Mr. Chairman, I am very happy to rise to speak on Bill C-4, An Act respecting not-for-profit corporations and certain other corporations.
We are indeed at the last stage, in the House of Commons, of a long process that began several years ago. The act governing these matters is completely obsolete. It must consequently be modernized and that is the purpose of Bill C-4. The new act will take financial means into account, as well as the size of the corporation and the implementation of management mechanisms. It offers a flexible framework for the submission of financial statements as well as the establishment of regulations and the structures of the organizations it will govern. There is a considerable increase in the efficiency and transparency of the incorporation process for not-for-profit corporations.
I sat as a member of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology. We had already begun working on this matter in 2004. This is a very hefty act which demanded an array of detailed analyses. I think that the members from all parties who sat on the committee did their work very well. And consequently, today we have an interesting bill.
The letters patent system of incorporation has been replaced by an as of right system. The incorporation of not-for-profit corporations is greatly facilitated by this procedure. The abolition of the minister's discretionary power in this regard was more than necessary to eliminate the discretion that could be exercised by the minister, which went back to a whole other era. This needed to be corrected.
This will increase the confidence of the public and the credibility of not-for-profit corporations. And we know that the public already has a very favourable view of the nature of not-for-profit organizations. In our work especially, members know that many organizations work to help our citizens and provide different types of support and help their own members. If these organizations did not exist, the state would have to step in instead, in one way or another. From that perspective, it was urgent that the federal act which governs federally incorporated not-for-profit corporations be modernized.
In fact, the Canada Corporations Act, which is the existing act, and will still be in effect until we have passed this bill, provides the frame of reference for the incorporation of not-for-profit federal corporations.
In fact, the types of corporations governed under part II of the Canada Corporations Act include religious, charitable, political, mutual-benefit, and general not-for-profit organizations.
In recent years, some concerns have been raised that the act is outdated, as I was saying earlier. Since 1999, there have been public calls for the act to be reformed. It has been ten years now. A voluntary sector task force created by the federal government called for improvements to the regulatory structure that governs the sector. Industry Canada's proposal to modernize the act was part of the task force's plan.
In July 2000, Industry Canada issued a consultation paper entitled “Reform of the Canada Corporations Act: The Federal Nonprofit Framework Law”. The department then held a series of round-table discussions in cities across the country to consider the ideas presented in the document. That process eventually led to the Liberal government introducing Bill C-21 on November 15, 2004. The bill never made it to second reading.
At that point, we entered a cycle of minority governments, which we are still going through and which I do not think we will get out of for a while yet, in both Quebec and Canada, because the population does not have enough confidence in a single party today to give it a majority mandate. That is especially true in Quebec, where people feel that they have been regularly shortchanged by federalist parties, which have a Canada-wide vision. As a result, they have often put Quebec's interests on the back burner while putting Canada's interests first, and these two sets of interests are not necessarily the same.
So, we are caught in this cycle of minority governments, and we do not know how much longer the cycle will last. In my view, as long as any party aspiring to become the government does not introduce a project that reflects Quebeckers' wants, among other things, the party will not win people's support. Based on experiences in recent years, such as the Conservative party's recognition of the Quebec nation, which was an empty shell and not followed by any other commitments, I think the population has received a very clear message and, as a result, it has not been willing to give such a mandate.
We are now seeing the same thing with the Liberal Party, which is boasting about the fact that it will reform the employment insurance system, when we know very well that that same party is the one responsible for the Axworthy reform in 1994. Even though the Liberals had promised Canadians that they would stop the Conservative reform, instead what we saw was an even speedier reform that hurt the unemployed and had them contributing the most to reduce the deficit. And no one ever returned the favour. I do not think this period is over.
However, in terms of Bill C-4, which is currently before us, this new Canadian legislation on not-for-profit corporations is making its way through the various stages. In this Parliament, we have the opportunity to vote at third reading and send it to the other place. We hope the new legislation will come into force quickly.
