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Canadian charity wins landmark victory against government

A Canadian charity has fought for the right to freedom of expression in a landmark victory against the government

A Canadian charity has won a landmark victory against a policy that restricted charities from publicly criticising, and recommending changes to, laws and policies.

The Ontario Superior Court struck down the restrictions imposed on Canadian charities in favour of the challenge run by Canada without Poverty (CWP), a charity campaigning as a national anti-poverty and human rights organisation.

CPW’s Executive Director, Leilani Farha, said: “This is an incredible victory – not only for CPW, but for Canadian democracy.”

Farha added that CPW was granted charitable status to address the systematic causes of poverty and homelessness but was “restricted by the Act and threatened with losing our charitable status and the funding on which we rely”.

The challenge against the Canada Revenue Agency’s (CRA) was seeking a declaration that the provisions violate the right to freedom under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom, a section of the Income Tax Act.

CPW was one of many organisations audited by the CRA with the intention of revoking its charitable status, citing the organisation had publicly communicated through email and websites recommendations for law and policy changes.

“Ending poverty is about much more than soup kitchens and food banks. As stated in the judgement, CWP works to relieve poverty by sharing ideas with our constituency, but the restrictions placed on our ability to even communicate information about human rights and federal policy has severely obstructed that,” Farha said.

The judgement by Justice Ed Morgan noted that the effective pursuit of the relief of poverty includes enabling those living in poverty to engage in democratic purposes.

Justice Morgan also noted the Government of Canada was unable to justify the 10 per cent limit on activities to recommend changes to laws and policies and that the change sought by CPW is in line with the recommendations made by the government’s own Consultation Panel on the Political Activities of Charities.

CPW’s Deputy Director, Harriet McLachlan, said the Board of Directors was comprised of people who have lived experiences of poverty.

“People who understand poverty first-hand are a critical part of public dialogue, and having opportunities to share our stories is key to engaging in the ‘shift in perspective’ Parliament has acknowledged is necessary to address root causes,” McLachlan said.

Justice Morgan did not accept the Attorney General of Canada’s argument that CPW was seeking a constitutional right to tax-exempt status, noting that CPW “seeks to pursue its existing charitable purpose through means which are self-evidently expressive and protected by s.2(b) of the Charter.”

This means that the government cannot restrict political speech for organisations granted charitable status without infringing the Charter’s right to free expression.

“The Superior Court’s decision reinforces the importance of fostering such democratic participation and we look forward to the bright future for public policy dialogue in Canada,” Farha said.

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