Humanists submit comments on draft political activities proposals

The BC Humanist Association today said proposals in a draft charities reform bill "fall far short of the mark" by failing to implement a modernized charities framework.

The BCHA welcomes the Government's move to delete references to nonpartisan political activities, thereby ending the gag on charities participating in development of public policy. However, the proposed bill offers little else to celebrate.

Ian Bushfield, Executive Director, BC Humanist Association

While we've seen little to suggest this Government is committed to fully implementing the recommendations of its own expert panel on charities reform, we are encouraged by the end of the restrictions on political activities.

We are also hopeful that our minimum recommendations for the government to include a modern list of charitable purposes in the law, will be taken up. This simple change would remove a lot of uncertainty for bureaucrats and altruistic individuals who want to start new charities.

It also presents an opportunity to end the inequity between religious and nonreligious groups that is present in our Elizabethan concept of what charity is.

To submit your own comments, email fin.charity-bienfaisance.fin@canada.ca.


October 1, 2018

Re: Draft Legislative proposals regarding political activities of charities

By Ian Bushfield, Executive Director

Executive Summary

While we are pleased to see the Government of Canada moving forward with long-overdue legislative changes to the restrictions on the nonpartisan political activities of charities in Canada, we are concerned that the proposals set out in the draft fall far short of the mark. Our concerns with the current regime were most recently set out in our submission to the Special Senate Committee on the Charitable Sector and this submission builds upon those arguments.[1]

Specifically we:

  1. Support the decision to repeal restrictions on nonpartisan political activities,
  2. Urge the government to adopt a modernized charitable framework, as recommended by Report of the Consultation Panel on the Political Activities of Charities (2017),
  3. Recommend the Government, at a minimum, include a modern list of charitable purposes in the Income Tax Act, and
  4. Recommend such a list either omit the "advancement of religion" or expand it to include non-theistic worldviews.

About the BC Humanist Association

Since 1984, the British Columbia Humanist Association (BCHA) has provided a community and a voice for Humanists, atheists, agnostics and the non-religious in BC. Humanism is a worldview that promotes human dignity without belief in a higher power. We campaign for the rights of the non-religious and an end to religious privilege. We are a registered charity.

1. We support the decision to repeal restrictions on nonpartisan political activities

As set out in the reasons of Justice Morgan in Canada Without Poverty v AG Canada[2], the Government restrictions on the nonpartisan political activities are unfit for modern charities. Further, the specific policies flowing from these restrictions often appear to charities as arbitrary and confusing.

These challenges have led a coalition of charities, of which we are a part, to call for an end to these restrictions.[3] These charities welcomed the Report of the Consultation Panel on the Political Activities of Charities and its recommendations.[4] These recommendations included that the Government “amend the [Income Tax Act] by deleting any reference to non-partisan political activities to explicitly allow charities to fully engage without limitation in non-partisan public policy dialogue and development, provided that it is subordinate to and furthers their charitable purposes.”

We therefore welcome these proposals that would delete references to nonpartisan political activities and we support retaining restrictions on partisan political activities.

2. We urge the government to adopt a modernized charitable framework

We believe the Government is missing an opportunity to move forward bolder reforms to an antiquated regime. As we note in our recent submission to the Senate, Canada’s charities regime still relies heavily on the common law, much of which was developed in the Elizabethan era.

The Consultation Panel set out in its fourth recommendation a clear path forward to begin to develop a modernized framework. Further, we can easily work from the experience of England and Wales, Australia and New Zealand, all of which are Commonwealth countries that have since modernized their laws.

Putting these broader reforms off into the future leaves charities in a legal limbo when our resources could be better spent advocating for our missions.

3. We recommend the Government, at a minimum, include a modern list of charitable purposes in the Income Tax Act

While we would prefer to see a broad legislative overhaul of Canada’s charitable sector, if the Government chooses not to because of its legislative constraints, we believe it should not be difficult to include a statutory definition of charity purposes in the bill as it’s proposed.

