The voice of charities and non-profits is critical in a democratic society. Board Voice, as a non-profit and not a charity, has been at the forefront of political advocacy efforts in BC. When the new Society Act was proposed in 2014, it contained a very troubling section that would have allowed interested parties to apply to the BC Supreme Court to intervene if they believe a society is acting in a way that is detrimental to the public interest. Board Voice, along with 56 other societies, signed a letter written by the West Coast Environmental Law Society, expressing concern about Section 99 of the new act. Our collective efforts showed the power of the sector to engage in political activity and make a change.
Political work done by charities has prodded governments into making policy changes that have benefited generations of Canadians. According to the Environmental Law Centre legal director Calvin Sandborn, political work of charities like the Canadian Cancer Society has been instrumental in public health decisions such as banning smoking in public places. In 2012, the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) began auditing the political activities of charities. As Jack Knox points out in a recent article in the Times Colonist, even though “the Conservatives denied the audits were politically motivated” the CRA funding for these audits increased just as the Harper government was ‘muttering about “radical” environmentalists bogging down the the Northern Gateway pipeline-approval process.”
Our new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has freed charities to go about their work. The threat of charitable audits had kept many charities from exercising their legal political work for fear that they would come to the attention of the Canada Revenue Agency. No doubt, this has the entire charitable sector heaving a huge sense of relief. Even with the changes, charities still need to keep in mind the rules for engaging in political activity.