Saturday, February 11, 2012

Charity, or Justice?

An online friend of mine, a social worker, recently returned from Cuba. I told her I’m planning to travel with the 23rd Friendshipment Caravan again this summer, and she responded:

“I wonder about the impact of charity on the Cuban identity and their autonomy. I have this same concern with the work I do but do it anyways, cuz where would the people be without it? Very hungry and cold!”

Regular Street Newz readers know that we appreciate the hard work of front line workers, but ultimately we hope to inspire change at the source. We, along with the reputed 99%, realize that the overall situation is in serious need of an upgrade.

I told my friend that the Caravan does function in the realm of charity, bringing donated hospital and school supplies directly to an organization of Cuban people (not the government) who distribute the aid using an application process. In addition, though, the Caravan is working for fundamental, foundational, systemic change. We demand a normalization of relations. For the past 50 years, US Foreign Policy has maintained an immoral and (according to everyone at the UN General Assembly except the USA and Israel) an illegal economic blockade against the small island nation whose experiment with socialism is perceived as an ideological threat.

The Caravan crosses three international borders, traveling on 10-15 routes through the United States collecting people and goods, educating citizens in hundreds of cities about Cuba’s revolution, about the unjust imprisonment of the Cuban 5 in US prisons, and eventually delivering over 100 tons of aid and usually over 100 Caravanistas - most of them US citizens whose own government forbids their travel to Cuba.

Not only has Pastors for Peace succeeded in this quest 22 times, meeting with various degrees of resistance from the US and Mexican authorities, but they return to the USA (via Mexico) openly declaring that they have been to Cuba. These are some of the bravest US-Americans I’ve ever met, doing charitable work to address the immediate needs of the Cuban people, and also raising awareness about and challenging the ridiculous policies imposed by the most imperialist war-mongering nation currently on the planet.

Here in Canada, essential services are often abandoned by governments, and instead provided through charitable organizations. When an emergency is apparent, the humanitarian thing to do is meet the immediate need by providing food and shelter. My friend’s concern, and mine, is that by doing this in perpetuity we’re letting the government and “the system” off the hook. When we do charity without advocacy, we’re enabling the dysfunctional system which serves the 1% at the expense of the majority.

Did you know that Canada’s federal government has an ingenious arrangement to ensure that pesky activist and advocate voices remain silent? To attain charitable status in Canada, and gain access to most funding, applicants essentially agree to muzzle themselves.

An article by Toronto lawyer Mark Blumberg, published at, states “A registered charity CANNOT be involved in PARTISAN political activities. Charities should always keep this in mind… Under the Act, a registered charity can be involved in non-partisan political activities as long as it devotes substantially all (generally 90% or more) of its resources to charitable activities. Any political activity has to help accomplish the charity’s purposes and remain incidental (generally 10% or less) in scope.”

In Canada every charity is a non-profit, but not every non-profit is a charity. The Street Newz, for example, applies for funding through a non-profit society called the Bread and Roses Collective. We’re not a charity, though, because we don’t think we’d be much of a newspaper if we rendered ourselves unable to criticize government policies and call for systemic change. With charitable status we’d be eligible to apply for funding from the United Way or the Victoria Foundation, but we couldn’t condemn government policies (or lack thereof) that actually create poverty and homelessness through, for example, the Olympics or the enormous Federal military and prison budgets.

Some individuals within charities do speak truth to power using the 10% window. When Ken Wu was executive director of the Wilderness Committee, he organized rallies and circulated petitions. Those petitions and postcards were carefully worded, asking citizens to tell the government how they feel about clearcut logging, for example, rather than specifically saying ‘clearcut logging is bad.’ Ken recently founded the Ancient Forest Alliance, choosing to struggle as a non-profit without charitable status, and liberating an important collective voice calling for systemic change.

Victoria’s Community Social Planning Council offers a good example of how charities can draw attention to the types of systemic change needed to alleviate poverty and homelessness. Over the years they’ve helped launch organizations to offer services, and they’ve compiled a small forest’s worth of community based research illustrating the ill effects of poverty on families and individuals. They’ve reported on the very real challenges residents face as the cost of living increases but the minimum wage and fixed incomes don’t. They can crunch numbers and produce reports until they’re blue in the face, but they cannot launch a major campaign to directly lobby the government to, for example, increase the minimum wage or consider the benefits of a guaranteed livable income.

Why not? Because any charity that uses more than 10% of its resources to actually recommend systemic change, even if the evidence of need is provided by the other 90% of their work, runs the risk of losing their federal charitable status forever. And there are charity watchers, you bet there are, who monitor charities carefully.

It leaves me wondering who the government is listening to for policy advice, if not people directly doing the essential work within charities. Of course I know the answer, and it’s one reason so many people are taking to the streets here, and all around the world.

The charity group I travel to Cuba with is a US based society called Pastors for Peace. It was founded by Reverend Lucius Walker, who was shot by a contra bullet while vacationing with his family in El Salvador during the 1980s. While in the hospital recovering, Lucius thought about what it means to be shot by a bullet his own tax dollars purchased, and in the morning announced the formation of Pastors for Peace. Sadly, Lucius’ soul departed his body a couple of years ago, but his work continues. Lucius would remind us it is our responsibility, our duty, to challenge unjust and immoral laws. I look forward to helping keep his mission alive again this summer, and I thank everyone who donates to my independent, non-charity-status alternative media work, even though I can’t provide you with a tax write off.

Janine founded the Victoria Street Newz after working for a year with the Community Council where she helped write stories for their Quality of Life Challenge.