About a quarter of the 22 million Canadians that filed their income tax returns this April will receive deductions for making charitable donations. Tax deductions on charitable donations are a means of providing public support for non-government, not-for-profit organizations that contribute to the public good. Groups can be registered as charities if they undertake charitable purposes such as the relief of poverty, the advancement of education or religion and other purposes that benefit the community as defined by the courts. The problem is that the Canada Revenue Agency is not properly administering the act and allowing for the abuse of the policy when it comes to anti-abortion and sport hunting groups.
It may come as a surprise that there are hundreds of anti-abortion groups and sport hunting groups and even right wing think tanks such as the Fraser Institute among the 80,000 charities in Canada that can issue charitable tax receipts. Yet when most people think of charities, examples that come to mind are soup kitchens and hospices for the terminally ill. Environmental, animal protection and pro-choice groups would also seem likely candidates, but many of these groups have either recently lost their charitable status or simply do not apply because they engage in a significant amount of advocacy work, spending more than 10 per cent of their resources on political activities (strictly limited under the Income Tax Act).
But what about a sport hunting group that manages wildlife populations to hunt? Or an anti-abortion group that stages routine protests outside an abortion clinic? Such activities might seem uncharitable, but apparently not to the Canada Revenue Agency.
Charity and the Pro-Choice Movement
Consider these facts. Since 2001, the Canadian pro-choice movement has been trying to get the Canada Revenue Agency to audit anti-abortion groups and revoke their charitable tax status, with no success. About 170 anti-abortion groups in Canada have charitable tax status - 70 that appear to be highly political, plus 100 “counseling” agencies that try to scare women away from abortion. By contrast, Planned Parenthood and Childbirth by Choice Trust are the only groups with charitable status that educate the public with complete information on all pregnancy options, including abortion.
Anti-abortion groups should not qualify for charitable tax status by their very nature. In 1988, the Supreme Court threw out Canada’s abortion law to further women’s equality under the constitution. The ruling radically changed the mandate of anti-abortion groups, whose new de facto purpose be-came to make abortion illegal again. But spending more than 10 per cent of resources to change laws is a direct violation of requirements for charitable status. Other systemic violations include trying to sway the public to their viewpoint by using propaganda and spreading misinformation on abortion, most of it inflammatory and biased.
For example, a charitable organization called Lifeline operates the Aid to Women centre in Toronto, an anti-abortion pregnancy counselling agency. One of its primary activities are aggressive protests outside the abortion clinic next door. Several Aid to Women volunteers or staff members have been arrested for violating the injunction that protects staff and patients from harassment including one arrest for criminal harassment. These are not charitable activities.
To give another example, the charitable Pro-Life Society of British Columbia is a large umbrella group comprised of many “pro-life” and “right-to-life” groups in BC, all of them largely political. The activities of the Society itself are mostly non-charitable, including, for example: misleading ads that hide their anti-abortion agenda, intervening in legal cases to try and change government laws, holding politically-oriented conferences, political lobbying, submitting government briefs that urge changes in law, publishing propaganda that masquerades as education, and making numerous political and inflammatory statements to the media. The Pro- Choice Action Network filed a complaint with CRA in March 2002 against the Society, documenting these activities and more. Yet the Society still has charitable tax status.
By contrast, pro-choice groups carry out real charitable work by educating the public about a legal medical service to which women have a constitutional right. In spite of that, the educational charity Childbirth by Choice Trust in Toronto was audited by the Canada Revenue Agency several years ago, and was forced to alter several of its brochures in order to maintain its charitable status.
Guns, Guns, Guns
The Canada Revenue Agency’s biased administration of the law is more widespread. Many environmental and animal protection groups, including Friends of Clayoquot Sound and Fur-Bearer Defenders, lost their charitable status a few years ago when Charity Watch, a pro-hunting group, pressured the government to review their status. Yet the Canadian government has never investigated sport hunting and fishing organizations in the same way.
Sport hunting groups typically engage in brazen political lobbying campaigns. In 1999, the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters sued the Ontario government for canceling the spring bear hunt. Last summer it sent a letter to Ontario’s 500 municipalities asking for a vote on a motion to urge the federal government to “abolish the unworkable national firearms registry for long guns.” What is a charitable organization doing undermining gun control?
Many political activities of sports hunting groups undermine environmental preservation yet these groups portray themselves as conservation groups. They register themselves under the Income Tax Act in the category of “protection of animals” - an ironic choice for sport hunters and an unacceptable abuse of the term.
Their promotional literature misuses such terms as conservation, wildlife management, heritage, and wise use to confuse an unsuspecting public. Their mission appears pure–conservation for conservation’s sake. In reality their agenda is enlarging “game” populations for bloodsport, expanding access to sport hunting opportunities by opening parks and protected areas to hunting, habitat manipulations, and deer feeding programs. They seek to kill their competition–natural predators such as bears, wolves, and cormorants–at great cost to balanced ecosystems.
Why do hunting groups retain charitable status while many environmental groups similarly engaged in political activities have lost their charitable status years ago? As Maryjka Mychajlowycz of the Friends of Clayoquot Sound notes: “It seems the rules limiting advocacy are more stringently applied to charities who champion environmental protection than to those so-called charities that represent the hunting lobby.” George Clements of the Fur-Bearer Defenders adds “How can hunting groups claim they are ‘protecting’ our animals and receive charitable status while our Association whose central aim is the protection of animals (even in our name) loses its status?”
Charities and Advocacy: A New Model
This is not to say that the 10 per cent rule for advocacy is a good one. Charitable laws do need an overhaul. The antiquated 10 per cent limit on political activities should be lifted to allow for more advocacy. Nowadays it is widely recognized that it is more important for anti-poverty, environmental and women’s rights groups to advocate changes in laws and policies than to provide services and so there ought to be more latitude in pursuing goals that way. But the least the Canada Revenue Agency could do is to apply the existing rules fairly.
The federal government also needs to review the very definition of a charity. At a time when habitat loss and sport hunting are key threats to biodiversity and healthy ecosystems, is it sensible for hunting and fishing clubs to be buoyed with a tax exemption? The challenge to women’s rights presented by anti-abortion groups also raises a big question mark as to whether they deserve to be called charities at all and enjoy the public benefits of this status.
There’s a very macho connection in the Canada Revenue Agency’s behaviour linked to what Michael Moore called the “stupid white man syndrome.” There appears to be a grotesque hypocrisy between the government trying to de-list progressive feminist, environmental and animal rights groups while permitting so-called charities that have a right-wing, patriarchal and economistic ideology to engage in highly political activities. It’s time for the Canada Revenue Agency to keep up with the times and to provide a progressive, balanced, and fair voice in its implementation of Canada’s charity laws.
Joyce Arthur is a director and spokesperson for the national Pro-Choice Action Network in Vancouver BC and edits Canada’s only pro-choice publication, Pro-Choice Press. She has written a report entitled “Why Anti- Abortion Groups Should Not Have Charitable Tax Status” available at www.prochoiceactionnetwork-canada.org/charities.html.
Anita Krajnc is a Skelton-Clark Post-Doctoral Fellow in Canadian Affairs in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University.
Nancy Zylstra is the volunteer network coordinator for the ProNature Network and operates an ecotour business in the Madawaska Valley in eastern Ontario. For more information see “Conservation or Contradiction: Should Hunting And Fishing Clubs Have Charity Status?” available on-line at www.pronature.on.ca/home.html.
This article appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of Canadian Dimension .