Credits: File photo.
When is a charity not a charity?
When it dabbles in politics, according to Senator Nicole Eaton.
Eaton welcomes federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's recent budget announcement that he plans to make changes to the Income Tax Act to crack down on charities that use donations for political purposes.
Flaherty's budget last month said, "Economic Action Plan 2012 proposes measures to ensure that charities devote their resources primarily to charitable, rather than political, activities, and to enhance public transparency and accountability in this area."
The driving force behind Flaherty's move is Senator Nicole Eaton, who has been holding a Senate inquiry into political advocacy by registered charities.
She met with Flaherty prior to the budget and hopes to speak to him this week about the issue. Currently, charities are allowed to spend 10% of their revenue for political purposes. Eaton would like to see that figure reduced - to 5% - or eliminated altogether.
One particular aspect she's concerned about is the role of foreign donations to Canadian environmental charities that lobby our government on public policy.
She believes some of Canada's iconic industries have been crushed in the process.
"What we found out when I did the inquiry on the oilsands is that all these foundations had a lot of money," she said of some of the large environmental charities that have advocated against Alberta's oilsands.
One organization, Tides Canada, provides the infrastructure by which cash raised in the U.S. can be washed through to various Canadian charities.
"Tides Canada can filter enormous amounts of money from American foundations," Eaton said in an interview.
She points to the work of west coast blogger Vivian Krause, who has documented how several American foundations poured millions of dollars into Tides Canada to campaign to "demarket" B.C. farmed salmon.
"The Packard Foundation was very responsible for demarketing Canadian B.C. salmon," Eaton said. "It had links to Alaska ranch salmon.
"It in effect destroyed Canadian BC salmon, and it increased the value of Alaskan salmon," she said.
Eaton would like more transparency about where those overseas donations are coming from.
"Wouldn't it be nice, if you decide to give money to any of the foundations, that you could see that they raised $25 million from Canadian donors and $50 million from American donors?" she asked.
"It would be nice to know how much of that is actually going to political activity."
It also raises the question of why charities should be allowed to take part in political lobbying at all.
One of the most politically involved charities is the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF).
Not only does it lobby governments on policy, it also receives considerable funding from government.
In Ontario, for example, DSF received funding from the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation (FOGF) - which received about $25 million in tax money from the provincial government.
FOGF gave the DSF $120,000 in 2007 and $100,000 in 2009. That's in addition to the between $100,000 and $250,000 it received from the government's Ontario Trillium Foundation in 2010.
Suzuki then endorsed the McGuinty Liberals in a controversial video that was posted on the Grit website during the election - and then hastily taken down.
It showed Suzuki and Premier Dalton McGuinty strolling through Stanley Park in Vancouver as Suzuki lauded the Ontario premier's plan to shut coal-fired electricity plants.
A spokesman for the DSF said they're playing by the rules.
"David Suzuki is neither a member of the board of directors of the DSF, nor is he a paid employee," said CEO Peter Robinson.
"It is always curious to me.
"If David says something in public, he usually begins the comment by saying, ‘I'm speaking as an individual.' There's always a flurry of calls to suspend the charitable status of DSF.
"They're not related."
The rules around political activity by Canada's 85,000 registered charities, he said, are an "established and cherished part" of the charitable sector.
"You can engage in political activity; you just can't be partisan and you can't do it with more than 10% of your total resources."
He's also all in favour of more transparency. Since he became CEO four years ago, the DSF has spent no more than 6% on political activity.
When asked, he couldn't put a dollar figure on what that 6% represents.
"Off the top of my head, I can't tell you that," he said.
Tides Canada did not return a call.
Flaherty's review of laws surrounding charitable donations is welcome.
It's not in Canada's best interests for wealthy special interest groups or organizations south of the border to be allowed to funnel tax-exempt dollars through Canadian foundations - to fight Canadian industry.
Eaton asks why it is that Americans are targeting Canada on issues such as fishing, resource development, mining, oil and gas pipelines, as well as the oilsands.
"Why aren't Americans looking at their own environmental mishaps? Why are they interfering in Canada?" she asked, pointing out that one Ohio Valley coal-fired electricity plant produces as much carbon dioxide as the whole of the oilsands.
"As Prime Minister Harper has said, we're not going to be one big northern national park to suit our friends south of the border," Eaton added.
"What I saw was foreign interference in what should be a Canadian decision - how and what should be extracted from our natural resources," she said.
The concept of American groups giving money to influence public policy in Canada strikes at the very heart of this country's economic independence.
When this country gives tax write-offs to those same groups, it means your tax bucks are paying to shut down the industries that are this country's economic engine.
We all want corporations and industry to act responsibly and with care for the environment.
What we don't want is big brother self-interests to the south calling the shots and shutting down this country.
Do we really want the last one out of Canada to turn off the lights?