The Danger of Monologues

This post originally appeared on the Carbon Talks blog, and in an edited form in The Mark.

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. This week’s federal budget is a dangerously subtle example of this trend.

On the subject of environmental reviews – notably the Northern Gateway Pipeline – when the government proposed dialogue and consultation, there was an expectation that it would have more than one side. The groan-worthy cliché applicable here is that it takes two to tango. Or, I suppose since this inevitably revolves around Alberta, it takes a whole room of folks to line dance. But if you lock your date out of the hall the night of the big dance, then why bother advertising the event in the first place?

The Canadian federal government seems to be a bit nervous about its dance partners. The 2012 budget is earmarking an additional $8 million for the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) 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. But 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% of their human and financial resources engaging in non-partisan political activity. What exactly contributes to that 10% is not entirely clear to many, including myself, and that lack of clarity is likely to discourage charities from engaging in any public advocacy at all.

My own 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, far less than 10%. But that requires taking the time to understand the rules and document all activities; this 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 2 appendices, clocking in at just under 10,000 words.

Protesters in Bella Bella this week, making their voices heard
Protesters in Bella Bella this week, making their voices heard

The size of the charitable sector in Canada is likely grossly underestimated by many of us. According to the CRA’s own numbers, in 2007 there were a staggering 2.4 million Canadians employed by charities, accounting for about 7% of our GDP. This compares with the oil and gas industry, which employs about 800,000 Canadians and accounts for about 4.8% of our GDP. By hampering the ability of charitable organizations to do their work through forcing them to devote more resources to accounting, the government may very well be harming the Canadian economy. Given that this is the justification given 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. Just because my version of Canada differs from someone else’s, doesn’t mean that they are necessarily wrong, it just means that we’re approaching a word, and the notion of our nation, from a different perspective; that’s a wonderful thing, and it’s shameful that our government is trying to avoid it. 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.

I’ll leave you with a thought upon one more small part of the budget for your own moment of Zen reflection. The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, a government initiative meant to report on Canada’s efforts on greenhouse gas reduction, is being abandoned. According to the budget, this is because there is now a “mature and expanded community of environmental policy stakeholders” who are demonstrating “the capacity to provide analysis and policy advice for the Government of Canada.” And who might these stakeholders be? Those are the environmental charities, of course. Joseph Heller would be proud.

Following comments sent along to me, this post has been edited to reflect the distinction between public advocacy and political activity; my confusion over that distinction, at least as far as it applies to the CRA regulations, is undoubtedly shared by many others – CG

(Feature photo courtesy of Financial Post, Bella Bella photo courtesy of Janet Sawatsky)