Can a charity comment on what led to hunger and food banks?

Canada Supports Free Speech by Charities

Because it’s a Public Right to Know??

By Wayne Roberts

In a spirit of non-partisan public policy, I want to praise the federal Liberal government for moving to lift the ban on non-partisan public advocacy by charities — a move that is reported here.

There are many reasons why this is a good move, mostly related to the need to promote informed and fact-based public participation in discussion about policy matters.

Almost by definition, the overwhelming majority of charities work on the frontlines and in the trenches of causes that lack adequate government or corporate funding — otherwise, they wouldn’t be charities, spending their valuable time asking individuals to donate so that their work can be done.

A law banning, limiting or putting question marks around charitable efforts to discuss government policy can only prevent an airing of issues by some of the most informed people on health, social and environmental issues.

Charities campaigning these issues can lost their tax status

Charity workers and volunteers are the only group limited in their public comments by tax law, instead of the common law that governs everybody else.

Quite properly, there are no such limits on the way individuals spend their time discussing public policy issues. Nor, are there any limits on individual leaders of corporations, unions, and professional bodies, even though such people are apt to speak on behalf of established interests that also receive favorable tax treatment from the government.


Aside from tax law, two groups stand out as having being limited in their rights to free speech and political advocacy — civil servants and charity officials.

In other words, the only voices not previously given otherwise-normal freedom of expression are those most informed about the working details of government practices, or the voices most likely to express deep knowledge on the impacts of government neglect of health, social and environmental issues.

Just so you know where I am coming from, I have had two sets of experiences in my life that revealed to me the problems that come from silencing, or even just chilling, the voices of civil servants or charity leaders.

When I managed the Toronto Food Policy Council on behalf of Toronto Public Health, I was the only person in the department, other than the Medical Officer of Health, who was identified as free to speak out on public policy.

That’s all we have left, he says. But can that be said to politicians?

If there was a debate about food insecurity caused by inadequate levels of minimum wages or inadequate levels of social assistance or inadequate provision of affordable housing, I was free to speak out. A nurse or nutritionist, who worked daily to support people who faced a crisis of feeding themselves and their children, did not have the freedom to speak out.

A food bank or United Way worker or leader also felt pressured to stay quiet, and certainly worried about the implications of campaigning against wrongs they witnessed — lest their charity lose its charitable status, or face an exhaustive search of all their timekeeping records.

The people on the front lines of government service and public service are in the position described by Brazilian archbishop Helder Camara, who famously complained that “when I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

Archbishop Helder Camara named the difference between charity and outlawed ideas

During the mid-1980s , I was one of the architects of a campaign by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, where I worked as assistant to the president, to lift the total ban on public comment by provincial government employees. I was also tasked to protect two civil service heroes — one who was fired for leaking information to the media about the conditions caused by jail overcrowding, and one who was prepared to be fired to leak information on how Ministry of the Environment officials suppressed information on levels of pollution in the Great Lakes.


We were able to convince the governing Liberals that employees should be free to speak out publically, preferably after going through a check by an independent group that would confirm there were no violations of personal privacy or legitimate government confidentiality.

We argued successfully, thanks to brilliant work by OPSEU lawyers from Gowling and Henderson, that part of the rationale for protecting free speech centered on the rights of the individual. But an equally important right centered on the right of the public to benefit from informed discussion on policy issues. A similar view had been supported by Canada’s Supreme Court judges when they ruled on the free speech rights of a federal civil servant, shortly after the Charter was adopted.

In the 30 years since those decisions, I am not aware of any Ontario or Canadian civil servant who has made frivolous or self-interested use of free speech rights.

It’s extremely unlikely that charity employees or volunteers would make frivolous or self-interested use of expanded free speech rights either. As argued in an excellent brief by Imagine, an association representing Canadian charities, charities are the only organizations in Canada required by law to base their positions strictly on research. That’s a pretty all-inclusive protection against empty accusations.

For reasons that might be worth exploring, such restrictions are not imposed on politicians, who may not be aware that there is already adequate public protection from deliberate or ill-informed misstatements from charities.

After 30 successful years of experience with relatively free speech by formal civil servants, it is now time to free the second major grouping of people who can bring insider knowledge to the fore of public discussions.

Ironically, during the last 30 years, many charities have come to perform work that was normally done by governments. Since the rise of neo-liberal-inspired outsourcing of government functions to charities and non-profits — largely in the field of social services and environmental protection — today’s employees and volunteers in charitable organizations deserve to be recognized as a tier of public service employees.

As such, the public deserves the right to hear what they have the right to say, based on their experience and expertise.


  • Federal Liberals free up free speech for charities
  • My experience with public health and civil servants
  • Why this is a public right to know issue

(I write mostly about food and cities; to keep up, please sign up for my newsletter at

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