Budget debates: Why have Canadian charities not been more politically engaged?

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

The government has introduced a myriad of changes in its budget implementation bill that are currently being debated by Parliamentarians. One relatively obscure set of changes impacts the charitable sector, modifying the Income Tax Act to enable the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) to give more scrutiny to the political activity of registered charities.

What should Canadians who support charitable organizations such as MCC think about this?

In part because these changes have been perceived to be targeting environmental organizations, they have gotten a fair bit of coverage in the media. After all, they were introduced soon after Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver accused “environmental and other radical groups” of trying to use money from “foreign special-interest groups” to hijack review hearings for the proposed Gateway pipeline.

And, during a special Senate debate, Senator Donald Plett went so far as to suggest that environmentalists would take money from Al Qaeda, Hamas, and the Taliban.

Thus the message conveyed by the news headlines is one of great concern:

While there are reasons for concern over the potential impact of this legislation, I don’t think speculating over the government’s motivation is of much use. I do, however, think that this debate provides the opportunity to learn something important about advocacy.

Let’s be clear at the outset: the budget implementation bill does not change the definition of political activities for registered charities, or the amount of political activity that is permitted.

So, it is still appropriate for a charity to, as CRA regulations put it, “explicitly communicate a call to political action,” or “encourage the public to contact an elected representative or public official” in order to “retain, oppose, or change the law, policy, or decision of any level of government in Canada or a foreign country.”

Indeed, the CRA actually frames political activity in a positive way. Rather than describing advocacy as a threat, or of minimal importance, the government provides an eloquent rationale for why charities should be politically engaged:

Through their dedicated delivery of essential programs, many charities have acquired a wealth of knowledge about how government policies affect people’s lives. Charities are well placed to study, assess, and comment on those government policies….

Beyond service delivery, their expertise is also a vital source of information for governments to help guide policy decisions. It is therefore essential that charities continue to offer their direct knowledge of social issues to public policy debates [italics added].

Finally, I would emphasize that the key restrictions imposed by the government on the political activities of charities also remain unchanged going forward: these activities must not be illegal, must not be partisan, and must not consume more than 10% of a charity’s resources.

Judging from data collected by the CRA, charities are far from approaching this limit. Less than 1% of all Canadian charities report spending any money on political activities. And the total amount of money spent by the sector as a whole on political activity is approximately 0.2% — one fifth of one percent — of overall revenue.

This is certainly a long way from the 10% limit!

So perhaps the first question this debate should prompt is not to ask why the government is restricting the advocacy efforts of charities. Canadian law continues to provide considerable space for this dimension of their work.

Perhaps the first question is to ask why charitable organizations have been spending so little on advocacy.

Why have Canadian charities not been more politically engaged?

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

Tearing down the walls around the fish pond

By Hanna Coppes, Ottawa Office Advocacy Research Intern

I had often viewed the task of engaging in politics as a daunting, overwhelming task that could be left, to journalists, to political science students, or to people who just have too much time on their hands. I rarely thought of political engagement as a major task of Christians or Christian organizations.

I held the belief that politics should be left to the politicians, and Christians should worry about running soup kitchens and showing Jesus’ love directly to the world. The work of soup kitchens, shelters, after school programs, and all of the international relief and development work done by grassroots organizations including MCC without a doubt play an essential role in displaying Christ’s love, and becoming God’s hands and feet in a hurting world.

Broadening my worldview.

My program of Social Justice and Peace Studies at the University of Western Ontario encouraged students to develop a critical eye towards understanding the systemic injustices that have permeated all aspects of daily life. A major influence of systemic norms, values, and daily life is without a doubt is our political system.

What should the Christian approach be to this body of influence?

The well-known Chinese proverb says, “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish he eats for a lifetime,” and the church has played an essential role in both giving and teaching people to fish.

Christian author and activist Shane Claiborne in his book Irresistible Revolution: Living as an ordinary radical articulates the idea adopted by many Christian advocates stating, “We give people fish. We teach them to fish. We tear down the walls that have been built around the fish pond. And we figure out who polluted it.

Tearing down the walls that have been built around the fish pond.

What are the walls within the current system that inhibit people from accessing essential resources in providing for their well-being?

Figuring out who polluted it.

Is there specific legislation that could be implemented to ensure better distribution of resources? Is there current legislation that has hindered this access?

This does not mean as Christian advocates we should be pointing our finger at politicians, or at specific laws and simply pass judgement. Instead, in order to approach every situation with love as advocates we attempt to hold government officials accountable to the needs and rights of Canadians, and our brothers and sisters around the world. We attempt to stand in solidarity and love with Canadians, with MCC program, with our friends, and with politicians. Engaging in politics involves not only approaching the world with a critical eye, but also understanding the priorities of the current government in order to fully understand where it would be best effective to exercise our voice, and raise awareness to the public around the systemic injustice.