As the proposals would already amend the definition of charitable purposes in the Income Tax Act, this could be done simply by including a list of purposes. A possible example is the list in Appendix A. It is based off the list presented by West Coast Environmental Law Research Foundation in its November 16, 2016 submissions and it includes changes based on our fourth recommendation.[5] We present this list merely as an example and welcome the input of other charities in refining it further.

The absence of such a statutory definition has left it to individuals and small organizations to argue whether or not their purposes are charitable. It is also up to the individuals at the Canada Revenue Agency to approve or reject those applications. While appeal mechanisms exist and jurisprudence has provided some guidance, it is an abdication of the role of the legislature to leave it to individuals and the courts to define such a central concept in our civil society.

4. We recommend such a list either omit the "advancement of religion" or expand it to include non-theistic worldviews.

As we set out in our submission to the Senate, the archaic approach to the definition of charity has meant that religious organizations have received a special privilege beyond what is available for organizations representing nonreligious beliefs. This is an arguably a breach of the government’s duty of religious neutrality.[6]

We offer two solutions to this inequity.

First, remove the advancement of religion entirely. Those religious organizations that provide a benefit to the community will be free to reclassify under another heading, for example the relief of poverty or promotion of health.

Second, adopt a broader definition that recognizes the advancement of nontheistic worldviews. This can be done in two ways. It can specify that the advancement of religion includes religions that “do not involve the belief in a god” as is the case in the Charities Act 2011 of England and Wales.[7] Alternatively, the definition can include the “advancement of belief systems”, which would be analogous to the Scottish Marriage and Civil Partnership Act 2014, which allows representatives of “religious or belief bodies” to solemnize marriages.[8] In both of these cases, Humanist organizations have been recognized without incident.

Appendix: Possible List of Charitable Purposes

charitable purposes for the purposes of the administration of this act, means any of the following:

(a) prevention or relief of poverty;
(b) advancement of education;

(c) advancement of religion;
     (i) which involves belief in more than one god, or
     (ii) which does not involve belief in a god;

or (c) advancement of religion or a belief system;

(d) promotion of equality and diversity;
(e) promotion of health, including the prevention or relief of sickness, disease or human suffering,
(f) promotion of reconciliation, mutual respect and tolerance between groups of individuals or communities in Canada and the advancement of conflict resolution;
(g) promotion or protection of human rights;
(h) protection of the natural environment, conservation of natural resources or advancement of environmental sustainability;
(i) prevention or relief of suffering of animals;
(j) advancement of the arts, culture, heritage or sciences;
(k) advancement of citizenship or community development, including rural or urban regeneration;
(l) promotion of civic responsibility or voluntary work;
(m) advancement of community welfare including addressing the needs of those disadvantaged by race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age or mental or physical disability;
(n) prevention and elimination of discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age or mental or physical disability;
(o) promotion of agriculture and industry;
(p) any other purpose of benefit to the community that may reasonably be regarded as analogous to, or within the spirit of, any of the purposes mentioned in paragraphs (a) to (o);
(q) promoting public awareness or public debate regarding the preferred approaches to advancing any of the purposes mentioned in paragraphs (a) to (p);
(r) promoting or opposing a change to any matter established by law, policy or practice of any level of government in Canada, another country or internationally, if the change is in furtherance of one or more of the purposes mentioned in paragraphs (a) to (q); and,
(q) the disbursement of funds to a qualified donee.


[1] https://www.bchumanist.ca/toward_a_modernized_charity_framework_for_canada

[2] Canada Without Poverty v AG Canada, 2018 ONSC 41147

[3] https://protectcanadiansfreespeech.ca/

[4] https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/services/charities-giving/charities/resources-charities-donors/resources-charities-about-political-activities/report-consultation-panel-on-political-activities-charities.html

[5] https://www.wcel.org/sites/default/files/old/files/publications/2016%2011%2016%20Submission%20of%20the%20West%20Coast%20Environmental%20Law%20Research%20Foundation.pdf

[6] Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16, [2015] 2 S.C.R. 3

[7] https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2011/25

[8] http://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2014/5/part/1/chapter/3/enacted



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