What's charitable status, and why is Harper's Conservative government obsessed with limiting it?

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"relief of aged, impotent, and poor people; the maintenance of sick and maimed soldiers and mariners, schools of learning, free schools and scholars of universities; the repair of bridges, havens, causeways, churches, sea banks and highways; the education and preferment of orphans; the relief, stock or maintenance of houses of correction; marriages of poor maids; supportation, aid and help of young tradesmen, handicraftsmen and persons decayed; the relief or redemption of prisoners or captives and the aid or ease of any poor inhabitants concerning payments of fifteens [a form of tax], setting out of soldiers and other taxes."


Many of the concerns in this long sentence are irrelevant to the way society is structured today. Repairing bridges or education would hardly be considered charitable acts in this century.

And even more important, some of the words in this statement had a meaning in Elizabethan England completely different from their meaning today. For example, the word "poor" does not mean people lacking money or material goods.

To Queen Elizabeth, this meant people who were physically or mentally incapable of working. Able-bodied people who had no money and could not find work were actually defined as dangerous or even criminals. They could be whipped or otherwise punished – or else forced into work or even into armed service.

Not our problem

 In the language of a Poor Law that was drafted in the same year as the Statute of Elizabeth, 1601, able-bodied but unemployed persons were referred to as “Rogues, Vagabonds and sturdy Beggars”, and the Poor Law was designed for the purpose of “…suppressing of the said outrageous Enemies to the common Weal”.

In addition to stigmatizing and punishing any person who was poor and unemployed – an approach that modern “work-fare” laws clearly resurrect, the Statute of Elizabeth passed on responsibility for dealing with"

“relief of aged, impotent, and poor people…sick and maimed soldiers and mariners….orphans….”

...and all the other categories of people to church parishes.

It off-loaded these responsibilities on to local churches and communities, which were given limited rights to raise money for this purpose.

Along with the Poor Laws enacted at the same time (see Fig.2), Queen Elizabeth and her ministers stepped back from caring for suffering citizens, and passed that responsibility on to society at large.

 The Statute of Elizabeth was repealed in the late 19th century, and soon after was replaced by a new set of guidelines around charity.

These were established in a defining case before judges in the English House of Lords (roughly equivalent to our Senate), entitled Commissioners of Income Tax versus Pemsel.

In this case, crudely derived from the principles laid out nearly 300 years earlier, there are three clearly defined forms of "charity". They are: the relief of poverty, the advancement of education, and the advancement of religion.

Today, the first two of these forms of "charity" are often addressed by federal, provincial and municipal governments. That means, in practical terms, that pursuing these goals is consistent with government policy. And that is a key point.

 Charity in the eyes of the beheader

 Understanding charitable law, from Elizabeth on, can only be accomplished in the context of what governments decide is charitable. If “charity” does not conform with government policy, then it is disallowed.

The advancement of religion isn’t mentioned in the Statute of Elizabeth, for reasons that made a great deal of sense in 1601.

Then, religion was a purely political issue. If you were loyal to the Queen, you accepted her as head of the Church of England. If you didn’t, well, eventually your head might well be parted from your body. To quote from a wonderfully detailed paper on the subject, written just over a decade ago by Vancouver charitable tax lawyer Blake Bromley:


“Religion was a very high legislative priority for Elizabeth I, and she made religion a litmus test for political allegiance.”

 In fact, so important was this political side of religion that “in her very first statute, Elizabeth I made religion part of the Oath of Allegiance that every religious and temporal leader had to swear in her favour.”

Somewhere between Elizabeth’s time and the present day, and through various legal actions and developing case law, the “advancement of religion” became an acceptable charitable goal, and it still is today.

Consequently becoming a church or religious body is a favourite way of reducing an organization’s tax burden, and encouraging donations for its maintenance.

But there's that fourth ambiguous and fuzzy definition of charity.

It's here that the CRA and the federal government in general – and especially the Prime Minister – gain extraordinary latitude. This definition states that charity consists of "other purposes beneficial to the community as a whole that the courts have identified as charitable."

 In 1601, nuclear weapons were not top of mind in the court of Elizabeth I.

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