Madam Speaker, I am very glad to be here today to discuss Bill C-4, an act to amend the not-for-profit corporations act. It is of importance for not-for-profits in our communities right across our great land.
I can offer some advice, as the former executive director of the United Way in Sudbury, that there were several initiatives we were involved with that caused us to slow down the process because of the bureaucracy, red tape and heavy paperwork involved. This amended legislation that we amended in committee would actually help us change some of that.
However, before I go into the discussion that took place at the industry committee in these past few weeks, let us first look at how we got to this point.
For five weeks in the spring of 2002, a team from Industry Canada crossed the country listening to the views of stakeholders on proposals for a new not-for-profit corporations act. Over 300 individuals participated in the consultation sessions, while others sent in briefs to the consultation website.
A preliminary round of consultations was held in the previous fiscal year, and feedback from those first consultations and commissioned research studies was incorporated into the two discussion papers circulated prior to this second round of consultations. Written in plain language, “Reform of the Canada Corporations Act: Draft Framework for a New Not-for-Profit Corporations Act” promotes a corporate governance structure grounded on the themes of transparency, accountability, fairness, and efficiency. The second volume, “Discussion Issues for a New Not-for-Profit Corporations Act” highlights some of the proposals in more detail.
What was determined by these consultations?
A number of stakeholders who had participated in the preliminary round of consultations thanked Industry Canada for incorporating many suggestions in the new framework proposal.
Participants were generally supportive of the various reform proposals, as well. Strong support was expressed for the proposals concerning: the due diligence defence, the standard of care and insurance, and limiting liabilities of directors and officers. There was a divergence of views among participants on issues such as: a classification system, the filing of by-laws, and audit requirements.
At the end of the consultations, participants had several overarching concerns. Co-ordination with other federal statutes and provincial legislation was imperative. Many participants were concerned with ensuring that new legislation would fit with other federal statutes and provincial legislation. In each venue, participants concluded that coordination and consistency at the federal and provincial levels was imperative.
There is ongoing confusion about the distinction between not-for-profit corporations and registered charities. Many issues that arose were tax specific and, as such, under the jurisdiction of the Canada Revenue Agency and the Ministry of Finance.
Discussion of many issues returned to the need for a classification system. Although participants were divided on the need for a classification system, discussion of many other issues returned to the question of whether to include a classification system in a new act.
I will now look at some of the structures within the act that caused some concern.
The first structure that was of concern was the classification system. Reaction about the merits of including a classification system in the new not-for-profit legislation was mixed across the country. However, participants returned to this issue time and again, often noting that other issues could not be resolved without deciding on the issue of a classification system.
Those opposed to the inclusion of a classification system felt it would unduly complicate matters. One of the reasons offered was that it would be difficult to classify some organizations because of the varied work that they do and/or the services that the provide. For example, the United Way that I used to be involved with offers leadership development services which provide support, governance training, fundraising training, training to all sorts of small not-for-profits and charities throughout the greater city of Sudbury and, at the same time, offers services to do people's taxes, to help people find shelter. Those are some of the services that we offer, as well as fundraising.
A number of participants were in favour of a classification system that was either based on levels of revenue or number of members or that distinguished between public benefit, mutual benefit, religious and, in some cases, political organizations.
Another area of concern was the filing of by-laws. There was general agreement that moving away from the archaic letters patent system was a positive step. With respect to the filing of by-laws, a number of participants expressed support for the simpler structure proposed; in fact, a minority of participants agreed that there should be no filing requirements at all.
There was a difference of opinion on whether by-laws and amendments should take effect immediately upon passage by members, or only when filing was complete.
Some did not see the benefit of filing at all if by-laws become effective when passed. Others noted that there could be problems if by-laws did not become effective at the moment when members passed them, particularly for organizations that do not meet frequently. One person predicted that with a filing requirement but no scrutiny, Industry Canada would end up with “the worst of both worlds”: organizations that are not in compliance with the law and filed by-laws that are inaccurate. Participants in a number of cities voiced concern about the possibility of an increased security risk without thorough scrutiny.
Recognizing that some organizations have rapid turnover and limited corporate memory, many participants supported the notion of the government acting as a central repository. There were several requests for Industry Canada to put by-laws online if it accepts the repository role.
Most participants agreed that model by-laws would be very helpful, and urged they be kept simple. Some asked for the creation of an easily updateable web interface, including secure access and summary reports.
Another area of concern was the disclosure and accountability. A majority of participants across the country were in favour of the framework proposal that organizations be required to make corporate financial statements available to members, directors, officers, and the director. However, not all agreed that members should be subject to a fee for copies of the financial statement, and many more disagreed with the proviso to allow exemptions to the requirement.
Those opposed to the requirement were concerned that a requirement to make financial statements available could be burdensome and expensive. A number of participants at one meeting objected strongly to the director having access to financial statements at any time. One suggested that the law be written in as narrow a context as possible, only granting the director a right to information for a specific purpose.
It was proposed that a clearer definition of “financial statement” be developed. A number of participants took exception to the notion that financial statements are presented to members “for their approval”. A suggestion was made to change the language on page 45 to read, “directors would be required to present the audited reports”, without mentioning approval or acceptance.
Several participants in Edmonton, Regina, and Toronto were very concerned about the proposal to allow exemptions from the disclosure requirements, arguing that issuing an exemption would place Industry Canada between the auditor of an organization and the organization itself. Exemptions were seen to contravene the principles of transparency and accountability, and should only be granted according to clearly articulated criteria.
Another issue was membership lists. A majority of participants agreed with the framework proposal that would allow members to obtain copies of the membership list of their organization, provided that the framework is narrowly defined and access is restricted. Several asked that the issue of selling lists be addressed. Some participants noted that it would be essential to ensure that the new act mesh with other federal legislation including the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act and the Anti-Terrorism Act.
In order to circumvent the release of membership lists that include names, addresses, and telephone numbers, it was suggested that an organization charge for undertaking mailings on behalf of members in order to ensure that the privacy of members is not breeched.
The definition of member was confusing to some and worrisome to others.
The definition of “member” was confusing to some and worrisome to others. Some organizations define members as anyone who receives services while others include donors. The statement on page 35 of the “Draft Framework for a New Not-for-Profit Corporations Act”, 'the act would contain a provision defining a member as anyone designated by the board of directors', alarmed some participants and elicited a promise to clarify the wording.
Some participants believed that signing an affidavit in order to obtain a membership list would be pointless. The cost, and the expense of tracking down individuals to sign the affidavit in the first place and pursuing legal action in the event of an infraction, was also seen as problematic.
In addition, the proposed timelines were questioned. The allotted 15 days for changes was seen as too short, and the requirement to maintain records for six years was viewed as “impossible” for many organizations.
Rather than the framework proposal that stipulates a prescribed amount as a threshold above which corporations would be required to have annual audits, most participants across the country favoured a graduated approach, or one based on classification or size.
Many supported the Saskatchewan model in which provincially incorporated not-for-profits with revenues of over $100,000 must be audited, those between $25,000 and $100,000 must have at least an internal review, and those with less than $25,000 have no audit requirements. Concurrent with this was widespread support for the adoption of a graduated standard such as a review engagement, which is less than an audit but satisfies an understanding of the costs involved.
Other suggestions included differentiating between organizations that receive public funding and those that do not, or basing it on classification. For example, if an organization is classified as political it should be required to have an audit regardless of its size, a charitable organization with tax benefits should be subject to a threshold, and mutual benefit organizations could determine their own thresholds.
Suggestions were made to adopt the Canadian Generally Accepted Accounting Principles rather than keeping separate books for protection against not-for-profit corporations using their tax benefits to subsidise for-profit activities, or to have separate statutes for charitable and noncharitable organizations.
Yet another issue was auditors. Representatives of the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants did not agree with the framework proposal as it pertains to auditor qualifications and proposed that the new act adopt the Canadian Business Corporations Act definition of “auditor”. The opposite view was conveyed by representatives of the Certified General Accountants, or CGAs), of Ontario. There were several calls to have audits not be restricted to either CGAs or CAs if made mandatory. Some agreed that a smaller organization should be able to agree to an internal review by a non-accountant, provided that individual had no ties to the board.
Two specific suggestions were made about the wording in the “Draft Framework for a New Not-for-Profit Corporations Act”: First, the last paragraph on page 46 be amended to read, “The auditor meets the standards of the auditing profession.” Second, on page 47, “Right to attend meetings,” would imply that the auditor’s expenses to attend all meetings would automatically be paid by the corporation, something that might be a burden for small organizations. It was suggested the wording could be changed to “the auditor is entitled to attend at the request of the board, and expenses will be paid.”
Something I know quite personally about is directors' liability. The vast majority of participants at the 10 consultations favoured the adoption of the framework proposal that specifies that every director or officer of a corporation would owe a duty of care to the corporation. This objective test would create a uniform standard of care for directors and officers, and is clearly understood by Canadian courts.
It was noted that there could be ambiguity in the notion of “acting in best interest.” As many organizations registered as not-for-profit corporations address a public good, one participant wondered about a potential conflict of interest when a director acts in the best interest of the entity as opposed to the community it was designed to serve.
Participants emphasized the need for consistency with other statutes such as the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Employment Standards Act, and the Income Tax Act, commenting that little can be changed in one without amendments to the others.
There was unanimous approval of the framework proposal that would include a due diligence defence for directors and officers of not-for-profit corporations. Participants saw this as a codification of common law and the right thing to do.d
A majority of participants favoured adoption of the framework proposal that would broaden the scope of situations to allow organizations to identify directors and officers, to provide mandatory review of directors and officers in specific circumstances and to allow corporations to purchase insurance. Many participants were concerned about insurance issues, and many supported advancement of defence costs. Many participants across the country were very concerned that the cost of insurance would be prohibitive for small organizations and impossible to obtain.
A majority of participants also agreed with the framework proposal that would place no statutory limit on liabilities for directors and officers and would encourage proper care and diligence in management of organizations. Participants who supported the framework proposal liked the idea of clarifying but not limiting liability. Some remedies were suggested for these concerns.
Mainly, the draft framework proposal does not make a recommendation with respect to the derivative remedy. The concept of including a derivative remedy received mixed reviews across the country. Those opposed to providing for derivative action said that its inclusion would be used to burden organizations with frivolous actions, or allow a third party to hijack the agenda of an organization.
Those who favoured the inclusion of this remedy felt its inclusion was necessary in order to ensure accountability and credibility. A number of other saw this mechanism of accountability as important and urged that it be included as a hallmark of modern statutes. Others suggested keeping derivative as a remedy, but limiting access so that small, special interest groups could not abuse it in clarifying the rules under which it could be used.
Participants were mixed in their reaction to the framework proposal, which does not provide for an oppression remedy. Those who agreed with its exclusion included a participant who argued that any one disgruntled member could use it to halt the workings of an organization. It was pointed out that the common law remedies were made for truly distressful situations.
Among those who argued in favour of including this remedy was one participant who contended that there were many disputes within not-for-profit organizations and therefore a real need for remedies. In Quebec a participant found this option redundant because such protection was already available under civil law.
A strong consensus emerged across the country for the proposition that the dissent right and appraisal remedy should not be included in the new act, but the corporation should be free to include similar provisions in its articles or bylaws.
The framework proposal includes no provisions respecting natural justice and fair procedures. The majority of participants from across the country agreed with the framework proposal. Many participants liked the fact that corporations would be free to include these provisions in their articles and bylaws, rather than enshrining them in the act.
Most participants in St. John's, Halifax, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver agreed with the framework proposal not to include a modified proportionate liability regime, while several participants in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Regina did not agree with it. A number of the comments made during the consultations were actually points of clarification that reflected the highly technical nature of this subject area.
One participant saw no valid reason for including MPL in the statutes as not-for-profits were not the types of corporate organizations that needed it. Another disagreed and urged that MPL be included, stressing the importance of consistency in legal approaches. Secured creditors rely on audited statements and auditors would be liable to secured creditors, as would directors and officers. A suggestion was made to make the NFP statute consistent with the CBCA.
The CICA argued that the MPL should be included in the act for the sake of fairness. Accountants should be responsible for their own acts, but not the acts or omissions of others. A person who makes a relatively smaller, non-existent contribution to a wrongful act should not, in all fairness, have unlimited liability.
The framework proposal, which has no provision allowing for the creation of corporations sole, met with strong approval across the country. However, the provision to allow standard, not-for-profit corporations to be set up with only one director and one member was not enthusiastically embraced. Many participants in most cities preferred to see a minimum of three directors.
Bill C-4 is long overdue legislation for a very crucial, important part of Canadian society. I urge all members to support this amended and improved bill so the Canadian Parliament can improve the systematic framework for not-for-profits.