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Little Black Lie: Canada is “Doing Its Part”

It’s difficult to know where to start when asked to write a regular column on the little black lies that plague the debate over energy and climate policy in Canada, but for the sake of convenience and timeliness, let’s begin with one that’s close at hand: Environment Minister Peter Kent’s characterization of our attempt to turn back the tide on climate change at the 2012 UN Climate Change Conference that just concluded today in Doha, Qatar.

I am proud to be here representing Canada in these important negotiations towards a new, more effective, international climate change agreement,” Kent said as he launched into his Dec. 5 speech at Doha. “As an Arctic nation, we profoundly understand the impacts of climate change…. The Government of Canada is committed to working with our partners to find global solutions to the global climate change problem. In fact, Canada is taking action on all fronts—domestic, continental and international—to address the challenges of climate change.”

The next day, as Kent began feeling the heat about Canada’s inadequate action on climate change, he bragged in a press release from Doha that Canada's GHG emissions were “historically low.” Data, he said, show that Canada’s “GHG emissions decreased between [2005 and 2010] by 6.5% despite an economic growth of 6.3%. These numbers demonstrate that the Canadian economy can grow without increasing GHG emissions levels.”

We are doing our part,” he said, after boasting that Canada was halfway to meeting its United Nations commitments under the Copenhagen Accord — a 17 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from 2005 levels by 2020 (which is a far cry from Canada’s original commitments under the Kyoto Protocol – six per cent below 1990 levels.)

It would be churlish to quibble; still, let’s.

Time to Audit the Fraser Institute

On March 25, 2012, the Compliance Division of the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) received a letter from Jensen Shawa Solomon Duguid Hawkes LLP (aka JSS Barristers). In 11 detailed pages, JSS Barristers lodged a complaint against Environmental Defence, a charity registered with the CRA, on behalf of Ezra Levant’s brainchild, the Ethical Oil Institute. A month later, on April 24, the JSS-Ethical Oil team sent the CRA a second, similar letter, this one a 44-page imputation that the David Suzuki Foundation, like Environmental Defence, was “in contravention of the CRA rules surrounding registered charities and political activity.”

According to the CRA, and as echoed in the Ethical Oil Institute’s complaints against Environmental Defence and the Suzuki Foundation, a charity may not be created for a political purpose, and it can't “take part in an illegal activity or a partisan political activity.” Specifically, the CRA states that charitable organizations must devote “substantially all” (i.e. 90%) of their resources to charitable activities, and that any political activity is “subordinate” to its stated purpose.

That's not to say that charities can't promote their work and educate the public about issues that have political implications. But in doing so they must ensure that public awareness campaigns aren't their “primary activity, and their information must be “well-reasoned.” It goes without saying that they don't connect their views to specific political parties or candidates.

As an example, the CRA states that “a purpose such as improving the environment by reducing the sulphur content of gasoline would very likely require changes in government regulations. Generally, any purpose that suggests convincing or needing people to act in a certain way and which is contingent upon a change to law or government policy (e.g., “the abolition of” or “the total suppression of animal experimentation”) is a political purpose.”

Given all of this, and given the Ethical Oil Institute’s obvious concern about registered charities flouting CRA rules — namely, engaging in partisan political activity, or spending too much time and money influencing public opinion about laws, policies, or government decisions — it’s surprising that Ethical Oil didn’t send a third letter complaining about perhaps the most politically partisan of all Canadian charities — the infamous Fraser Institute.