Ottawa drops appeal in political activity case, ending charities’ 7-year audit nightmare

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The Liberal government has withdrawn its appeal of a stunning 2018 court ruling that quashed a section of the Income Tax Act limiting the political activities of charities.

The landmark case was launched a tiny Ottawa charity, Canada Without Poverty, which argued that the section violates the Charter of Rights guarantee of freedom of expression.

Justice Edward Morgan of the Ontario Superior Court of Canada agreed in his July 16 ruling, declaring that the section no longer had any « force and effect. »

Canada Without Poverty had been under threat of losing its charitable status after auditors at the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) determined that 98.5 per cent its activities were political. Charity law, as it was written at the time, had limited political activities to no more than 10 per cent of an organization’s resources, though critics have said the law’s definition of ‘political’ was too fuzzy.

Leilani Farha, head of the tiny Ottawa charity Canada Without Poverty, helped launch the court challenge of the political-activity limits in charity law, saying it restricted freedom of expression. An Ontario court agreed. (Idil Mussa/CBC News)

After losing the case, the Liberal government eventually agreed to rewrite the Income Tax Act to accommodate Justice Morgan’s ruling – but paradoxically announced Aug. 15 it was appealing the case because of an alleged error of law in the judgment.

Anne Ellefsen-Gauthier, spokesperson for National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier, told CBC News the government still believes Morgan made an error in law by applying a test for religious freedom rather than for freedom of expression.

But after consulting with the charity sector last fall and reviewing higher court rulings, the government has decided not to fight the Ontario case because little would be gained by the effort.

« Higher courts have already been pretty clear on the different test that needs to be applied to freedom of expression, » said Ellefsen-Gauthier. « We’re dropping the appeal. »

The law amended

The Liberal government has since amended the Income Tax Act, under Bill C-86, to remove all reference to political activities for charities. The omnibus bill, one of two implementing last year’s budget measures, received royal assent on Dec. 13, 2018.

The department also recently published a guidance document to inform the charity sector on how the new regime — which still includes a strict prohibition on partisan activities — will be applied. Notably, the term « political activities » has been replaced by the phrase « public policy dialogue and development activities. »

But charities still cannot endorse or support political parties or candidates for office, something the sector has always accepted.

Ottawa’s decision Thursday appears finally to end a long nightmare for some charities targeted by a special CRA auditing program launched in 2012 by the former Conservative government to review the political activities of charities. More than $13 million was earmarked for audits of 60 charities over four years.

The Conservative government of Stephen Harper launched a four-year program to audit the political activities of charities beginning in 2012. Some $13 million was budgeted for the program, which targeted 60 charities. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

In its first year, the controversial program targeted environmental charities, most of which were critics of the government’s energy and pipelines policies. It was later expanded to include religious and human rights charities, among others. The targeted charities said the audits drained precious resources and in some cases led to an « advocacy chill » as groups self-censored so as not to aggravate the government.

The Liberals campaigned in the 2015 federal election on ending the « political harassment » of charities but did not halt the audit program immediately, winding it down only in stages and letting some audits continue. The program has since been cancelled.

« The decision to let Justice Morgan’s decision stand is a huge victory for democracy in Canada, » said Leilana Farha, head of Canada Without Poverty.

« The government has done the right thing twice. First they made the legislative changes recommended by the government’s appointed panel and ordered by Judge Morgan, and now they have properly decided to withdraw their appeal … »

« This decision puts Canada in the lead among common law countries and will have a positive effect not only in Canada, but worldwide. »

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter

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Alberta charities work to ensure donation box safety after B.C. death

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A number of charities serving Alberta that use donation bins are reviewing their safety protocol after the death of a man in Vancouver this week.

On Monday, a man became trapped and died in a donation bin in West Vancouver, the 5th such death in the region since 2015.

A similar death took place in Calgary in July 2017, followed by a serious injury the following summer.


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Safety upgrades

Goodwill Industries of Alberta is one charity that has installed upgraded boxes. Some of the improvements include rollover chutes — which block inside access while pulled open — and stronger locks.

“We take it very seriously and we do everything we can to ensure that when people choose to use the after-hour bins that every essence of safety is involved,” said Brenda Hawryluk, the director of brand integrity and business relations at Goodwill.

Diabetes Canada, which has 4,000 boxes located across Canada, is working with its Canadian-based manufacturer to retrofit its bins, spokesperson Kathleen Powderley told Global News by email on Friday.

“Although death or injury related to the misuse of clothing donation bins is not common, we feel that if there is an opportunity to prevent this type of tragic incident, we must make every effort to find a solution,” Powderley wrote.

Inclusion Alberta, which specializes in helping children and adults with special needs, has 50 bins in the province, about a quarter of which are older models, according to the organization’s CEO, Trish Bowman.

“In terms of these 12 boxes, we’ll be taking some immediate action in terms of increasing the safety notices on the boxes,” Bowman said. “We’re going to be speaking with first responders to see if there’s anything that we could be doing to ensure they can respond quickly should someone get trapped in a box.”


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Multi-faceted solution

While design changes are part of the solution, it’s also about solving the root causes, anti-poverty group Bissell Centre told Global News.

“People that are sleeping [in the bins] or people that are seeking refuge are pretty desperate. They’re looking for ways to stay warm, stay dry,” said Matt Ashdown, the director of community programs and services at the organization.

For charities like Goodwill, it’s an effort to ensure safety while maintaining a valuable revenue tool.

“Without the donations, we do not have the revenue stream for our stores. Without the venue stream, we’re not able to provide almost 90 cents to every dollar back into our mission,” Hawryluk said.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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Lethbridge charities preparing for holiday season – Lethbridge

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Even though much of southern Alberta saw Christmas-like weather on Friday, there is still more than a month until Dec. 25.

But organizers of holiday-themed charity campaigns are already feeling the spirit that comes with the season.

A Christmas to Remember launched its fourth annual initiative this week. It’s led by AgeCare Columbia and offers Christmas gifts to seniors who might need some joy.

“[The campaign is for] any seniors who are isolated, lonely or financially challenged and just don’t have access to being around people and trying to spread cheer,” said AgeCare Columbia administrator Kathy Tomasta.

Last season, A Christmas to Remember handed out about 400 gifts.

This year, they’re aiming for 500.


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Christmas Hope combines some of the region’s biggest charities and they’re hoping the weather plays a big factor when it comes to donations.

“As soon as it starts to feel like Christmas, people start to think of others and it’s a wonderful thing for our campaign,” said Interfaith Food Bank executive director Danielle McIntyre.

This year the campaign is hoping to serve more people than ever before: 2,700 adults and 4,000 children.

More than 1,100 adults and 1,900 kids have already registered.

“We’re getting several calls from different groups that are organizing fundraisers on our behalf,” she said.

“We always encourage people that if you’re collecting for us, to connect with us to get a collection bin or if you need help with volunteers for your event.”

McIntyre added people can also stop in at any of the Christmas Hope locations to make a donation.


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The Salvation Army is also preparing for its Christmas Kettle Campaign.

Last year $152,000 was tallied in Lethbridge kettles.

This year, the charity has set a goal of $160,000 with collections starting next week.

The campaigns all hope to top the numbers they put up last year and make Christmas 2018 one of the most giving times the region has ever seen.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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