Oxfam Canada denied charitable status because “preventing poverty” is not an acceptable goal

What if I told you that the Harper government refused to grant charitable status to Oxfam Canada? What if I told you that the reason they gave for refusing was because they objected to Oxfam Canada’s goal of “preventing poverty”? Ridiculous, right? Has to be something from The Onion, right? No, friends, this really happened. And if you’re still holding out hope that maybe once you look deeper you’ll find some kind of reason or logic behind it, I’m very sorry but I have to tell you that your hopes are in vain. Brace yourself, and I will guide you down the rabbit hole. It’s not going to leave you feeling warm and fuzzy.

I hope it does not surprise anyone reading this blog that the Harper government has been harassing charities that criticize their policies for some time now. Actually, the story starts before they even came to power.

Back in 2003, the Chrétien era was winding down. He’d already announced he wasn’t going to run for re-election, and he was hearing accusations that his government would be remembered as a particularly “non-activist” one – a government that basically just held the fort for a few years while not making any real, groundbreaking social changes. It was starting to look like all he’d be remembered for was the sponsorship scandal. So in 2003, he passed a law that charitable organizations in Canada had been begging for for years. Under the new law, charities would be able to use up to 10% of their resources for political activism. Now charities focused on particular issues could openly engage in nonpartisan political activities related to their work, so long as they stayed focused on the actual issue and not politics. The law set clear limits on what charities could do, and gave them some teeth they could use to snap at governments who were ignoring issues they were concerned, obstructing efforts to improve things, or flat-out making things worse.[1]To be clear, it was and remains true that charities cannot be founded specifically for a partisan political purpose, or engage in partisan political activities. And there has always been some leeway for them to engage in political activities and to act as policy consultants, with reason. But without clear rules, charities were afraid to risk losing their charitable status. What the law did was codify specific bounds that they could work within.

After Harper first came to power in 2006, things were relatively calm for a few years. But by the time he got his majority in 2011, the claws were out. Using the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) as his club, he went after charities that openly criticized his government with a vengeance. Their early targets? Environmental groups that had spoken out against oil sands development.

It started after Canadian Glenn Beck-wannabe Ezra Levant published his book Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands. Based on Levant’s vaguely xenophobic ravings about how horrible the Middle East is, the “ethical oil” meme was an immediate hit amongst Conservatives. Alykhan Velshi, one of Harper’s staff members, was so enamoured of the meme that he started up a blog devoted entirely to it – actually called ethicaloil.org. Oh, wait, I’m sorry, I don’t want to give the impression that Velshi actually did this while he was on the public payroll – no, he did the right thing and quit the Immigration Minister’s office to engage in this partisan advocacy. Then he got the hell right back on the public payroll just 3 fucking months later, this time in the PM‘s office. Sigh.

It is Velshi and Ethical Oil that began calling for the audits into environmental groups for excessive political activism. Just convenient days before the 2012 Federal Budget was announced, Ethical Oil filed a formal complaint with the CRA against Environmental Defence Canada. EDA got audited. That audit was expanded after the Budget was passed (you’ll see why in a moment), and to date it has cost the charity an estimated $100,000 in legal costs. It’s still going on even now.

Before, during, and after the 2012 budget, ministers had been making ridiculous and inflammatory claims about charities, like Joe Oliver (Natural Resources Minister at the time) writing an open letter raving about environmental and other radical groups who threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical agenda. Or Peter Kent (then Environment Minister) saying environmental charities were being used to launder offshore funds (in reality, less than 2% of Canadian charities get foreign donations). Joe Flaherty even referred to them as terrorist organizations. All of this, it turned out, was to justify that the 2012 federal budget “tightened up” the rules on what political activities a charity could do, and allocated $8 million to the CRA to investigate and audit to make sure they were complying.

And then the games began.

Starting just a couple days after the budget was announced (announced, not even passed!), over the next month the CRA started the first wave of 10 audits. The exact list has not been released – the CRA cites privacy concerns – but we know it contained at least five environmental charities that had spoken out against the oil sands and pipelines projects: Environmental Defence Canada, Ecology Action Centre, Équiterre, Tides Canada, and Tides Canada Initiatives Society. All of these audits are still ongoing.

Over the next few months, Ethical Oil files several more formal complaints with the CRA, against Tides Canada, Tides Canada Initiatives Society, and the David Suzuki Foundation. Yeah, that’s right. He went after David freakin’ Suzuki. Oh, it’s on.

After that initial wave, the types of charities being targeted has expanded beyond those with an environmental focus to include charities focused on poverty and human-rights issues. Again, I can’t give you the actual list of charities because the official list has not been published. However, for his master’s thesis for Royal Roads University titled “An Uncharitable Chill: A Critical Exploration of How Changes in Federal Policy and Political Climate are Affecting Advocacy-Oriented Charities“, Gareth Kirby states:

I find that there is evidence in the data that the government is attempting, with some success, to narrow society’s important policy conversations. There is evidence that three specific charitable sectors are being singled out for CRA attention—environmental, development and human rights, and charities receiving donations from labour unions.