Who polluted the fish pond? Let’s engage and work to bring down the walls.

What is missing from the budget debate

It seems like a long time has passed since the federal budget was tabled at the end of March. Indeed, already the morning after, pundits called it modest and many breathed a sigh of relief as the cuts weren’t near as drastic as widely expected. Okay, so let’s move on. Next issue?

However, coalitions that Mennonite Central Committee belongs to have a quite different perspective. They understand the budget cuts as having both substantial and politically symbolic meaning.

Here’s the punch line: This budget and its cuts will further reduce the presence of the federal government in the lives of Canadians and in the work of many international development organisations working with our world’s poorest in reducing hunger.

And missing in action is a dialogue about what kind of Canada we want and what role we want our country to play in the world.

Concluding that the budget cuts were much less drastic than expected is to miss the point. Our coalition partners point to the erosion of federal government involvement in creating a caring society here at home.

Let’s start with Canada’s indigenous peoples. Tragically, Canada’s First Nations are accustomed to not receiving adequate and appropriate involvement and assistance from the government. KAIROS Canada, of whom MCC is a member, said that the budget announcement of additional funds for First Nations education “is only half what is needed to bring reserve schools up to Canadian standards.”

KAIROS also noted that the government has ignored the housing crisis in First Nations communities across the country, a crisis most recently seen in Attawapiskat. This disregarding continues in the 2012 budget which has nothing set aside for First Nations housing. In addition, while KAIROS affirms the budget’s attention to huge water problems on First Nations reserves, it is “only about 5% of what is needed.”

And then there are the huge cuts to International Development Assistance through which Canada seeks to reduce suffering in the developing world.

“What impact will the budget have on global hunger?” asked Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB; MCC is a founding member). Their answer: “Less money for the world’s neediest citizens.”

Over the next five years, CFGB says, Canada’s Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) will be cut by $790 million, from $5.6 billion to $4.8 billion, making Canada among the least generous of traditional aid donor countries as a percentage of Gross National Income (GNI). It will fall by almost $600 million in this fiscal year alone.

But it’s actually much worse when the cumulative impact is considered! The Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC, another coalition MCC is a member of) documents that by 2016, Canada will have reduced Canadian official development assistance (ODA) by close to $1.2 billion. This is on top of the 2010 cut of $4.4 billion to future aid that the Conservative government implemented in Budget 2010.

A total cut of about $5.6 billion!

Never mind that the two organisations’ numbers aren’t exactly the same. The point is, as CFGB concludes, these cuts mean Canada will be giving much less for “reducing global hunger through support for agriculture, food aid and nutrition in developing countries” and represent a Canadian government reversal as such support has been “a priority focus of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) since the global food crisis in 2008.”

In short, this budget means that fewer people will be successful in their struggle to become food secure, that fewer women and babies will be healthier, and that Canada’s indigenous peoples will continue to have woefully inadequate water and housing.

Is this the Canada you want? Is this the role we want our country to play in addressing suffering and hunger in the world, both at home and abroad?

Tim Schmucker, MCC Canada Public Engagement Coordinator

Re-writing Canadian History

As an undergraduate history student, I often retorted to friends and family questioning the wisdom of my chosen field of study with “those who don’t know where they’ve been don’t know where they’re going.”

I preferred that line over the Spanish-American philosopher Jorge Santayana’s oft [mis] quoted adage “those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”

Yet, both sayings – mine and the famous one – beg the question. Which history? Whose version?

This came to the fore recently during coffee with some dear friends. They’re from Bosnia, and fleeing the war there – dodging bullets, literally – they spent a year in Croatia before immigrating to Canada. They didn’t realise until later that their son, 7 years old at the time, became “Croatianised” at school during that year.

And that in turn got me thinking about a concern I’ve had ever since our boys started going to school, that is how Canadian history is taught from a military perspective. Our children learn year after year of the fundamental role war has played in our national self-identity.

“In World War I, Canada grew up to take our place on the world stage.” “Vimy Ridge was our defining moment when Canadian bravery and valour led to the tremendous victory for the entire Allied Force and was considered the turning point of WWI.”

Or as the War Museum declares: The Battle of Vimy Ridge was “a defining moment for Canada, when the country emerged from the shadow of Britain and felt capable of greatness.”

Greatness defined by war…. Which history? Whose version?

Canadian schools teach that war defines us, that in war we show valour and bravery.

In primary school this focus is most apparent during Remembrance Day celebrations; now with our oldest in Grade 10, war and how it defines who our country is permeates how Canadian History is taught.

Which history? Whose version? That’s the military’s version. Our Canadian history is taught through military lenses.

