Physicians for Global Survival

Physicians for Global Survival

What Happened

In 2004, the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) initiated an audit of Physicians for Global Survival (PGS) with respect to its charitable activities. On July 24, 2012, PGS received a letter from the CRA informing the organization that its status as a registered charity had been revoked. As a result, PGS can no longer issue tax receipts to its donors. The CRA stated that the objective of PGS is “inherently political” and thus it does not qualify as a charity. 


Physicians for Global Survival (PGS) was incorporated as a charitable organization in 1980 under the name Physicians for Social Responsibility. It is associated with International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). PGS’s mission statement indicates that they are “committed to abolition of nuclear weapons, the prevention of war, the promotion of nonviolent means of conflict resolution and social justice in a sustainable world.” Their work includes holding educational conferences from a medical perspective on nuclear weapons issues, providing financial support for medical students and student-based organizations that undertake similar work, and publishing a quarterly newsletter that addresses domestic and international issues relating to nuclear weapons and disarmament.    

According to PGS staff member Andrea Levy, the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) had been investigating PGS for some time. The CRA first conducted an audit of PGS in 2004 and the organization’s finances remained under investigation for several years. The inquiry mainly revolved around whether PGS’s work could be considered substantially charitable.

According to the Income Tax Act, the political activities of any charitable organization must be substantially limited. Case law interprets this to mean that 90% of the resources of a charitable organization must be devoted to charitable purposes, while 10% can be allocated towards “non-partisan political activities.”

The CRA evaluated the level of PGS’s political activities by examining the degree of bias in the material it publishes. On November 10, 2008, the CRA established that some of the actions that PGS advocates in its educational programs, such as, “opposing the misuse and proliferation of small arms; calling for the elimination of all weapons that are indiscriminate with respect to civilian populations and leave long-lasting environmental degradation; supporting ‘economic conversion’ of armaments industries; and discouraging media violence and war toys” are not considered charitable. It thus concluded that PGS “is not constituted and operated for exclusively charitable purposes and it does not devote all of its resources to charitable activities.”

There were several exchanges over the following three years between PGS and the CRA where PGS attempted to demonstrate that the primary nature of its work was nonpolitical. Nevertheless, the CRA maintained its position. On July 24, 2012, the CRA officially revoked PGS’s status as a charity, thereby prohibiting it from issuing tax receipts to donors and significantly reducing the incentives for donors to support the organization.

A political context of increased scrutiny for progressive charities

Imagine Canada, a national charitable organization that provides support for other charities says that this move is part of the federal government’s attempts to call into question the activities of charities, despite the important role of charities in setting public policy. The 2012 Federal Budget introduces amendments to the Income Tax Act, allocating an extra $8 million to the Charities Division of CRA, which, according to CEO of Imagine Canada Marcel Lauziere, aims to “restrict the extent to which charities may fund political activities of other qualified donees and to introduce new sanctions for charities that exceed the limits on political activities.”

Prominent journalist Nick Fillmore asserts that “the content of the PGS website and its newsletter Turning Point do not present the picture of an organization that is moderately political, let alone radical.” In fact, the PGS website redirects readers to various articles by Canadian and international media outlets on the nuclear industry. In the specific case of nuclear disarmament, Fillmore contends, “the removal of PGS’s charitable tax status comes at a time when the Harper government is being criticized as being a laggard on the issue of nuclear disarmament.”

Cesar Jaramillo of Project Ploughshares, a non-governmental organization that advocates for the prevention of war and armed conflict, reiterates this point in a 2011 report. He contends: “Canada is uniquely positioned to assume such a leadership role. Besides enjoying well-earned international credibility as an honest broker, the country is a member of NATO, an active player in the global nuclear energy industry, a state party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and a member of the G8 and G20. Yet the Harper government has failed to make nuclear disarmament a top foreign policy priority.”          

Fillmore speculates that the revocation of PGS’s tax status constitutes part of an attack by the Conservative government on various environmental charities whose objectives are not ideologically in line with the objectives of the federal government. Tides Canada has also been audited by the CRA and accused publicly by the Harper government of “laundering” funds. Canadian Mennonite is another example of targeted civil society groups.

 

Relevant Dates:

  • 1980: Physicians for Global Survival (PGS) is incorporated as a charitable organization under the name Physicians for Social Responsibility.
  • 2004: The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) begins the auditing process of PGS.
  • November 2008: The CRA establishes that a substantial portion of PGS’s activities are not charitable.
  • March 2012: The Federal Budget allocates an extra $8 million to the CRA in order to stringently enforce the rules governing charitable status.
  • July 2012: The CRA officially revokes the charitable tax status of PGS.

Role or Position

Physicians for Global Survival (PGS) is a charitable medical organization that was established in 1980. As the Canadian member of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, PGS advocates for the prevention of nuclear war and promotes nonviolent means of resolving conflict.   

Implications and Consequences

  • Democracy: The heightened scrutiny by the CRA, and the allocation of an extra $8 million to the agency in the 2012 federal budget, points to an increasingly hostile environment for progressive charities in Canada. Labelling some of the educational activities of charities such as in the case of PGS as “inherently political” is grounded in a perspective that conflates public policy, advocacy and education with political activity. As Nick Fillmore contends, the CRA has revoked the charitable tax status of PGS at a time when the federal government has weakened its approach towards nuclear disarmament. Considering PGS’s work devoted to nuclear disarmament, the federal government’s decision to revoke PGS’s tax status is seen by many in the sector as a move to stifle dissent and criticism of its current policies.
  • Free Speech: The loss of charitable tax status restricts the organization’s financial capabilities, thereby making it more difficult for PGS to engage in educational awareness programs about nuclear disarmament. Considering PGS’s criticism of the approach that the Conservative government has taken towards nuclear disarmament, the federal government seems to be attempting to silence criticism of its approach through the financial audit. It is noteworthy that conservative organizations such as the Fraser Institute and others that actively pursue educational, advocacy and public policy mandates or a range of public policy issues have not been similarly targeted.  

 

Date published: 3 May 2013

Photo from Physicians for Global Survival.