CANADALAND recently had a podcast which dealt with a number of topics but one of them was charities, political activities, Elections Canada and the upcoming Federal election. The podcast was called “#227 Scandal? What Scandal?”. In the podcast Jesse Brown is joined by Sandy Garossino, a former Crown prosecutor and columnist for the National Observer.  The discussion on charities and political activities takes place around 25:08 minutes in.

The Elections Canada “story” in the National Post was called “outrage bait”.     Jessie asks Garassino, “Sandy is that what it appears to be?”.   Garossino says “Nope”.   Jessie later says at this point this is a “completely diffused story”.  You might want to listen to the podcast if you have a few minutes.

It is hard to see who the winners of this really bad misinformation campaign are – perhaps the winners are: 

a) one charity who pushed the story with many media outlets which perhaps raises their profile and maybe good for fundraising.  Perhaps they think this advances the discussion around climate change.  

b) Maxime Bernier who is struggling to get any attention in this campaign.    Bernier got “a win and some publicity” as “defender” of free speech. 

c) charity lawyers who are writing lots of memo or emails correcting the misinformation on this story and explaining to clients the actual rules.  

As is sometimes the case the biggest loser is the charity sector, another set of articles mistakenly linking charities and partisan political activities.  I have heard from some charities and I think that there will be many charities that will now not be involved in the 2019 Federal election campaign because of this misinformation.

Another big loser is the media.   Media is usually careful in how they cover issues affecting the sector and they usually carefully vet the informationon legal issues, especially larger outlets.  I don't know what happened in this case.  Perhaps everyone just wanted to get the story out to get attention, clicks and more advertising revenue.   In terms of social media, it is a wakeup call that people need to be more careful about what they believe to be true/accurate/helpful and also what they retweet/like etc.

Another loser is Elections Canada – whether or not they did anything wrong – people were viciously attacking them.  Perhaps someone answered a question in a confusing way – perhaps not.  I was not there.  As they say “no good deed goes unpunished”.  Elections Canada will probably be more careful before they have another closed-door session for environmental and other groups, which means groups that actually want to understand the rules will suffer. 

Talking about climate change can be non-partisan and it can certainly be partisan.   Every party in this election has a different view on climate change, its importance, which strategies make the most sense in dealing with climate change etc.  Charities can engage on the subject of climate change in both an appropriate and inappropriate way.  They can do so during an election in a way that does not require registration as a third party under the Canada Elections Act and also in a way that does require registration under the Canada Elections Act.   

As is often the case the narrative seemed to be that these third party rules 'recently' imposed by the Liberals impede free speech, and need to go.   The fact that the rules relating to charities and the Canada Elections Act have not changed in about 20 years and there is a real public interest in knowing who is paying for extensive advertising during an election was lost in the shuffle. If we are not more careful in our discussion around these issues we will end up like the US with a few very well-financed voices dominating the political landscape.    

Correct information often gets a lot less coverage and attention that the “outrage bait”.   I encourage non-profits and charities to learn more about what they can do in an election and you may find this blog post helpful.  I am hoping that a number of Canadian registered charities will register with Elections Canada and be participating in election advertising during the election period if they wish to advance issues connected with their legal purposes.  CRA has recently put out a statement, which was helpful but not necessary, that registering with Elections Canada is not a problem for a registered charity.  I would also just remind charities that they have an obligation in Canada to operate within the law and if a charity does not register with Elections Canada and they were supposed to – such registered charity could have significant issues with Elections Canada and also as an aside can have their charity status revoked by CRA for violating the law. Elections are an important time and it would be sad if charities sit this election out because of misinformation.