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"Truthiness" and the right's attack on Canada's charities

Stephen Colbert coined the term "truthiness" to describe “what you want the facts to be, as opposed to what the facts are.” Canadian charities should employ truthiness  to their own advantage, instead of standing by as the Harper government and Conservative pundits use it against them.  

Editor's note: This is second in a series which began with "The truth behind the attack on charities and scientists in Canada."  The author wishes to state that she has no relationship with Tides Canada or its principals and is not formally a member of the environmental movement.

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Canadian charities have the legal right to political advocacy

While charities are barred from partisan political activity, their ability to advocate in the public square is explicitly recognized and, until now, protected by our government. In September 2003, following years of consultation and review, the government and voluntary sector crystallized an agreement respecting permitted political advocacy by the charitable sector. 

Organizations issuing charitable tax receipts are permitted to commit 10 per cent of their resources to political activities, per rules clearly articulated in CRA’s 2003 Policy Statement. The essence of the non-profit accord is to enable charities to advocate freely while safeguarding the charitable tax purpose from exploitation for purely partisan political motives. 

Of course, this stands in stark contrast to the undisputed and uncontroversial 100 per cent tax write-off available to all corporations, whether domestic or foreign-owned, for unlimited publicity, marketing, lobbying and public awareness campaigns undertaken in their business interest.

If profit is your motive, you have a free pass. If your motive is the public good, however, the Canadian government's got its eye on you. 

With tight CRA monitoring, any charitable organization with competent board oversight and professional staff adheres strictly to established guidelines, though you’d never guess it from the hue and cry in Ottawa.  

Turning against Tides: what happens to inconvenient charities

Charities have come under unprecedented attack by the Conservative government, and no organization is more affected by the hype than Tides Canada. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver directly smeared Tides as a radical organization. And there is no mistaking the target or agenda when Environment Minister Peter Kent warned Canadians about charities laundering foreign money, or when Public Safety Minister Vic Toews put environmentalists on Canada’s terrorist watch.

It was the same in the Senate, when Conservative senators rose and denounced Tides by name as a bad, ugly and anti-Canadian charity. Everyone’s running around like chickens with their heads cut off.  

With our government so upset, it might not be a bad idea to look at the Tides leadership and see who these dangerous anti-Canadian radicals are. Supporting CEO Ross McMillan is Jodi White, Chair of the Board. White is former chief of staff to Conservative Prime Minister Kim Campbell, and former CEO of the Public Policy Forum, Canada’s leading centre promoting dialogue between the public, private, and voluntary sectors. Tides’ CFO Jeff Garrad was previously CFO to the BC Olympic Secretariat -- the government agency overseeing the 2010 Olympic Games. VP Sarah Goodman comes from the resource industry, having served in senior executive and VP roles in both Tech and Weyerhaeuser Canada.  

Imagine Canada, a national umbrella organization fostering good practices in the charitable sector recently recognized Tides Canada as one of Canada’s 17 pre-eminent charities in terms of transparency, governance and good management.

Now it’s possible that this is all an elaborate plot, and that leaders like McMillan, White, Garrad and Goodman are exactly the kind of folks who’d never let principles get in the way of their subversive and dangerously radical anti-corporate agenda. Possible -- in the sense that it’s not impossible.

Nobody likes throwing cold water on a good conspiracy theory, but sometimes a fire extinguisher wouldn’t hurt. Looking at the leadership of Tides, knowing that it partners directly with the federal and provincial governments, industry leaders, and some of the most celebrated and reputable international foundations in the world, and that it passed a CRA audit within the last three years, isn’t it a lot more reasonable (not to mention sane) to conclude that things are in all probability fairly normal in this organization?    

Yet no amount of common sense has stemmed the near hysteria emanating from Ottawa. You’d think Saddam Hussein was holed up under Ross McMillan’s desk, the way everybody’s carrying on. And the CRA has been sent back in to audit them again. It seems they didn’t come back with the right answer the first time.

The government of Canada clearly wants our environmental conservation sector to shut the heck up, and they’re letting everyone know just exactly what happens to bad charities.  

Harper's message to charities: don't be inconvenient, and master "truthiness" 

Let’s call this exactly what it is: a set-up.
A key piece in the puzzle here is that Tides Canada was the architect in the Great Bear Rainforest initiative, a multi-party agreement involving the federal and provincial governments to protect the forests and coastal waters of BC’s northern coast.  As it turns out, the Great Bear Rainforest -- so enthusiastically embraced by the Harper government in 2006 -- lies directly in the path of the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline. A pipeline opposed by the environmental conservation movement.

What a coincidence that Tides is now being vilified, pilloried and publicly humiliated. The federal government has pulled out all the stops in its efforts to discredit it.  

Tides Canada will be very fortunate to escape its new tax audit unscathed.  There’s every sign of political interference in the operations of Canada Revenue Agency, which should drive the icy dagger of fear into all Canadians. In a move that could not have been better calibrated for sheer intimidation, a new $8 million has just been found for the express purpose of scrutinizing charities (though of course nothing is available for a Coast Guard unit to protect lives in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet).  

The message to charities couldn’t be clearer: don’t be inconvenient.

If you’re a charity in the cancer game, you might want to think twice about ever mentioning asbestos again.  Better that you host an Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer, like the BC Cancer Agency did. If you’re on the board of any charity with leaders who might say something displeasing to government, maybe it’s time for a change of leadership. If you’re Stephen Lewis, just forget it.  

Work harder at learning how to be good. Better yet -- master truthiness, and everything will turn out fine.

Editor's note: This is the second part in a series, which begins here.  The author wishes to state that she has no relationship with Tides Canada or its principals and is not formally a member of the environmental movement.

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