Ways and Means Motion signals government's next moves on charities' free speech

On Thursday, Canada's Finance Minister Bill Morneau took the first formal legislative step to remove limits on the political activities of charities.

Morneau introduced a Ways and Means Motion in the House of Commons on Thursday. The motion passed today with a vote of 166 to 114. Ways and Means Motions are tabled and approved prior to the introduction of taxation legislation. This motion removes restrictions on political activities of charities among other changes.

These new proposals differ from the draft released in September, which the BC Humanist Association and others said fell far short of the mark. Specifically, the earlier draft retained a restriction that political activities be "incidental" to charitable activities and left a lot to the interpretation of the courts. Further, it failed to create a statutory definition of charitable purposes, leaving it to the common law definition of what is and isn't charitable.

According to the explanatory note that accompanies the newly proposed changes, the Department of Finance Canada says the changes:

...provides that charitable activities include, without limitation, public policy dialogue and development activities carried on in furtherance of a charitable purpose. Public policy dialogue and development activities generally involve seeking to influence the laws, policies or decisions of a government, whether in Canada or a foreign country. Under this definition, such activities will be considered charitable activities provided they are carried on in furtherance of a charitable purpose (e.g., the relief of poverty or the advancement of education). An organization could therefore, for example, meet the test in new paragraph (a.1) of the definition "charitable organization" where some or all of its activities are public policy dialogue and development activities carried on in furtherance of a charitable purpose.

This proposal has been welcomed by Canada Without Poverty, who fought and won a court challenge against the political activities restrictions in the Ontario Superior Court earlier this year. Imagine Canada, a national organization that supports the charitable sector, also welcomes the changes.

The new proposal still does not create a legal definition of what is charitable. This means that courts will continue to rely on the archaic common law definition. The change does mean that charities won't be at risk for losing their charitable status for "public policy dialogue and development activities." Charities will still be required to abstain from partisan politics, that is "direct or indirect support of, or opposition to, any political party or candidate for public office."

Ian Bushfield, Executive Director, BC Humanist Association:

These changes, when adopted into law, will mean environmental charities will be free to talk about environmental policies, anti-poverty charities will free to critique policies that contribute to inequality and, as an organization that promotes secular values, we will be free to advocate for the rights of the nonreligious.

While this is a big advancement for the freedom of expression of charities in Canada, the Government is still missing an easy opportunity to modernize the law further by setting out a list of what purposes it considers to be charitable. Without that change, we're left with an Elizabethan definition that privileges the advancement of religion over nonreligious worldviews.

The Finance Minister today introduced Bill C-86 (Budget Implementation Act No 2) to enact the changes proposed in this motion. That Bill will have to be approved by both the House of Commons and Senate before the changes are enacted.

Photo credit: Flickr/IMF CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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