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Alternatives has been the target of two of the tactics employed by the federal government in recent years against progressive civil society organizations: firstly, defunding and, secondly, costly and time-consuming audits by Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) with the potential result of losing charitable status.
In December 2009, Alternatives learned that its federal government funding was to be cut. Having survived this crisis, the organization was targeted in 2012 for a lengthy and on-going CRA audit which threatens its survival.
In December 2009, after 17 years of cooperation with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in more than 30 countries, Alternatives learned through an article in a national newspaper that funding from CIDA for its programs was to be cut, despite successive positive evaluations by independent auditors.
Then-minister of international cooperation Beverley Oda, and CIDA president Margaret Biggs, refused to respond to calls and questions from the organization. The media speculated that the reason was related to Alternatives' positions on Palestinian rights.
The cuts meant Alternatives was forced to reduce staff from 38 to 12 people and cancel several projects. Despite the budget cuts, the organization was able to continue to support projects in many countries thanks to funding from other sources, such as the European Commission, the Ministère des relations internationales du Québec, private foundations and members’ donations.
Alternatives submitted a petition signed by 1,500 people to then-minister Beverley Oda, demanding that the organization’s funding be renewed in its entirety. Oda also received over 500 letters of support for Alternatives. Numerous allies of Alternatives, both in Canada and outside the country, also wrote to the Minister. In 2010, Alternatives was offered 800,000$ by CIDA (representing about 30% of its former level of funding) to maintain programs in Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan for a period of 3 years. Numerous long-standing partnerships were affected by the reduced funding, thus ending support for programs in Palestine, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, Sudan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Nicaragua and Honduras.
Alternatives increasingly became a target for criticism in the media by right-wing journalists and commentators, including Martin Coiteux, then-professor at HEC who since 2014 has served as president of the Quebec Treasury Board. He has been the principal architect of the Liberal government's austerity programme. These articles criticizing Alternatives regularly called for an end to public funding for the organization and labelled its activities as political because of the group’s critical stance towards the Conservative government's economic agenda.
In 2012, the CRA began an audit of Alternatives. In July 2014, Alternatives received a letter from the CRA informing it that the agency would be recommending the annulment of Alternatives’ charitable status. According to the information communicated to the organization, the CRA determined that Alternatives' objects were not charitable, and that they should never have been accepted as such by the CRA in the first place. Alternatives has been in operation for 20 years, and before 2012 had undergone two previous CRA audits in which no such concerns were raised. Alternatives immediately contested the findings of the audit. Although the CRA refused to back down, it did agree to set out the conditions under which the organisation could maintain charitable status.
One of the concerns the CRA raised was that Alternatives does not directly administer the funds it channels to partner organizations in developing countries, a practice common amongst international cooperation organizations in Canada aiming to empower local partners in developing countries.
As of December 2014, Alternatives was still waiting for the CRA to submit a proposal outlining how Alternatives could maintain its charitable status. If and when this is provided, Alternatives will need to determine whether the new constraints will allow it to maintain equitable relationships with its partners, as well as continue to support these partners in their efforts to strengthen democratic participation in decision-making concerning the development of their own societies.
- December 2009: Alternatives' funding is cut, without the organisation being formally informed, after 17 years of cooperation with the CIDA.
- 2010: Alternatives retains 30% of its former funding from CIDA, for a period of three years. It is forced to end its support for various programs. This three year program was the last contract between Alternatives and CIDA.
- 2012: The CRA initiates an audit of Alternatives.
- July 2014: The CRA informs Alternatives that it will recommend the annulment of its charitable status which, according the letter, should never have been authorised in the first place.
- August 2014: Alternatives contests the findings of the audit. CRA agrees to specify the conditions under which Alternatives could maintain its charitable status.
- December 13 2014: At its Annual General Assembly, Alternatives' members decide to await reception of a proposal from the CRA before taking further action, in order to determine whether the new conditions will allow it to maintain valid relations with its partners.
Role or Position
Alternatives is an international solidarity organization founded in 1994 (when it was granted charitable status) and focusing on justice and equity in Quebec, Canada and around the world. Since 2000, Alternatives has played a pivotal role in the organization of the World Social Forum; it was also instrumental in organizing the Peoples Social Forum, involving Quebec, Canadian and Indigenous social movements, in Ottawa in August 2014.
Implications and Consequences
- Free Speech: Canadian organizations such as Alternatives (and others, including Kairos and Rights & Democracy) who are working in Palestine or promoting the rights of the Palestinians, continue to be penalized. Such penalties are not only with respect to programs and projects carried out in Palestine, but ultimately affect these organizations’ activities as a whole.
- Freedom of association: Alternatives is one of 52 charitable organisations targeted by CRA audits thus far. These audits drain resources and have prevented organizations from defining their own missions due to an aggressive and very narrow interpretation of “political activities.” The audits also unfairly and unreasonably target NGOs with specialized knowledge of the field in which they work and ignore the ethics of citizen involvement and basic principles of international cooperation.
- Democracy: Informed debate in Canadian society as a whole is impoverished by undermining the capacity of civil society organisations to develop independent and equitable international partnerships which allow them to disseminate critical first-hand knowledge of international issues.
Published on: 27 March 2011
Updated: 29 January 2015
Today, Michel Lambert speaks out about international co-operation budget cuts and shutting down of foreign policy critique in Canada.