Libby Speaking Up for Not-for-Profit Organizations

HANSARD House of Commons

Bill C-4

Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to speak to second reading of Bill C-4 , which deals with not-for-profit organizations. I would note first that the bill first surfaced in the House in 2004 under the then Liberal government. It was never dealt with and it came back as Bill C-262 in 2008 and here it is again. It has been about five years that the bill in various forms has been before the House of Commons.

I want to begin by speaking about the not-for-profit sector. I am very fortunate to represent a riding, Vancouver East, that has a whole diversity of absolutely incredible and amazing not-for-profit organizations, some of which would be under these federal regulations. They perform the most valuable service not only in our local community but nationally.

As we debate the bill we need to pay tribute and acknowledge the incredible value that the not-for-profit sector provides in this country. There has been a very long history in Canada of not-for-profit work. Whether it is in housing, cooperatives, delivery of services, volunteer work, or advocacy, there is a tremendous history in this country of voluntary organizations where people give their all and are literally on the front line delivering services and providing information to the citizens of Canada in many diverse communities.

It is very important for parliamentarians to recognize that if we ever put a price tag on the work that is being done in the voluntary sector we would be talking about billions of dollars. Certainly if these services and programs were being delivered directly by government, we would be talking about billions of dollars. We should recognize that the work that is done by not-for-profits in our communities is something that we benefit from. It is part of a strong civil society. It is part of a strong democratic society. Over the years the biggest struggle and challenge that not-for-profits have had is the struggle to stay in existence, not from a legal point of view, but from a financial point of view. Government funding has been withdrawn and we have seen government programs cut back, federally and provincially, and sometimes even locally, although most often it has been the local government that has had to pick up the slack.

The not-for-profit sector and our non-profit organizations have had to rely more and more on voluntary contributions and donations. They are always scrambling for money. The biggest issue facing the voluntary sector is not 170 pages of Robert’s Rules of Order and a regime of putting everyone under one size fits all, it is the question of stable long-term funding. Long gone are the days when non-profit organizations could rely on core funding to continue with their core operations and then expand to whatever programs they were doing. Now every organization, I dare to say, spends probably one-quarter or more of its time writing grant applications, chasing down every small bit of money that they can in order to develop their programs.

In my riding of Vancouver East there are organizations that are literally on the front line. They are literally dealing with life and death situations. These organizations are democratic. They are transparent. Everything that they do is out there for people to see and to become involved in.

In looking at the bill, I have some very serious questions as to why we are so focused on a regulatory regime for not-for-profits when we are completely missing the point of what is the real crux of the issue for non-profits in this country. The NDP, in going through this 170 page bill clause by clause and looking at the incredibly detailed micromanagement requirements that are in there, these organizations will now have to go through various hoops and there are processes and regulations involving a lot of paperwork and reporting requirements. It is absolutely incredible. It is 170 pages of things they have to note and make sure are followed up.

I certainly have a concern that the bill in its current form will make it very difficult to attract new directors and volunteers in the not-for-profit sector. Anybody faced with this massive regulation would say, “I came here to do good work. I came here to make a contribution to my community. I came here to make good decisions. I came here to help people,” and all of a sudden that person is faced with having to deal with a massive bureaucratic regime, where one size fits all right across the country.

We have to seriously question whether or not the bill, if it is adopted in its current form, would have a counter-effect. Maybe it is being put forward from the point of view of transparency and accountability, but it may have the effect of turning people right off and asking why on earth they would get involved in doing this work when there are so many requirements and responsibilities.

I listened to the Conservative member say that the bill is about being transparent and more accountable. That leads one to believe that the status quo is not transparent and is not accountable. There are non-profit organizations that run into trouble. Any group in society from time to time may face difficulties. There are sometimes instances where there are criminal activities taking place. There are all kinds of legislation, measures and protections to deal with that, but the sense that somehow not-for-profit organizations are not transparent and accountable is a very false premise. I certainly want to put that to rest.

Another concern that we have about the bill is that it does not address the relationship between charity status, Revenue Canada and the issue of advocacy. This has been a long-standing debate. There are organizations that are very concerned about the severe limits that are put on them to do advocacy work. Somehow advocacy has become a negative word. It has become a negative component to the work that is done. However, what I see in my community is that the advocacy work, which does not mean that it is partisan, to uphold people’s rights, whether it is in legal aid, housing or groups that have been very marginalized, is very important for the not-for-profit sector. This issue has not been dealt with at all.

Mr. Speaker, I see that you are getting up to tell me that the time is up and we are going to statements, so I will continue my remarks after question period.

Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP):
Madam Speaker, it is very nice to see you in the Chair. I know the people of Victoria are very proud of you being our Assistant Deputy Speaker.

Before question period I was talking about this massive bill of about 170 pages, Bill C-4, that deals with the regulation of not-for-profit corporations. In my comments I was talking about advocacy.

One of the problems we have with the bill is that it does not address the core issues and the critical issues that are facing non-profit organizations in this country. One of those issues is the need to deal with advocacy. I find it very interesting that somehow this has become almost a taboo thing because of restrictions from Revenue Canada because of the charitable status.

