Charities are allowed to conduct “permitted” political activities and here are some examples from the CRA Guidance on Political Activities - CPS-022.
“In the following hypothetical examples, the charity involved is called Healthy Retirement and was formed to promote the health of seniors in Canada. It has received a lot of media attention on its recently released, well-reasoned position on the hazards for seniors of using marked crosswalks. It concludes from its findings that a senior is four times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident with a car at a marked crosswalk than at an intersection with a stop sign or a light.
14.3 Permitted political activities
A charity that devotes substantially all of its resources to charitable activities may carry on political activities within the allowable limits.
14.3.1 Scenario 1 — Buying a newspaper advertisement to pressure the government
Healthy Retirement takes out a full-page “Save Our Seniors” advertisement in a national newspaper to promote the well-reasoned position it has taken in its recent research. The advertisement states that the federal government is devoting proportionately less resources to senior health care now than ever before, and urges it to reverse this trend.
This is political activity because it is an explicit communication to the public that federal government policy on an issue that relates to Healthy Retirement’s purposes should be changed.
14.3.2 Scenario 2 — Organizing a march to Parliament Hill
Parliament is debating the possibility of increasing the level of the Old Age Security benefits as a result of increases in the cost of fuel. Healthy Retirement has just published its research that sets out the well-reasoned position that 10% of seniors are malnourished because, once they have paid for fuel, they have little money to spend on food.
The executive director of Healthy Retirement sends an email to the charity’s staff asking them to organize a march to Parliament Hill to coincide with the debate. He indicates that the purpose of the march is to highlight the charity’s recent findings and to put pressure on Members of Parliament to vote for increases in the level of the Old Age Security Pension. On the day of the march, Healthy Retirement gives participants placards that state, “Seniors cannot afford to eat” and the address of the web site of the charity where the report can be downloaded.
As the executive director’s internal email explicitly indicates that the purpose of the march is to put pressure on the government to change its policy on this issue, it is a political activity.
14.3.3 Scenario 3 — Organizing a conference to support the charity’s opinion
Healthy Retirement organizes conferences and workshops to gain support for its point of view that penalties for motorists failing to observe the right-of-way or pedestrians at marked crosswalks need to be increased as a deterrent. It also advocates its well-reasoned position that all marked crosswalks should be updated to include a stop sign or light.
A charity that organizes a conference or workshop that explicitly promotes its point of view on an existing or proposed law, policy, or decision of any level of government, in Canada or a foreign country, that relates to the way it achieves its purposes is engaged in a political activity.
14.3.4 Scenario 4 — Hiring a communications specialist to arrange a media campaign
A driver that failed to observe the right-of-way at a marked crosswalk accidentally kills three seniors from the same seniors’ residence. There is a public outcry about the accident and the safety of marked crosswalks.
The provincial government where the accident occurs reviews its policy on marked crosswalks and holds consultations with stakeholders to get their views on the issue. Healthy Retirement is asked to present its well-reasoned position on the matter. The presentation is a charitable activity because Healthy Retirement is informing elected representatives about its work on an issue that is connected and subordinate to the charity’s purposes and based on a well-reasoned position.
However, following its representation, Healthy Retirement concludes that the elected representatives were not enthusiastic about its well-reasoned position that marked crosswalks should be banned. The charity therefore decides to hire a communications specialist to arrange a media campaign to highlight its view that marked crosswalks should be banned. Note that this is not the same as saying that crossing at a crosswalk is four times as dangerous as crossing at a traffic light. From this point onwards, we will view the activity to be a political activity because the media campaign will explicitly communicate to the public that the law should be changed so that crosswalks are banned.
14.3.5 Scenario 5 — Using a mail campaign to urge supporters to contact the government
Healthy Retirement organizes a mail campaign by giving its supporters and members of the public a summary of its well-reasoned position on the dangers of marked crosswalks. The charity also encourages them to write to their municipal councillor and ask them to update the municipal marked crosswalks to include a stop sign or a light.
Whatever level of government the charity is urging its supporters and members of the public to contact, on whatever issue, such a communication is a call to political action and therefore a political activity.
14.3.6 Scenario 6 — Organizing a rally on Parliament Hill
Parliament is debating the possibility of increasing the penalties for offences in the Criminal Code. Healthy Retirement decides to organize a rally on Parliament Hill to coincide with the debate. When Healthy Retirement advertises the rally it invites the public to join it in sending a message to Ottawa that Canadians want drivers who fail to stop at marked crosswalks should be charged under the Criminal Code with the offence of dangerous operation of a motor vehicle. Explicitly communicating to the public that the law should be changed in this way is a political activity. It is also a political activity to organize a rally with the explicit purpose of pressuring any level of government in Canada, or a foreign country, to change the law.”
Here is a link to CRA Guidance on Political Activities - CPS-022 http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca/chrts-gvng/chrts/plcy/cps/cps-022-eng.html
As well here is a copy in PDF of the CRA Policy Statement on Political Activities by Canadian Charities CPS-022 - September 2, 2003 so that you can download it easily to your computer.
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Mark Blumberg is a partner at the law firm of Blumberg Segal LLP in Toronto and works almost exclusively in the areas of non-profit and charity law.