In what many Canadians believe was politically motivated harassment by Canada’s former conservative government, scores of progressive Canadian charities—including the Canadian Unitarian Council—were subject to “political activity audits” by the country’s tax authority, the Canada Revenue Agency.
As a result of the audit, the CUC was required to change the definition of its charitable purpose because auditors said that two of its purposes—including “work for justice in the world”—were too broad and vague. At the Annual General Meeting in May 2016, Canadian Unitarians voted to approve new charitable purposes that no longer include the word “justice.” ( Read the text of the resolution here.) At the same time, the General Meeting also voted to adopt anew vision statement for Unitarianism in Canada that continues to emphasize justice:
As Canadian Unitarian Universalists, we envision a world in which our interdependence calls us to love and justice.
These five Aspirations guide us in living out our faith: As Canadian Unitarian Universalists, we are Deeply Connected, Radically Inclusive, Actively Engaged, Theologically Alive, and Spiritually Grounded.
The revised and expanded statement of the CUC’s charitable purpose names four purposes, including:
3. Nurturing, supporting and enhancing religious communities and other groups to work together on mutual concerns for the benefit of the community; and
4. Providing basic necessities of life, including food, clean water, clothing, medical and dental care and supplies, shelter, and education, tuition and school supplies to those in need.
The CUC’s vision statement is comparable to the U.S. Unitarian Universalist Association’s “Principles and Sources,” while the CUC’s charitable purposes are comparable to the UUA’s “Purposes” (full text here).
The CUC was one of six religious charities chosen for an audit. Like many of the fifty-three other charities that were audited, the CUC had been critical of the environmental, trade, and prison policies of Steven Harper, the Conservative prime minister of Canada who served from 2006 to 2015. The audits began in 2012 and continued even after Harper stepped down and was replaced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of the Liberal Party. The new administration said in January 2016 that it would wind down the political activity audits but would complete those already underway, including the one with CUC. It also said that the audits so far revealed that the charities under examination had largely been following rules restricting political activity.
Under Canadian law, charities cannot use more than 10 percent of their total resources for non-partisan political activity, which is defined as efforts to change, oppose, or retain a law, policy, or decision of any level of government in Canada or internationally. An organization may choose not to register as a charity if wants to devote more resources to non-partisan political work.
Many critics complained that only progressive charities were targeted for the audits and that the effort created an “advocacy chill” among these groups.
The CUC’s audit, which began in January 2015, examined its political, financial, and organizational functions for the years 2012 and 2013. The process was stressful and expensive, said Vyda Ng, executive director.
It took nearly two years, cost tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and required already-overburdened staff to work many extra hours, Ng said. The audit found no major violations, but the CUC and the tax authority reached a compliance agreement in which CUC agreed to institute a number of corrective measures, including improving its bookkeeping measures, by February 2017. Many of the measures are already in place, Ng said.
“Although exhausting and stressful, the process had a number of good lessons to teach,” said Ng, including the creation of articles and other resources for congregational leaders regarding the guidelines for political activities.
The Canadian Unitarian Council serves forty-six congregations in Canada.