Inquiry into anti-oilsands charities lacks transparency: Conservative senator
Why scrutinize environmental charities and oilsands opponents, when there's no proof of wrongdoing? asks Senator Nancy Ruth.
In the midst of a Senate inquiry demanding higher transparency from environmental charities, Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth says the inquiry itself needs to be more transparent.
“Fairness, equity, and transparency are intrinsically important to democratic governance. Subjecting charities to a level of scrutiny through the imposing of the new and higher standards is not transparent, when no proof of wrongdoing has been proven,” said Senator Ruth, in an email to the Vancouver Observer.
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The ongoing Senate inquiry aims to crack down on charitable funding from American foundations, which Conservatives say is influencing domestic policy on issues like the oil sands. Meanwhile critics have slammed the government’s decision to allocate $8 million in the federal budget for Canada’s Revenue Agency to investigate overly political action undertaken by charities.
Senator Ruth raised her concerns about the inquiry during a debate last week, noting the fact that foreign corporate interests are not included in the discussion despite their obvious political influence.
“I have three concerns about the inquiry,” she told her colleagues last Thursday, prefacing her arguments with the fact that she supports proposed pipelines such as the Enbridge Northern Gateway project.
“First, if there is going to be an inquiry into foreign influence on Canada's domestic policy, why is the net being cast so narrowly? Why are charities the only entities being subjected to such scrutiny? Second, what concrete evidence substantiates the claim that foreign foundations have pushed Canadian groups into taking positions that they would not otherwise have taken? Third, why are the existing mechanisms for policing the activities of Canadian charities considered inadequate?”
Other senators responded with arguments about “unaccountable environmental organizations” and their “camouflage budgets”, claiming that they often spread misconceptions and use bad science. However, the senators' responses did not directly address the questions Ruth had asked.
“Narrow focus” on anti-oilsands advocacy and environmental charities
Perhaps the most important of Ruth’s critiques is that the inquiry has such a “narrow” focus, taking pains to scrutinize environmental organizations while holding other groups to seemingly different standards.
“The narrow focus sends the message that those whose positions differ from government priorities may be penalized,” she explained, echoing common concerns about the impact of this debate on democracy.
In discussing the Northern Gateway pipeline, Ruth told the Senate, it’s important to remember that charitable groups are not the only ones trying to exert their influence. Foreign investors, lobbyists and business interests who have a stake in policy decisions are excluded from the federal inquiry. And despite the fact that all types of charities are affected by new legislation, environmental groups advocating against the oil sands have been the only ones consistently targeted by politicians.
No Canadian group has felt the impact of these investigations more than Tides Canada. CEO Ross McMillan said the organization is doing what they can to cooperate, explaining that they’re already making a considerable effort to be transparent and disclose all their funding.
“From our perspective, we welcome any legitimate effort to promote transparency and accountability in the charitable sector. We're advocating for full disclosure beyond what's required. We have no problem with the government promoting transparency,” McMillan told the Observer on Tuesday.
“It should be all sectors exercising the same amount of transparency. 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. What's good for the goose should be good for the gander. I don't see that in the government's approach to the corporate sector versus the charitable sector,” he said.
In response to Senate questions about foreign money flowing into Canada through multinationals, investors and oil companies, Conservative Senator Dennis Glen Patterson denied that it had anything to do with the current debate.
“The subject of this inquiry is the interference of foreign foundations in Canada's domestic affairs and their abuse of Canada's existing CRA charitable status,” said Patterson.
“Perhaps there are other areas that should be examined in other inquiries…However, this is about charities and the full transparency that is needed but lacking at the moment,” he said.
Implications for the charitable sector
Senator Ruth’s concerns about the inquiry reflect some of the deeper tensions felt throughout the charitable sector right now, as new rules threaten to limit the resources and activities of organizations working for all causes—not just the environmental movement. She emphasized that in this discussion, it’s critical to remember the vital role that charities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) play in Canadian democracy.
“NGOs make important contributions to the democratic process,” Ruth explained.
“[For instance], facilitating the aggregation and articulation of citizens’ concerns, providing channels through which the government can convey information to the attentive public, providing expertise and experience that can assist government officials in reaching more informed decisions, and playing important roles in program delivery, which saves the government money. Thus NGOs, as a category of actors, make important contributions that are useful not only to their members but also to the democratic process.”
Combined with rhetorical attacks on environmental groups, the government’s plans to monitor and restrict charitable work have been described by opponents as an affront to democracy. And some say it’s not just the environmentalists who will pay the price.
In a previous interview before the budget announcement, David Suzuki Foundation CEO Peter Robinson suggested that proposed legislation changes could have broader implications on the charitable sector as a whole.
“I can’t answer for other charities, although I do know, because I’ve spoken with the umbrella group Imagine Canada, that of course a number of charities are worried about this,” said Robinson.
“They’re actually calling for ways to limit international or philanthropic funding from outside of Canada to come to environmental groups. And the difficulty with that is that the bulk of charitable funding flowing into Canada from foundations and others, three quarters of it actually goes to health and education. So because it’s virtually impossible to set in law that this section of the charitable sector can get it, but this can’t, you have to understand that the charitable sector at large is concerned about where this might go.”
Both Imagine Canada and Tides Canada have raised the point that requiring increased financial reporting from charities will add administrative costs. But these two well-respected groups say they welcome the push for more disclosure and transparency, and stand by the charitable work they are doing across the country.