October 13, 2019; CBC News
There is just one weekend remaining for Canadians to ponder their choices before going to the polls on Monday, October 21st. Predicting the outcome from the election of 338 Members of Parliament to the House of Commons—and formation of the next Government of Canada—is proving almost as difficult as trying to come up with a narrative for the campaign. It’s not that the election has been uninteresting (there are even indications of high voter turnout), but it is proving very difficult to answer the question, “What is the 43rd federal election all about?”
Many issues that have been covered in past editions of NPQ North, including badly needed reforms for the nonprofit sector and accessibility for people with disabilities, have been totally absent from election conversations. Even mainstays like poverty reduction haven’t found much traction, with only 12 mentions in the English language debate, nine of them by Prime Minister and Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau touting his own key initiatives, like the Canada Child Benefit, as discussed back in February.
Some confusing guidance from Elections Canada earned international attention that put a chill into the charitable sector before the campaign was formally underway. Although valiant efforts have been made by umbrella charity groups and collaboratives to reinvigorate advocacy work on election issues, the need for continued regulatory reform is definitely in evidence (more on this below).
Reflecting on late summer pre-election rumblings, It was known going in that Trudeau would be targeted with ethical questions about the SNC-Lavalin affair, but who could have predicted that he would also be facing a blackface controversy? Diversity and inclusion initiatives have been a feature of his four years as Prime Minister, but to understate the case, defense of his own past behavior has made it difficult to focus on present and future policy initiatives in this area.
This has provided an opening for Conservative leader and former Speaker of the House Andrew Scheer to score points on issues of character, but he too has faced controversy over some fudging of his past work history and failure to disclose his dual (American) citizenship—an issue for which he and his party criticized others in the past.
With the Liberals and Conservatives consistently polling in a virtual tie and engaged in negative campaigning about their leader’s reputations, it is not a surprise that the leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP), Jagmeet Singh, has experienced a surge in recent weeks. Early fears that the NDP might be in serious trouble have seemingly been erased with not only a solid debate performance, but for those concerned about character issues, Singh has been decidedly less negative in his approach, and this appears to have boosted his own reputation and his party’s numbers.
In the “not boring” category, the Bloc Quebecois seems to have risen from the dead. They have shifted away from talk of “sovereignty” for the province of Quebec, preferring a language of “nationalism” that has proven bothersome to all the other parties looking for a significant portion of Quebec’s 75 seats. Whereas the provincial politics of Bill 21 (a ban on the wearing of religious symbols) and a focus on pipelines (unpopular in Quebec) are awkward for other leaders, Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet (running candidates only in Quebec) does not have to concern himself with how his positions will play in other parts of the country.
When the election was called back in the second week of September, the Bloc was all but absent from the conversation, with Elizabeth May’s Green Party and the upstart, far-right People’s Party of Canada (PPC) (with narrowly defeated former Conservative leadership candidate Maxime Bernier at the helm) seen as potential difference makers. With the Greens predicted to win in the area of four seats and the PPC with a shot at perhaps one, they are seemingly on the fringe—but in a parliamentary democracy with the numbers as they stand right now it seems most likely that there will be a minority government with the BQ, NDP, and perhaps even the Greens forming a ruling coalition (but probably not a coalition with the Conservatives as the ruling party).
One might think the Greens would benefit from the emergence of climate change and environmental issues as top election themes (about 100 mentions in the English-language debate), but this is just another feature of a confusing campaign. Canadians are anxious and worried about both climate and resource management, but it’s unclear how this will translate on election day. For example, polls show voters think (by a serious margin) the Green Party would be the best at dealing with climate change issues, but they are mired at less than 10 percent in the polls.
Discussing the various anxieties and worries that are factoring into the 2019 election, CBC’s Aaron Wherry offers a long list, everything from Donald Trump to facts and feelings about income security, noting:
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The other major fault line of this campaign is more explicitly existential: climate change and what, if anything, we should do about it. On that, there are serious questions about ambition and feasibility—buffeted by dire warnings that our house is on fire and doctrinaire claims that no one can be both truly committed to the welfare of future generations and willing to support a pipeline.
It’s unclear that the advocacy work of the nonprofit community has had a significant influence in this election. Those in the environment sector have certainly seized upon the moment, at a time when the Alberta provincial government appears to feel rather threatened by a pending visit from Greta Thunberg, there is no time like the present to convey an environmental message.
A collaborative of 14 leading environmental organizations, including the David Suzuki Foundation and the World Wildlife Federation, have joined together to offer voters the Federal Party Survey on Environmental Platforms. With a tight list of 10 questions and easy navigation to view some or all of the responses from the six parties, judging by the preamble, the effort has also clearly been constructed with an eye to concerns about “inappropriate” political activity: “This website is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to support or oppose, to promote or show disapproval of a platform, or to endorse or reject a party or any measures recommended by it.”
Controversy started way back in August, when Elections Canada warned climate groups and others about “issue advertising” which suggested that advertising to the effect that “climate change is real” could be seen as partisan activity (because the PPC has taken the position that “There is however no scientific consensus on the theory that CO2 produced by human activity is causing dangerous global warming.”)
While it is true that the Charities Directorate at the Canada Revenue Agency has sole power to decide when a charitable organization is or isn’t following the guidelines for charitable activity (and has the power to revoke charitable status) it is not a simple matter to convince organizations that Elections Canada is merely regulating partisan advertising, not meddling in nonprofit advocacy work. To be clear, Elections Canada is staying in their lane by notifying charities about requirements in the Canada Elections Act for registering as a third party, as well as expense limits any efforts deemed “political advertising.” But it is asking a lot of the nonprofit community to completely detach themselves from the fear that being seen as “partisan” could impact their charitable status. Much like the Canadian electorate, the charitable sector is dealing with a lot of fear and anxiety, and has clearly not recovered from the very active auditing by the Charities Directorate that boomed during the previous Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
There was a quick response by Imagine Canada, the Ontario Nonprofit Network, and other nonprofit advocacy organizations to encourage the sector to understand the rules and to engage in the federal election. The What are the rules, anyway? guide on the Imagine Canada website offers plain language clarity, and as with the preamble to the climate change survey, it is obvious that many organizations have found their way through the murky electoral law/charity law confusion, but why should this be so hard?
Back in July, NPQ North touted the important work of the Senate of Canada’s 42 recommendations in their 190-page report Catalyst for Change: A Roadmap to a Stronger Charitable Sector.
Right on point with the current confusion of what is partisan and how participation in an election campaign might or might not impact on an organization’s charitable status, recommendation 33 of the report calls for the Government of Canada to be prescriptive in describing what charities can and cannot do—a back and forth between Elections Canada, the Charities Directorate, the media, and advocacy networks is simply not an acceptable alternative.
Susan Fish, writing for Charity Village, described Catalyst for Change as “a once-in-a-generation opportunity” and the report’s co-authors, Senators Terry Mercer and Ratna Omidvar, seem passionately determined that it become more than a white paper gathering electronic dust in the digital archives.
It is clear that action on regulatory reform is desperately needed—not simply to make life easier for overworked volunteer boards and staff, but because in a time when the electorate is anxious, confused, and overwhelmed by a myriad of social, economic, and cultural issues—they need to hear from the thousands of charities that live these issues every day, and can offer everything from research to practical solutions and future directions.—Keenan Wellar