability of the Canadian economy, but that’s only true if you subscribe to an absolutist definition of what our economy is based on. Monologues on either side of the debate, whether they are by extremist back-to-nature environmentalists or free-reign deregulation capitalists, are both dangerous and unproductive for our country.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.