Canada Without Poverty

Canada Without Poverty

Updates

01 Nov. 2016 — On January 9th, 2015, Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) notified Canada Without Poverty (CWP) of the results of the expanded audit into their political activities. CRA found that 98.5% of CWP’s total expenditures were dedicated to political activities, clearly in excess of the allowable 10% cap derived from the restrictions placed on charitable organizations under section 149.1 (6.2) of the Income Tax Act. These results came just over two years after CRA requested that CWP provide them with extensive documentation on all of its operations, projects, finances, and partnerships for the audit.

Among these political activities were events meant to allow those living in poverty to engage with the political process and social dialogue from which they are generally excluded. Inevitably, the resulting policy and legislative recommendations were considered political. CRA found other CWP events, website content, and the offering of an online human rights seminar, to all constitute political activities. The only CWP activities that were not considered political were educational in nature.

The process of undergoing the audit had both an organizational and personal impact at CWP. Leilani Farha, the executive director, has described how the organization experienced a chilling effect that impacted its ability to raise funds from donors worried about the audit and fulfill its purpose. Organizationally, they also faced the significant burden imposed by the level of documentation requested by CRA, which covered a three-year period on all activities, projects, meetings, and relationships. On a personal level, Farha describes feeling as though this hostile government action constituted an attack on aspects of her own identity, where her opinions, beliefs, and goals were targeted and unappreciated. The personal privacy of staff, volunteers, and student interns was compromised in the process as well, with personal communications expressing their own beliefs having been included in the document review. These experiences align with research on the subject, which has found that these government actions created a chilling effect on some charitable organizations that advocate on public policy issues. It also found a strong sense of confusion, fear, and vulnerability among charitable organizations, and that the rhetoric and actions used have caused some organizations to change their operations or even structures in response.

CWP has remained active through it all by working towards achieving its charitable purpose of relieving poverty in Canada. In 2015, their submission to the UN Human Rights Committee for the review of Canada’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights addressed both the issues they and other charities are facing under these political activities audits, and how poverty, homelessness, and hunger are intimately connected to the fundamental right to life. In its Concluding Observations report, the UN Human Rights Committee made its concern known regarding the restrictions on political activities for charities that defend human rights.

In August 2016, CWP filed a Charter challenge against the validity of section 149.1 (6.2) of the Income Tax Act. Their claim is that this section of the Act infringes upon their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association, as guaranteed under sections 2 (b) and (d) of the Charter. They argue that the charitable purpose of the alleviation of poverty, one of four charitable purposes recognized by Canadian courts, is in direct conflict with these restrictions. The inability to express or promote ideas central to such a purpose by CWP and its staff both violates their rights and frustrates that legitimate charitable purpose. They do not deny that this is political, only that preventing them from doing so is unconstitutional. They also argue that only through the collective resources and opportunities of an association can those living in poverty become engaged politically and their purpose be achieved. As of yet, the federal government has not issued a response.

This topic has risen to prominence recently, including in the lead up to the most recent federal election. The newly elected Liberal government has responded to these issues, providing the possibility for policy and legislative changes in the regulation of charities.  The objective of clarifying the rules surrounding the political activities of charities so as to enable them to work towards their goals free from political harassment was even included as a top priority in the publicly released Mandate Letter sent to the Minister of Finance. On January 20, 2016, the Minister of National Revenue announced that they would in fact be winding down the political activities audit program. Most recently, on September 27 it was announced that a consultation panel had been established in order to start public consultations with registered charities, online and across the country, on the rules regarding their involvement in political activities. A report is expected in early 2017. Many see this auditing program as part of a larger disenabling environment that has worked to undermine and weaken certain organizations within Canada. Now both the legal and political processes appear poised to address it.

What Happened

In 2007, Canada Without Poverty had its funding cut by the federal government, and subsequently threatened with the revocation of its charitable status.

In order to continue advocating for better public policies and to express its opinions in the interest of Canada’s poor, CWP created a parent organization in 2010 called the CWP Advocacy Network.


In 2007, CWP's federal funding was eliminated, a cut representing 55% of the organization's budget, putting the organization in great financial problems. The group had received the funding for many years and, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, the funding enabled the group to be centrally positioned to constructively and determinedly liaise with the federal government on poverty concerns. Then-Executive Director Rob Rainer says that while the cut may have been ideologically influenced, it also came within the context of a wave of non-interest and non-sympathy for the work of NGOs.