The Toronto Star mentions that half were environmental charities.

And now we come to Oxfam Canada.

Under a 2011 law, Oxfam Canada was forced to re-register for charitable status before 17 October this year. They did so, saying on their application that their purpose is to prevent and relieve poverty, vulnerability and suffering by improving the conditions of individuals whose lives, livelihood, security or well-being are at risk. And the CRA refused their application because of that.

Can you see why? Oh go ahead, try to figure out what’s wrong with it.

Well, the answer is obviously given away at the top of this post: the CRA said that “preventing poverty” is not an acceptable goal for a charity.

But try to figure this out: why? Try to think of what would be wrong with that goal that might exclude it from being eligible from charitable work. Really, give it a shot. See if your mind can be as warped as a Conservative’s.

Well, the answer is: preventing poverty is not an acceptable goal for a charity because preventing poverty means you are helping people… who are not yet in poverty. Relieving poverty is okay… alleviating poverty is okay… ending poverty is okay… because in all those cases, you’re helping people who are in poverty. See, the CRA argument goes, you can say giving cash to a millionaire – who is clearly not in any real need and is obviously not in poverty – is preventing his poverty. That’s the kind of reasoning only a Conservative can come up with.

Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada, called the conversation he had with the CRA absurd. Nevertheless, he did change the purposes wording to only mention “alleviating” poverty, just to get around the problem and get back to doing real charity work. He made it clear that nothing about the organization or its goals have changed – this was just to satisfy the assholes at the CRA and avoid wasting any more resources on the problem.

But I gotta say something.

This “reasoning” of the CRA‘s has to the most fucking stupid thing I’ve heard since the last news story I read about the Harper administration. You can’t call giving cash to millionaires “preventing poverty” for the same reason you can’t call putting seatbelts on your office chair “preventing car accidents”. If there is no plausible danger of a thing happening before or after you take an action, then that action is not “preventing” the thing from happening. Look at me, I’m taking birth control pills to “prevent pregnancy”! Oh, and it’s working![2]You can make that work for other sexes, too, with some tweaks. Like: “Look at me, I’m quitting smoking to “prevent erectile dysfunction”, or something.

Furthermore…

Even if you could claim that giving a millionaire a handout would “prevent poverty” that would still be a good thingifit’sTRUE! If it is actually true that there is going to be a person – any person, millionaire or not – who is going to be in poverty without your handout (so that your handout is actually preventing poverty), and your handout prevents that from happening… that’s a good thing! Why the fuck would we have to wait until after people are in poverty to help them? By that shitheaded logic, it would not be acceptable for a charity to raise funds for a vaccine for malaria, because that could potentially mean giving the vaccine to people who are in no danger of getting it nor will they ever be… the most you could do is raise funds for a treatment for malaria, and then sit back and wait for people to get sick. I don’t think I have to spell out for you how many layers of fucked-up that would be.

Of course, the example the CRA has in mind is a case where you’re giving money to someone who isn’t currently in poverty, and is not going to be in poverty even if they don’t get your help. But clearly in that case you wouldn’t have “prevented” poverty, so claiming you were would be a lie. Oh wait, never mind, I just realized I was expecting an actual understanding of what honesty is from a Conservative.

I would love to say that the Conservative government has finally crossed that line into farce at this point, but the reality is they’ve been there for some time. If you haven’t yet reached the point of despair, and can still stomach more details, here is a detailed timeline of the audit fiasco, here is an article that gives some details on 10 of the audits (who’s being audited, how long it’s been going on, and why they were chosen), and here is a story about the Conservatives’ response to a request for an review of the audits (yes, it’s what you expect: they blocked the opposition’s attempts to look into it and engaged in hysterical rhetoric about how even suggesting a review is “shameful”).

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Oxfam Canada denied charitable status because “preventing poverty” is not an acceptable goal by Indi in the Wired is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. To be clear, it was and remains true that charities cannot be founded specifically for a partisan political purpose, or engage in partisan political activities. And there has always been some leeway for them to engage in political activities and to act as policy consultants, with reason. But without clear rules, charities were afraid to risk losing their charitable status. What the law did was codify specific bounds that they could work within.
2. You can make that work for other sexes, too, with some tweaks. Like: “Look at me, I’m quitting smoking to “prevent erectile dysfunction”, or something.

One Response to Oxfam Canada denied charitable status because “preventing poverty” is not an acceptable goal

  1. The 2014 Freedom of Thought report | Canadian Atheist

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