Environment group testifies on charities' tax status

A prominent Canadian environmentalist defended the charitable status of organizations such as his before the federal Finance Committee Tuesday.

A prominent Canadian environmentalist defended the charitable status of organizations such as his before the federal Finance Committee on Tuesday.

Peter Robinson, CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation, spoke about advocacy and its importance in a functioning democracy, transparency in charities and corporations and the international funding of charities in Canada.

"All charities are working towards the civic good of this country," he told the committee.

Many in the Canadian environmental movement believe the committee's hearings on tax incentives are the first step of a government campaign to cut off some sources of their funding. In particular, money received from rich American foundations that may not be in favour of Canadian industrial projects like oil sands development.

David Suzuki, right, and Suzuki Foundation CEO Peter Robinson, centre, accept a donation on behalf of Kin's Farm Market. Robinson was to testify before MPs looking into tax deductions for charitable organizations, including environmental groups. (David Suzuki Foundation website)

"It's been portrayed that the money comes with strings attached," Robinson answered in a response to a question about how they apply for American funds for specific projects.

"Not all projects are approved. If they are, they have very tight strings attached but the strings that say that this is what you must do. It is: here is the reorting we would like. Here is when we'd like it. We make sure that you don't spend the money on something you didn't apply for."

Early last month, Natural Resouces Minister Joe Oliver branded some environmental groups as "radicals," although he refused to give any names. The accusation came in an open letter to the media the day before hearings were to begin into the Northern Gateway pipeline.

"There are some radical groups and they're being financed by other radical groups in the United States who are trying to impose their particular agenda on what is a very important project," Oliver told the CBC at the time.

That sentiment was echoed last week at the natural resources committee's hearings on pipelines and refineries.

"I do believe … that these radical foreign-interest groups that you speak of threaten our economy and our sovereignty," argued Conservative MP Brian Jean in a preamble to a question about how Canadian anti-pipeline groups get money from the U.S.

"I would like to look at legislation to stop these people bringing the money in by doing so either through disclosure or otherwise stopping them from interfering in Canadian interests," he added. Jean is also a member of the finance committee.

In an interview with CBC, Robinson said statements like those of Oliver and Jean should worry environmentalists.

"One way to try to limit or shut down debate is really to have a strong concerted attack back, and in particular to threaten on issues such as charitable status," he said.

Today's hearing focused mainly on how to get Canadians to donate more to charities rather than on where environmental groups with charitable status get their money.