Basic Income Canada Network’s Open Letter to Canadians, on advocacy and charitable status
September 16, 2014
Much has been written recently about Canadian charitable organizations being audited for expressing their views on public policy. Given that the details of charity audits are not public knowledge, whether or not these audits are being directed for partisan motivations, as has been suggested, or the degree to which this is occurring, we may never know. However, we do know that the fear of audits and the rules restricting charities’ “political activities” are restricting charitable organizations’ ability to exercise their civil-society voice and freely express themselves in discussions of public policy.
The recent concern about charity audits and the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) rejection of charitable registration for groups that promote poverty prevention occurred while the Basic Income Canada Network (BICN) was considering applying for charitable status. There are many reasons why BICN is interested in promoting awareness and support for an expanded system of basic income, but central among them is its potential to provide a more lasting solution to poverty. Basic income is a concept that has been rigorously tested, studied and recommended by Senate committees. This concept also forms the basis of existing income supports for children and seniors.
Basic income is premised on prevention. That the government would have “relief of poverty” as one of the major, long-standing categories of charitable activity and yet reject poverty prevention as a public good is unfathomable. Imagine if we took this approach in other charitable areas, for example, providing relief for people with cancer or heart disease but doing nothing to help prevent these same diseases.
Typically, organizations pursue charitable status to allow them to give receipts to donors for allowable income tax deductions. This tax support recognizes that registered charities serve the public interest and make Canada a better place to live. Having charitable status makes raising funds for this important work much easier.
The BICN board deliberated hard about the pursuit of charitable registration in the current climate and has decided not to pursue registration at this time. The odds are not promising, and it is an onerous process to satisfy all of CRA’s requirements to avoid being perceived as too critical or “political,” diverting effort that could be devoted to our primary work. BICN also decided to forgo this opportunity because of what it believes to be greater goods — freedom of expression and the ability to be part of Canada’s political process. We don’t want to be driven by fear of losing charitable status.
Many voluntary organizations are busy, even overwhelmed, providing services to people. Others also focus a small, allowable portion of their work (less than 10–20 per cent) on “advocacy,” usually support for the people they serve, very often the most disadvantaged in society. Note that this is not partisan activity, which is not allowed at all, but somehow policy analyses and public awareness raising work has inherited the term “political” as an outmoded negative connotation from centuries-old roots in British charitable law that is not in line with a modern democracy. Canada is falling behind other countries in the world in this regard where internationally this outdated interpretation has been successfully challenged and changed.
Voluntary organizations in Canada today are essential to democracy and good governance. They play an important role in pointing out where our society is working well and where it is not. They are well placed to identify emerging issues and opportunities, and to share knowledge, expertise and insights with governments and the public. By enabling their participation in policy debates, we are better positioned to develop sound solutions that benefit all of us. Societies and economies constantly evolve, and our policies must as well. When we are forced to stick with the status quo, we can never know whether an alternative solution would be a better approach.
Freedom to maintain the status quo is not a liberty our ancestors fought and died for. A healthy democracy does not shy away from persistent problems. It encourages new ideas and debate. It is strong enough to hear criticism, and grows as a result. Our democracy is severely undermined as long as citizens associated with charities, or otherwise, are severely restricted in engaging in the important debates of the day,
We hope for a more positive climate in future, but for now we believe that BICN, in order to serve the public interest, must stay a non-profit organization without charitable registration so that its volunteers, contractors, board members and others in our network can fully participate in our democracy.
We realize this may be a controversial decision, but for now we would rather participate in a Canada free to express itself than in a country that cannot.
Board of Directors
Basic Income Canada Network