A Committee, a Report, a Law and a Good Take on Charity

In 2021, a special committee of the Senate of Canada issued its report on the country’s charitable sector. I am not going to pretend to a deep knowledge of this committee’s work, given I just discovered its existence Cover of "A Roadmap to a Stronger Charitable Sector"on Monday, but I will say that the question the committee set out to answer—”Why is it so hard to do great works of charity?”—got my back up, immersed as I had been in my reading about the human right to food.

“Why are great works of charity necessary in a country as wealthy as Canada?” might have been a better starting point.

This committee, led by former Senator Terry Mercer from Nova Scotia, a one-time “fund-raising executive director,” notes in the executive summary:

Today, we ask more than ever of the [charitable] sector. Demand for services has increased, yet funding is constrained

But it never seems to wonder why we are asking “more than ever” of the charitable sector. Its concerns were much more practical, as the press release announcing the report’s release explains:

The legal framework governing the sector is out of date and can sometimes impede organizations’ work. And the relationship between the sector and the federal government should be strengthened by identifying a home for the sector within a specific department or agency.

Canada’s charitable sector is broad—the report says it includes 86,000 registered charities and 85,000 non-profit organizations—and looking at this 2018 Canada Revenue Agency breakdown of Canadian charities, I see a lot of room for government:CRA Charity Program Facts and Figures, 2018The same is true of the list of respondents to the online survey conducted by the senate sub-committee:

A graph breaking down responses to a Canadian Senate survey by categories.

The explanation for the surprisingly large number of “other” organizations, by the way, is that respondents were given the option of a text box in which to describe themselves and:

Some respondents used this box to note that their organization was active in more than one area; for example, one organization indicated that it was active in “sport, recreation, entertainment, agriculture and hospitality.” [Tractor-pull competitions?] In addition, many of the respondents who selected “other” could have chosen an option from the list but preferred to provide more detail. For example, rather than selecting “social support services,” one organization noted that it delivered monthly food baskets to low-income individuals.

Interestingly, this national online survey attracted 695 responses which means considerably fewer than the survey conducted by the CBRM with regard to amendments to its taxi by-law (708). (To be fair, though, the Senate committee also heard from 160 people at 24 public meetings and received submissions from 90 organizations.)

 

Police checks

A lot of the recommendations seem to involve the tax code, although there was the odd outlier, like this one which, in light of recent representations to CBRM council by our chief of police, I found interesting. The Senate Committee recommends:

That the Government of Canada, though the Public Safety Minister, work with provincial and territorial counterparts and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police to seek ways to alleviate a financial burden on low-budget organizations for needed police checks on volunteers.

But as the CBC reported at the end of March, our police commission:

…after debating four options for charging volunteers for record checks…settled on a $5 fee that Walsh said would nominally cover administrative costs.

 

Finally…

The upshot of this report is Bill S-216 The Effective and Accountable Charities Act.

Sponsored by Independent Senator Ratna Omidvar, it was passed “in essence” by the House of Commons (meaning, the Senate bill has been modified into a government-acceptable bill) and is now going through the regulatory process and seems likely to become law.

Omidvar’s website says the bill:

…will amend the Income Tax Act to enable charities to establish equal partnerships with non-charities, especially empowering the voices of BIPOC organizations, while still ensuring accountability and transparency.

Currently, the Income Tax Act limits charities to spending their charitable dollars on their “own activities”. However, there are times when the best way for a charity to pursue its charitable purpose is to partner with non-charities, such as not-for-profits, social enterprises, co-ops, or civil society groups. The Canada Revenue Agency, which issues guidelines based on the Income Tax Act, has stipulated that when charities do work with non-charities, they must exercise “direction and control” over that work.

My understanding of the tax law governing charities does not allow me to judge the accuracy of this assessment, so we’ll leave that for someone more qualified. But  while poking around on Omidvar’s website, I found the content I couldn’t find in the charitable sector report.

It was in NDP MP Niki Ashton’s (Churchill-Keewatinook Aski) response to Bill S-216, delivered via Zoom to the House of Commons on 16 May 2022.

Ashton began by recognizing “the important work” done by the volunteers who had gone “above and beyond” during the pandemic and ended with words of praise for the bill itself, but in between, she said this (I’m going to quote the transcript which differs slightly from the speech as delivered but not in any significant way):

I also want to talk about how the government, especially over the last two or more decades, has turned to charities to take over the work that government should be doing. The government should be foremost responsible for the social well-being of all in our country. It is clear that government must be doing its part to ensure the collective good, rather than overly relying on charities to do its work. The reality is that inequality in Canada has increased over the last number of years in significant ways. Instead of the government stepping in to address that shocking inequality and the rise in inequality, it has often turned to philanthropy and the charitable sector to try to fill in the gaps, and that is not okay.

…As Paul Taylor, a great activist in Toronto fighting back against food insecurity, has said, “The most effective remedy for food insecurity is also the simplest: provide people with income to purchase food”. This shows clearly that the federal government is not doing enough for people. Food banks, for example, are helping so many, not because food is unavailable in many communities, but because poverty is so high in so many places that people cannot afford to get the food they need. We must recognize that food is a right, not a privilege, and beyond food security, social well-being is also a right, not a privilege.

Because of inadequate social assistance rates provided by governments and because our social safety net has been cut and privatized, many more people in Canada in recent decades have been pushed into poverty, forced to choose between dangerous housing conditions and homelessness and between paying basic bills and the groceries they need. As we have seen during the pandemic and now with the rise in inflation and the increased cost of living, the reality is that people are suffering and families are crying out for help.

Compared to a federal government announcing increased funding for food banks or a provincial premier “admiring” the work of volunteers running a soup kitchen, or a municipality relying on volunteers to rebuild residents’ storm-damaged houses (see “Honoring Volunteers, Abdicating Responsibility”) this was such a breath of fresh air, I got downright giddy.

Well done, Niki Ashton.