So much so that now this year, during the bicentennial of the War of 1812, Canadian history is being re-written to fall in line with the military version. Witness what happened at Stouffville (Ontario) city council just last week.

The Stouffville area was settled over 200 years ago by Mennonites and their co-religionists, the Brethren in Christ, and have been a significant part of the area’s history to this day. They were and are followers of Jesus who refused to participate in war.

However, last week, the area’s Member of Parliament proposed to city council a “Freedom of the Town of Stouffville” event and military parade, making a connection between the War of 1812 anniversary and the town of Stouffville. The “Governor General’s Horse Guards,” so says the proposal, trace its local roots back 200 years to the Stouffville area; thus, the event will “celebrate Stouffville’s military heritage and role in the War of 1812.” The proposed event is a “unique opportunity for Stouffville residents to celebrate their rich local heritage” in which the city bestows honours upon a particular military unit.

What??

With only a day advance notice, incredulous area Mennonites and Brethren in Christ quickly organized and attended the city council meeting. They were 42 youth, adults and seniors who stated via spokesperson Arnold Neufeldt-Fast “We are concerned that the proposal ‘Freedom of the Town of Stouffville’ does not reflect an historically accurate picture of the earliest beginnings of Stouffville. The history of the founding members of the Stouffville area is predominantly pacifist.”

These Stouffville residents continued: “The attempt to connect Stouffville’s earliest history to Canada’s military history, and specifically the War of 1812, is a key concern to our churches. In our view, the proposal significantly distorts Stouffville’s earliest history, and discounts the real contributions of Stouffville’s settlers to the fabric of Canadian identity. Stouffville’s history for the first decades of the 1800s is overwhelmingly a pacifist story, a history of the first ‘conscientious objectors’ in Canada’s history.”

How again is greatness defined? Which greatness? Whose version?

Unfortunately, the majority of council members did not take seriously the Mennonite delegation, and the proposal passed.

Re-writing Canadian history.

However, the Mennonites of the Stouffville area are not finished. Looking to the Niagara area where the three historic peace churches in Canada have already created War of 1812 historical markers commemorating the witness of those who refused to participate in the war, they have proposed a historical plaque and marker commemorating the experiences of those early Canadian pioneers of peace and conscientious objection who first settled what is today the Stouffville area.

Indeed, amid the various commemoration events surrounding the bicentennial of the War of 1812, there is little attention paid to the experience and sacrifice of those who refused to fight on the basis of conscience.

Re-writing Canadian history. Which history? Whose version?

Tim Schmucker, MCC Ottawa Office Public Engagement Coordinator

Incarnating Communities of Peace: Canadian Church Perspectives

Is war, or the use of military intervention, ever justified in the pursuit of peace? How do we engage in concrete practices that prevent violent conflict? How is real security achieved? And what implications do our answers have for the life and witness of the church?

In struggling through the ethical complexities of these questions, we often face a stalemate between just war and pacifist positions. While debates between these perspectives are of course significant, they are insufficient. When we become too entangled in arguments over the use of force in the pursuit of peace, our attention is diverted away from a much more crucial question…

How do we effectively prevent violent conflict in the first place?

This was the central question preoccupying Canadian church representatives when we gathered together in Waterloo from February 2-3 for the Just Peace Symposium. Organized by MCC coalition partner Project Ploughshares, this meeting provided a valuable opportunity for 25 leaders and representatives from eight denominations—Anglican, Christian Reformed, Friends (Quaker), Lutheran, Mennonite, Presbyterian, United Church, and Unitarian—to share insights and commitments to peacemaking as articulated by our respective traditions.

Joined by Christian ethicist Glen Stassen, who delivered the symposium’s public lecture on the 10 practices of just peacemaking, we explored what resonated within the just peace framework as well as points for further discussion, reflection, and growth. What this framework aims to do, Stassen said, is to move us beyond the all-too-familiar debates into a new space that focuses on cultivating concrete practices for preventive peacebuilding.

And, so, we listened, shared, and deliberated together: How do we respond in concrete ways to advance just peace in changing times? How do we face the challenges of climate justice, intractable global conflicts, and current official Canadian defence and foreign policy? What is our theological framework for engaging in this work? How do we struggle in and across our respective traditions to understand each other?

It was a full day of wrestling with complex case studies, ethical questions, and theological commitments.

And even while we recognized our differing perspectives on the use of military intervention in certain circumstances, we did all affirm together that war is always a failure—a failure to address the root causes of conflict and prevent war. We all supported a strong preventive approach that takes responsibility for preventing the outbreak of state-sanctioned violence through comprehensive and ongoing efforts to promote peace and justice.

You too can join in the conversation. Check out the church leaders’ presentations, peruse background documents on just peace, and learn more about the symposium.

Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst