The Unchanging Meaning of 'Charity'.

AuthorBroder, Peter

It is often said that the only constant is change. But some things move faster than others.

With 5G in the offing, few people now remember the days of dial-up internet and the non-profit groups that sprang up twenty or so years ago to offer access to the then-budding worldwide web. That, however, was the last time a Canadian federal court endorsed a specific broadening of the meaning of charity for Income Tax Act purposes.

There was a period in the 1980s and 1990s, when if you wanted to get online, chances were that you didn't do so through one of the handful of major telecom providers so familiar these days. Access was through universities and colleges or through a series of local, largely volunteer, non-profit networks. (Dial-up, once you were online, required a somewhat longer attention span than is common these days.)

One of those network groups was the Vancouver Regional Freenet Association. After being incorporated as a British Columbia Society, it sought status as a registered charity. Initially turned down by the Department of National Revenue (predecessor to the Canada Revenue Agency), it appealed that decision to the Federal Court of Appeal. The case is known as: Vancouver Regional FreeNet Assn v MNR (FreeNet). The Court found that it did meet the criteria to be a registered charity because its purposes were comparable to those previously recognized as charitable in legislation and at common law.

Hugessen, J.A. held that the purposes of the Association were broadly to establish and encourage development of community communications resources. These purposes were similar to the support for physical public infrastructure--such as repair of bridges, ports, causeways and highways--referenced in the Statute of Elizabeth. Justice Hugessen wrote:

White I do not want to insist unduly on the analogy to the information highway, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the provision of free access to information and to a means by which citizens can communicate with one another on whatever subject they may please is a type of purpose similar to those which have been held to be charitable; it is within the spirit and intendment of the preamble to the Statute of Elizabeth. [1996] 3 FC 880 at para 17. As was confirmed in 1999 by the Supreme Court of Canada in Vancouver Society of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women (Vancouver Society), drawing analogies between purposes of contemporary groups and purposes previously held to be charitable is...

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