This is the Life: B.C. government using fear as a weapon against non-profits

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Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.

Perhaps the proposal to change the Society Act is a straw dog, a plan designed to fail. Call it a manipulative win-win for the provincial government.

The recent controversy about a white paper that seems to put most, if not all, of B.C.’s 27,000 in legal jeopardy could be taken at face value. Perhaps it is based on a belief within government that some of these non-profit organizations act as a front to conduct activities that really are “detrimental to the public interest,” as Section 99 says.  Hard to imagine just what those activities might be, though.

Are they using their tax-exempt status to plot the overthrow of government? Running drugs or laundering money? Selling stolen goods? Trafficking in humans? Hard to imagine, but even so, it wouldn’t take a change to the Societies Act to deal with any of those flagrant activities. There is no shortage of laws to deal with crimes.

The proposal would allow anyone (including those phantom “people” we know as corporations) to take a society to court for carrying on undefined activities that are detrimental to the “public good”, which is also undefined.

It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch that the white paper is a response to pressure from corporate interests in, oh, say, the liquid natural gas or pipeline sectors, who have to put up with organized criticism of environmentalist groups, many of which have society status.

This is the kind of legislative initiative that comes in the early years of a governing party’s mandate. Taking on the entire non-profit sector and hundreds of thousands of volunteers wouldn’t be wise when an election is just around the corner. But the government has nothing to lose at this point.

Is it a bad thing to discuss whether the current Society Act is meeting the needs of our society? Of course not. No legislation is so perfect that it shouldn’t be revisited on occasion. But this white paper reeks of political interference, primarily because it so spectacularly vague. Without defining who should be able to take a society to court, what exactly the “public interest” is and what the courts might be able to do with its decisions, this is far from being an invitation to thoughtful discourse. It seems more likely an attempt to poke the bear, to strike fear into the hearts of organizations that don’t see eye to eye with the government.

It wouldn’t be politically savvy for Christy Clark to come out and say that she wants to shut up environmental groups. And it would probably be impossible to single them out in legislation. So instead, a vague and undefined trial balloon is floated. And, in large, bold print on that balloon is the word BEWARE. Be afraid, very afraid, is the true message, cleverly designed to divide and conquer. How likely is it that societies that provide social services, and have contracts with the provincial government, are going to stand up and shout in protest? Are the smaller, earnest groups that spend every nickel raised to fulfill their mandate going to want to draw attention to themselves? Not if they are smart. Why? Because a society’s directors have a financial stake on all this. Directors of non-profits have a liability for what happens in their organizations, and that liability is also financial. What happens to these groups when directors start to sense that they could end up in court and face fines and legal costs?

And how many of these groups have the financial resources to conduct a legal defense against what could be a frivolous action brought about by a person or corporation with money, for no more reason than to wreak havoc? Couldn’t happen? You can’t foresee an angry husband objecting to the advice his spouse got from a women’s centre filing an action? You can’t see rabid free enterpriser filing an action about a society that sells used items in competition with the private sector?

I said at the outset that this might well be a straw dog proposal, designed to create unease or even outrage, so that another, less blatant proposal can be slid in to replace it. Either way, the government wins. If it doesn’t sense there is sufficient outrage with the initial white paper proposal, it can simply pass it into legislation. If there is outrage, the public might be sufficiently pacified by changes that could still stifle the activities of some societies.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.