A pre-election chill has descended over some environmental charities after Elections Canada warned them that discussing the dangers of climate change during the upcoming federal campaign could be deemed partisan activity.
An Elections Canada official warned groups in a training session earlier this summer that because Maxime Bernier, the leader of the People’s Party of Canada, has expressed doubts about the legitimacy of climate change, any group that promotes it as real or an emergency could be considered partisan, said Tim Gray, executive director of the advocacy group Environmental Defence.
Any partisan activity — including advertising, surveys, or any kind of campaign costing at least $500 — would require a charity to register as a third party for the election, an onerous requirement that could jeopardize a group’s charitable tax status, Gray said.
It is “discouraging” that Environmental Defence and other charities may have to zip their lips about climate change being real during the campaign period “because one party has chosen to deny the existence of this basic fact,” he added.
“Obviously climate change is real,” said Gray. “Almost every credible institution on the planet is telling us to get our act together and do something about it.
“The question I think that needs to be asked is why is the law structured in a way that silences people speaking the truth about a scientific reality during the election cycle,” he said
Last fall, the United Nations climate change panel, made up of hundreds of scientists from around the world, said if the world doesn’t act faster to cut global emissions, the planet would face irreversible and catastrophic consequences.
Most agree on climate change, but not Bernier
Five of the six political parties expected to have any chance of winning a seat in the campaign for the October election agree climate change is real and caused by humans. Bernier, however, is the one outlier: he believes if climate change is real, it is a natural cycle of the Earth and not an emergency.
“The main reason for climate change, it is not human activity,” Bernier said Sunday in Gatineau, Que., where his party was holding its first convention.
“There is no climate change urgency in this country.” he said in a speech in June speech.
He also disagrees that carbon dioxide, which experts say is responsible for three-quarters of greenhouse emissions globally, is bad.
An Elections Canada spokesperson confirmed “such a recommendation would be something we would give.”
A chilling effect
Gray said the impact is stifling the conversation about climate change at a critical time.
“At this point, unless I can get greater clarification, after the writ is dropped, we would stop doing anything online that talks about climate change, which is our entire mandate,” he said. “You feel you’re being drawn into this space where you’re being characterized as being a partisan entity for putting up Facebook ads that say climate change is real, which seems ridiculous to me.”
Environmental groups in Canada are still on edge after spending much of the last five years fighting against Canada Revenue Agency accusations and worry that if Elections Canada accuses them of being partisan, it would attract another round of audits for partisan activity. Gray said the two may have different definitions of partisan, but the fear is still having a chilling effect.
“We need to ensure that we’re not saying things that are going to be considered to be illegal by Elections Canada.”
It doesn’t mean Gray is forbidden from giving interviews about climate change during the campaign, he said. Rather, it would affect any kind of activity the group undertakes that costs more than $500, such as a Facebook ad campaign.
In 2012, the former Conservative government unveiled a $13-million audit program to seek out charities the Conservatives alleged were abusing their tax status with partisan activities. The probes went after two dozen environmental, human rights, anti-poverty and religious groups — none of them considered partisan — for going beyond a rule that limited their spending to no more than 10 per cent of their funding on political advocacy work.
The program was launched as the Conservatives called many environmental groups “radical” and a “threat” to Canada.
The Liberals promised to end what they called a “witch hunt” against any civil society groups that opposed the government’s policies. It took more than three years, but eventually legislation was changed last year to lift the 10 per cent limitation. The non-partisan rule, however, remains.
Catherine Abreu, executive director of the Climate Action Network Canada, called the Elections Canada warning “shocking.”
“Climate change is a scientific fact,” she said. “It’s not an opinion.”
The situation is “contributing to ongoing confusion” about what environment charities can and cannot do, and will give fuel to pro-oil groups that want to silence their opponents, Abreu added.