One of the key motivations for setting up www.RightOnCanada.ca. is to provide citizens with an internet-based tool that is able to advocate and lobby strongly and freely on human rights and environmental issues.
Most major human rights, international development, environmental and public interest organizations in Canada are registered charities under the Income Tax Act. Unfortunately, this Act severely restricts such organizations from doing advocacy or lobbying work to change government policies. They are required by the Act to use substantially all their resources on non-advocacy activities. A registered charity whose annual income is over $100,000, for example, is allowed to use only up to 12% of its resources on advocacy.
The Income Tax Act permits registered charities to provide aid and carry out education activities as ways to address problems of poverty and devastation in the world. Yet it restricts them from challenging the policies that cause the poverty and devastation in the first place.
The restrictions in the Canada Income Tax Act derive from provisions in the charity law of England in the 17th century. Recognizing that these restrictions are profoundly undemocratic, the UK itself and other countries have updated their tax laws to allow charitable organizations more freedom to speak out and lobby government. Minimal changes have been made to the Canadian Income Tax Act.
It is well recognized around the world and explicitly stated in most United Nations documents that strong, vibrant civil society organizations are one of the most effective foundations for a healthy, democratic society. The ability of independent, civil society organizations to advocate for the public good and the wellbeing of the environment is critical. When this freedom is curtailed, governments become less accountable; powerful, corporate interests have greater influence; and bad government policy ensues.
The restrictions in the Canada Tax Act are among the most draconian and act as a gag on civil society organizations. Organizations have been threatened with having their charitable tax status removed, and some have had it taken away, for carrying out advocacy activities. This acts as a chill on all charitable organizations.
Corporations, on the other hand, are free to lobby, spend vast amounts of money on lobbying and are given tax write-offs for these lobbying activities. Under the Income Tax Act, corporations are rewarded for lobbying; civil society organizations are penalized.
This systemic disempowering of civil society voices has made it easier for the government to ignore its human rights and environmental responsabilities. And this is one reason why Canada’s record on human rights and the environment has sunk so low.
RightOnCanada is a project of the Rideau Institute on International Affairs, which deliberately does not have charitable tax status in order to be free to carry out much needed advocacy and lobbying work. Our goal is to provide a strategic tool that will allow citizens to challenge the government and together lobby strongly for policies that put human rights and the environment at the top of Canada’s agenda.
The need to change the Canada Income Tax Act to allow more democratic freedom for registered charities to do advocacy and lobbying could be an issue for RightOnCanada to take up. If you have any comments on this or any other issue, let us know.
We also welcome your ideas and suggestions on how to make this tool be a dynamic catalyst for citizen action.