I do not know why it is that the notion of advocacy has taken on this very partisan, politicized meaning from the government’s point of view. I am someone who has worked in the non-profit sector for many years before I was elected as a city councillor and then as an MP, so I am very familiar with the non-profit sector and how important it is in community development and building healthy communities. Advocacy is very much a part of that.

Even when organizations have charitable status, they should be able to do advocacy. There is nothing wrong with advocating for the people we represent and for whom we are working. This is particularly true in my riding of Vancouver East where we have many people who are very vulnerable and at risk, whether they are homeless, living far below the poverty line or drug users who have been very marginalized by our health care system and by criminal enforcement. Many organizations do incredible work right on the front line in helping people, not only with their daily needs of surviving and going up against the system, but also in advocating for people’s rights.

To me, this is a very important function and a very important responsibility that is part of our civil society. It is part of our non-profit structure and part of the history that we have in the way not-for-profits work in this country.

Some not-for-profits simply deliver service and programs, which is exemplary and, of course, needs to be done. However, as I said in my earlier remarks, they and all groups lack stable, long-term and core funding. It is so hard for so many organizations now to survive. People are relying on whatever private donations they can get.

It is interesting to note that in the United States there is a much bigger system of private foundations that do provide huge support to charitable and not-for-profit organizations. In Canada, we have had more of a history of different levels of government recognizing the importance and value of non-profit organizations and actually providing public funding to them. That is a very legitimate thing and it is a very wise use of taxpayer dollars.

However, since the 1990s, every group we talk to, and I could talk to any number of groups in my community, whether it is women’s organizations, housing organizations or people involved in legal services, they have all faced unbelievable cutbacks over the years. The erosion of government funding, particularly core funding, has had a very dramatic impact on the non-profit sector. It has left people scrambling to find little bits and pieces of money from this foundation or that foundation. Sometimes it is a matter of $5,000 or $10,000 to keep themselves going.

I wanted to raise that issue during the debate on the bill because it seems to me that the bill is so focused on the regulatory approach for non-profits that it is missing the huge issue of what we need to be addressing for the non-profit sector in Canada.

I think it is very unfortunate that we are debating this bill that was first introduced in 2004. It has certainly had a long history. Here we are debating this bill that lays out this mega-regime of Robert’s Rules of Order and says that everybody is going to come under this regime.

What we should be discussing and what we should be doing, particularly in these economic times when so many people are falling behind and so many people who previously did not rely on organizations like food banks, legal aid or organizations that do advocacy, is helping those people who are now having to turn to those organizations to get the help that they need.

We are certainly now entering a very critical period in Canadian society where the economic recession is having this incredible impact on communities, people and families where before perhaps they were completely self-sufficient and they did not require the help and assistance.

One of the problems that we are facing in our community is the cuts in legal aid. There are a number of non-profit organizations that deliver legal aid services. In the best of times their parameters were fairly restrictive. There is money that goes from the federal government to the provinces for legal aid. This is very much a part of our judicial system and all Canadians should be guaranteed the right to access and opportunity to legal representation.

However, as these cutbacks have just come wave after wave, we are now facing a situation in B.C. where low income communities are being hit particularly hard. The organizations that are there, whether it is the UBC Law Student’s Society that provides legal aid or the legal aid system itself, they are now under severe pressure trying to meet the demand as more and more people, who may have previously had their own resources to deal with the judicial system, are now unable to do so. That is a very serious situation.

In looking at this bill I know that other colleagues of mine in the NDP are very concerned about this bill. We are concerned about the scope of the bill. We are concerned about how far reaching it is and how it may dampen enthusiasm and the involvement of people. When we read the bill, the things that are required of people individually, as well as the organization in question if it falls under the mandate of this bill, are quite incredible.

We have a lot of concern about how broad a net this bill casts in terms of creating a system where organizations basically have very little choice to perform in a way that maybe they have evolved over the years. It seems to me that this idea that there is only one standard to uphold accountability or transparency is really quite false.

The fact is the vast majority of non-profit organizations are very democratic. They are transparent. They are accountable. It is in their very nature to do that because their very reason for being is based on community service. It is based on service to society.

Therefore, these organizations tend to be very open and straightforward about what they are doing. They have nothing to hide. It is not like there is some big multinational corporation that is involved in goodness knows what kind of financial transactions and trying to skim and move money, such as what we see in this financial crisis that we have before us now. Non-profit organizations are not really in that kind of game. They are in service to the community. Even the large organizations, whether they be the Red Cross or others, have a different kind of mandate.

One of the concerns that we have is that it may be necessary for us to see a framework of regulations that would ensure better accountability for some of these large organizations that do engage in business opportunities. It seems that this is now being cast over every organization that falls within the scope and the mandate of the bill, so we have a problem with that.

I did want to express the concerns that we have about the bill, but most of all I want to thank the incredible non-profit organizations in my community that provide an amazing service. I do not think I could do the job that I do if they were not doing what they do. We work in very close partnership with each other. We all need to recognize these organizations and what they do in our communities.