Tides Canada's Ross McMillan shoots back at Ezra Levant's "money launderers" slur
Tides Canada chief executive Ross McMillan shot back yesterday at oil sands proponent Ezra Levant – a talk show host on Sun News Network and newspaper columnist – who has accused the charitable group of illegal fiscal activities over its support for environmental groups.
“People like Mr. Levant and critics of the environmental and charitable sector are confusing allowable political activity – as defined by the Canada Revenue Agency – with advocacy,” he said. “In the press, people tend to use those terms interchangeably, when they're clearly not the same.
Tides Canada's director reiterated that Tides Canada operates within Canadian law in disbursing donations to other registered charitable organizations, and is legally distinct from its U.S. counterpart – facts he added have been grossly distorted by Sun News Network.
Levant's rhetoric about Tides Canada borders
In a March 17 column published in Sun newspapers across the country, Levant, author of the book, "Ethical Oil," said Tides was engaged in “scrubbing the identity of the donor, giving him a tax receipt, and passing the money on to a non-charity” in relation to anti-pipeline and anti-oilsands activism.
“As to the CRA regulations, I do not take Tides' excuses at face value,” Levant told the Vancouver Observer yesterday. “They're money-launderers – renting out their charitable number to any anti-oilsands political group, and granting their donors anonymity. They believe in opaqueness, not transparency.
“It's an abuse of our Canadian tax laws.”
According to Canada's Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act, as well as the Criminal Code, money laundering is the crime of knowingly concealing, transferring or converting money or property obtained through a criminal offence; it carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.
And while Levant's comments might be dismissed as pure showmanship on the rhetorical playing field of media organizations like Sun News Network, for organizations like Tides Canada and the non-profits they support (such as ForestEthics), the allegations are repressive and might create a chill on legitimate advocacy, McMillan warned.
“Some charities will conduct a tremendous amount of advocating – I'm not sure the Ezra Levants of the world will understand that, but they are in full compliance,” he said.
“We track all of our allowable political activity on an ongoing basis. . . We report on it annually in our tax returns."
MacMillan said that Tides Canada only disburses money to registered charities, contrary to Levant's claim. Tides Canada, he explained, consists of two separate entities: the Tides Canada Foundation and Tides Canada Initiatives.
The former disburses donations only to registered Canadian charities on behalf of donors; those charities are already barred from spending more than 10 per cent of their budget on political activities, and only non-partisan ones that are part of their overall goals. The Initiatives component also follows those laws, McMillan said.
Charities are legally allowed to support or oppose policy, but cannot endorse a political party.
“Clearly, partisan politics is off limits for any registered charity, full stop," he said. "Beyond that, there's nothing stopping charities from advocating a different approach to climate change, or to argue corporations should be better corporate citizens and increase their focus on environmental protection. Thats not political activity – that's advocacy for environmental or social justice causes.”
It is not only Sun media chain commentators like Levant who have associated Tides Canada with its California-based counterpart, or suggested laws are being broken in the case of oilsands funding.
A March 30 news article by Daniel Proussalidis – published in a number of outlets owned by Quebecor Media Inc., Sun's parent company – opened with the statement that, “One of the main controversial billionaire foreign foundations funding Canadian anti-oilsands activism is embracing the federal government's move to open up that funding to public scrutiny.”
The article also reported, “The (federal) budget includes new money to help Canada Revenue Agency clamp down on overtly political charities, recommends charities report the foreign funding they get for political activities, and calls for limits on charities' ability to 'fund the political activities' of other charities.”
McMillan said the federal budget did not change these expenditure rules, but boosted investigations into charities by $8 million and required charities to report foreign donors.
Registered charitiesare still allowed to spend 10 per cent of their expenses on allowable political activity – what changed in last Thursday's budget was the reporting requirements for disbursements. Non-partisan advocacy is still allowed, McMillan said.
“There's nothing wrong with advocacy – it has nothing to do with political activity,” he told the Vancouver Observer.
“Just to put our oilsands and pipeline work in perspective – it accounts for three per cent of our work last year. It's clear that our presence in the oilsands and pipeline issue has been grossly overstated in the media. That said, we're proudly supporting organizations with concerns about them.”
Media distortion of Senate committee questions
McMillan also disputed media reports that Tides Canada was ordered unwillingly before a Senate committee investigated the oilsands and pipeline issue.
On March 8, Sun media reporter Jessica Murphy wrote in a news article that, “Conservative senators forced Tides – appearing before a Senate committee probing Canada's energy sector – to take the defensive Thursday for accepting cash from foreign foundations to fund anti-oilsands projects.”
For Tides Canada, this statement was an outright distortion of what happened in Ottawa, McMillan said.
“It's a real misrepresentation to say we've been investigated or hauled up before a committee,” he said. 'We've encouraged the Senate to ask us to speak about our work – some of the Senators had issues around our grant-making, but that's fair game.”
Under the CRA rules, charitable activity includes “the relief of poverty; the advancement of education; the advancement of religion; or other purposes beneficial to the community in a way the law regards as charitable.” The final category would include environmental and economic advocacy and education, but not political lobbying.
Levant argued, however, that the rules don't allow unbalanced arguments to stop a project like the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, or the Alberta oilsands.
“Claiming that the oilsands damage the global environment is an incomplete argument, because the oilsands do not cause people to use oil,” he told the Vancouver Observer.
“That supply simply displaces other oil sources on the world market. . . even a cursory glance at the sources of the world's carbon emissions – if you're worried about that – shows that the oilsands are insignificant compared to other industries and energy sources.
“More to the point, the choice is not oilsands oil versus no oil. It's oilsands oil versus other sources of oil, most of which have lower environmental standards than Canada.”
As environmental charities come under increased scrutiny from the Canadian government, McMillan noted that the government has publicly criticized over-regulation of the environmental assessment process – which was reduced retroactively to two years – while increasing hoops the charitable sector must jump through.
“It's entirely ironic that the government is adding red tape and regulations in the charitable sector, when they're slashing it for the resource sector,” he said.
"What's good for the goose should be good for the gander.”