New legislation aims to give more flexibility to Alberta non-profit groups

The Alberta government is trying to make it easier for non-profit organizations to get temporary rule exemptions and respond more quickly to crises.

Minister says it takes too long to get exemptions in an emergency

Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women Minister Leela Aheer says non-profit organizations need easier ways to get regulatory exemptions when responding to emergencies. (CBC)

The Alberta government wants to make it easier for non-profit organizations to get temporary rule exemptions and respond more quickly to crises.

Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women Minister Leela Aheer said it takes too long for aid organizations to get regulatory exemptions they need to help during emergencies.

"If we can run them up the flagpole a little bit quicker in the time of crisis, we get to help organizations do what they want to do, which is to help people out on the ground," Aheer told reporters on Tuesday.

Such exemptions could, for example, allow an organization to accept donations of food without being held liable for unforeseen problems.

The provincial government plans to create a one-stop website where non-profit organizations can learn what regulatory exemptions are available and apply for those short-term exemptions.

Applications now are taking six to eight weeks to gain government approval, Aheer said. The legal change would allow a request to go straight to cabinet for consideration, she said.

Bill 58, The Freedom to Care Act, would also protect volunteers from liability when they do unpaid work for non-profits.

The law would not shield volunteers who break the law or who are impaired by alcohol or drugs while causing damages.

Under existing laws, if a volunteer accidentally toppled a stack of boxes and someone else was injured, the non-profit organization could potentially sue the volunteer, even if they were acting in good faith, Aheer said.

Nina Saini, executive director of Punjabi Community Health Services in Calgary, said liability protection for volunteers will allow her organization to expand the scope of their response during a crisis. Right now, the organization's insurance wouldn't cover volunteers working outside the office, she said, which prevents them from participating in outreach during a crisis.

Exemptions needed quickly during COVID-19

Arianna Scott, interim CEO of Food Banks Alberta, said she would welcome quicker exemptions for purely bureaucratic tasks. For example, when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020 many Alberta non-profit organizations were unable to hold annual general meetings on time as required by their bylaws.

But she said speedy access to health and safety exemptions could be problematic.

"One of the things that we struggle with in the face of disaster is, there become these little pop-up organizations that maybe don't go through all the steps of having health inspections and safe food handling training and stuff like that, but they're providing food to the general populace," she said.

The organization, which represents 103 Alberta food banks, would welcome liability protection for volunteers, she said. About half of their member food banks are run entirely by volunteers.

Insurance coverage isn't available or is too expensive for some activities, she said.

"This protection under the act will certainly bring some breath of relief and ability to take a step back and not worry so much about it," she said.

Karen Link, executive director of Volunteer Alberta, said in a statement she was pleased to see the proposed liability provisions for volunteers.

"COVID-19 identified some gaps in how organizations were able to respond to the pandemic in a timely manner. This act could help expedite response in emergency situations," she said.

Alberta has 26,400 non-profit organizations, according to the government. The non-profit sector employs 280,000 Albertans and creates $5.5 billion in GDP each year.

The Freedom to Care Act was a United Conservative Party platform promise during the 2019 provincial election campaign.

The bill would also allow cabinet to decide which organizations should qualify for exemptions.

If passed, the law would take effect Sept. 1, 2021.