Friday, February 17, 2006

Not necessarily charitable

For those magazines who thought that the recent decision to give charitable status to The Walrus Foundation (after a bruising, and expensive, two-year battle that went all the way to the Finance Minister's office) was going to loosen up the rules for other magazines, think again.

The Canada Revenue Agency has just issued a "Policy commentary" on the matter. But the whole thing remains as clear as mud. (A suspicious mind might think that the document was intended to send a signal that magazines shouldn't get their hopes up.)

It pivots around the extraordinarily old-fashioned notion of what "education" is (one of the arcane grounds upon which an organization can be considered a charity). As any reader will see, the "Policy commentary" essentially leaves things exactly where they were: a company whose principal business is publishing a magazine must still convince the boffins in Ottawa that their principal goal is public education and betterment. And the interpretation of the definition rests with the bureaucrats.

The further you go into this area, the more arcane and arbitrary it seems. Magazine publishers who now have such status can never be sure they will be allowed to keep it. And those who don't have it can never be sure on what basis they could be given it. Every little fundamentalist church in Canada can get this status almost without effort. But Maisonneuve and other magazines like it have a fight on their hands.

If ever there needed to be a thorough public review and a new law of charity in this country, now is the time. And forget about precedents. As the policy commentary says: Each organization is judged on the merits of its own application. So, saddle up your lawyer and ride into battle.

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