Dragging the non-profits to court

Proposed changes to Societies Act has Parksville Qualicum Beach residents concerned; MLA Stilwell says nothing has been finalized yet

Dozens of non-profit organizations are up in arms about the B.C. government’s proposed changes to the Society Act, which critics are calling “non-democratic.”

In August, finance minister Mike de Jong released a white paper outlining a new Society Act which includes a controversial section 99 that has become disconcerting for those in the non-profit industry.

Opposition critic and Nanaimo MLA Leonard Krog (NDP) explains the changes would allow members of the public to take non-profit societies to the B.C. Supreme Court over matters deemed “detrimental to the public interest.” Krog told The NEWS this is problematic because “disgruntled” people, with a large financial base, could take small non-profits to court and “basically bankrupt them.” He said “this has the smell of the Kinder Morgan clause.”

B.C. has approximately 27,000 non profit societies, defined by the government as not for profit corporations organized primarily for social purposes.

“You could have, for instance, a land trust society that is taking a position that’s seen as political and you could have a big forestry company that challenges it (the society), saying it’s not in the public interest,” Krog said, citing a hypothetical example.  “Bodies with a great deal of money will be in a position to challenge societies, most of which have no money and will not be able to pay for — or sustain — lawyers in a claim.”

Local volunteer Faye Smith said she’s concerned about the looming changes too.

Smith, Mid-Vancouver Island Habitat Enhancement Society (MVIHIS) project co ordinator, said the new legislation has the potential to destroy societies.

“Most societies want to do good,” she said. “There must be thousands of societies who are struggling to make ends meet, who are volunteer-run and getting by on grants or fundraising.”

Smith said the new Society Act could not only bankrupt societies, but “totally distract” from their purposes.  “I can’t quite think of why somebody would want to take MVIHIS to court — maybe they don’t like our restoration work or don’t think it’s in the public interest — but you never know, it’s kind of scary in a way,” she said. “Maybe somebody doesn’t like someone on our board — these things can happen and I don’t think the court is the right place to oversee a society.”

Parksville-Qualicum MLA Michelle Stilwell (Lib) said the proposed changes are “simply designed to improve accountability” as non- profit societies are “largely self governing.”

Qualicum Beach’s Andy Telfer, vice president of Volunteer B.C., sent The NEWS a statement saying the changes aren’t welcome.

“The proposed Society Act aims to enhance the accountability and transparency of societies, but this goal can only be achieved if societies do not find themselves over-regulated in the process,” states the release. “Legislation that over prescribes how to handle disputes undermines the democratic principles that the Society Act is meant to uphold.”

Stilwell said the proposed changes have not transpired into finalized government policy.  “I hope everyone is aware that all of the provisions are subject to change based on the feedback we’re receiving,” she told The NEWS in an e-mail last week. “Our government’s hope is that B.C. societies saw this process as an opportunity  to give feedback and take part in the process of shaping legislation.”

Smith wants to see the changes dropped. She said “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”

Volunteer B.C.’s statement asks the government to “reconsider sections of the proposed Act that would impair a society’s ability to handle disputes through democratic discussion.”

In the same line, Krog is calling on the provincial government to stop changes to existing legislation.

“The Society Act overall needs reform and revision, it’s old and has been changed very little in decades, but this section is just poor public policy — pure and simple,” he said.

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