Rainer views the cut as an indication that the federal government will neither finance nor support groups that advocate to eradicate the root causes of poverty, and would sooner fund groups that provide front-line services to communities. Since the federal funding cuts, the government has had virtually no contact with the CWP despite the organization’s standing as the only national charity wholly dedicated to eliminating poverty in Canada.

In 2010, CWP founded the non-profit but non-charitable CWP Advocacy Network in order to maintain and strengthen its advocacy voice on domestic poverty issues. The advocacy function is separated from the charitable function, as Canada’s charity laws prohibit spending more than 10% of an organization’s resources on advocacy.

Ironically, the government’s disinterest in funding an organization that raises its voice against poverty in favour of other service-delivery charity work, resulted in a stronger voice emerging against poverty, while the fight against poverty itself has been dealt a setback.

Charitable status threatened

In 2011, the charities directorate of CRA initiated an audit into CWP, which was expanded in 2012 to cover so-called “political activities.”

According to the current Executive Director, Leilani Farha, the scrutiny into its activities was in part the result of CWP’s work in seeking to develop a national action plan against poverty. CWP was told that this constitutes a “political activity” rather than an activity that is coherent and consistent with its mission of eliminating poverty in Canada. 

According to filings with the CRA, CWP’s political activities comprise 3% of its expenses, well below the 10% limit established by the CRA as a permissible threshold for expenses related to so-called political activities.

Dissent and Democracy

 

The assault by the federal government on progressive charities like CWP is part of a larger issue of the marginalization of of communities and voices that are seen as threatening or in opposition to government priorities and policies. According to Farha, the repercussions of this extend beyond the organizational to the personal:

“I am an Arab-Canadian feminist working in the area of human rights and specifically in the areas of economic, social and cultural rights—anti-poverty. All of those aspects of my identity are under attack right now under the current government, at the federal level, and I feel it personally. I feel sometimes this country—through the federal government—is hostile territory for me: that my opinions, beliefs, desire to see a poverty-free Canada, all of that is targeted and not at all accepted or appreciated by our governing powers." 

Relevant dates

  • Fall 2006: The federal government decides to end funding for CWP.
  • March 31, 2007: CWP funding runs out.
  • May 25, 2010: The CWP Advocacy Network is founded as a separate entity from CWP.
  • 2011: CWP receives notice that it will be subject to a CRA audits in relation to its charitable status.
  • 2012: CWP receives notice that it will be subject to a “political activities” audit by the charities directorate of the Canada Revenue Agency. 

Role or Position

Canada Without Poverty (CWP) is a national organization working to address the structural causes of poverty in Canada. It addresses the role of public policies in helping or hindering the social and economic development of individuals, families and communities. The organization was formerly known as the National Anti-Poverty Organization, and was founded in 1971.

Implications and Consequences

  • Democracy: The government cuts seem to have strengthened CWP’s capacity to take action and seek change on poverty in Canada, having received wide support from a base of individuals, faith and labour groups, to weather the blow.
  • Free Speech: Canada’s charity law, restricting the extent to which charities can practice advocacy, hinder the extent to which charities can contribute to a healthy public debate on public policies that will benefit their work.
  • Equality: Showing preference to organizations that do less advocacy and more service-delivery can be beneficial in helping disenfranchised individuals, but fails to address the root causes of issues like poverty. To work towards a cure, instead of treating the symptoms, civil society organizations need to be free to propose long-term and deeper solutions, which inevitably entails proposing changes to current policies (i.e. advocacy), and being critical of the policies currently in place (dissent).
  • Free Speech: Defunding organizations that do advocacy work, simply because the opinions they express do not fit the governing party’s ideology or preferences, results in an impoverishment of the public debate, and has a chill effect on organizations that would otherwise freely express their honest opinions.
  • Democracy: The government's continued lack of engagement with NGOs, and disinterest in the solutions they propose (unless they are expressing agreement with the government) results in decisions based less on critical thought and discussion, which are essential to the healthy functioning of a democratic society.

Published on: 28 March 2011

Updated: 14 April 2015

Video

Leilani Farha - Silencing Dissent in Canada 7/10

Leilani Farha speaks out about progressive charities and human rights groups being audited by the CRA for their policy work, and the consequence for marginalized voices who are not heard by the Canadian government.