I agree with the minister who said this bill will cut administrative costs faced by not-for-profit corporations. That is a good thing, and it will strengthen and clarify the governance rules that apply to these corporations. The only reservation that the Bloc Québécois has expressed in committee and that it strongly defended, although unsuccessfully, is that the bill contains no classification measures. All not-for-profit corporations will be lumped into the same category. I think that constitutes a weakness and that we will be back in this House in three, four or five years to amend the act accordingly. Only then will people see that the Bloc Québécois was right about that.
Overall, the Bloc Québécois believes that this is a good bill that will simplify the incorporation of not-for-profit organizations. Previously, corporations had to obtain letters patent with clear objectives. Now, all they need is articles of incorporation that are recognized. I believe that this will be simpler. The bill will clarify the directors' duties and liabilities. We have seen in the past in this sort of organization that when things are going well, there are no problems. When things are not going well, it is important that each person's liabilities be well defined and that the directors know what they are getting themselves into when they join the board of a not-for-profit organization. There was a need for clarification.
The bill will also establish defences for officers in the event of liability, so that a director's personal property is not at risk. These issues will be clarified in the act, which may motivate more people to get involved in not-for-profit organizations. Our society will benefit, because not-for-profit organizations often fill needs that the government cannot fill and the private sector is not filling either. Consequently, it is appropriate to keep going in the same direction.
The bill will also give members greater rights by enabling them to play a role in the governance of the organization. The liability of members versus directors was not always clear in the old act. These things are clarified in the bill, and anyone who joins a not-for-profit organization will have a clearer understanding of his or her rights, responsibilities and authority and will be able to act accordingly.
The bill will also establish a better oversight and accounting mechanism for corporations. We believe that this will be a great improvement. This bill has many parts that are very complicated, but I would just like to mention a few.
Part 1 outlines the bill’s purpose, which is to allow the incorporation of organizations without share capital for the purposes of carrying on legal activities, and defines the concept of a soliciting corporation. This expression designates any corporation that solicits funds from the public or a government or any corporation that receives private donations or government grants. We can see that this clarification is designed to distinguish soliciting corporations from non-soliciting corporations. I believe that this will be an appropriate clarification.
As I said, the present letters patent system is being replaced with an as-of-right system. Once again, this represents some worthwhile progress. It also sets out the capacity of a corporation as a natural person. This is a simplification as far as the legal interpretation of these matters goes, and will be to the benefit of both members and the corporation itself. A number of more technical aspects are also clarified, for instance the technical aspects relating to issuing debt obligations and trust indentures. These are more technical and more complex matters that would do well to be clarified.
It is stipulated that the by-laws must set out the conditions for membership, and the articles of incorporation the categories of voting rights for each.
There is a section specifically on members' rights, as well as another complete section on complainants and their recourse in the event of such things as abuse, and the possibility of court orders. It establishes a defence based on religious doctrines against the actions and recourses referred to. A religious organization can make use of this defence when it can reasonably prove that the act leading to the court action was based on a tenet of faith held by the members of the corporation. In such a case, the court may not make an order under this legislation against the organization in question.
There is a clear delineation of individual and collective rights, while taking into consideration the charter implications but without this meaning that people will have to take their recourse as far as a charter challenge on each occasion. These clarifications will be welcomed. There is also indication as to how organizations are to communicate with their members electronically, something that was not there before. The act is obsolete and was drafted at a time when there was nothing like the Internet and various other means of electronic communication. It is important that this be included, especially since it will result in significant savings.
There are a number of general administrative provisions as well to ensure that the framework functions very smoothly, but there are still a few questions left untouched. For instance, there is still no classification system, as I have said before. I think that great attention needs to be paid to the application of the law, and perhaps the Senate will re-examine this matter.
There is transparency and accountability. The current law requires non-profit organizations to keep detailed accounts of their activities; however, there is no requirement—as there is under this bill—to disclose this information. With Bill C-4, non-profits must make their financial statements available to their members, directors and officers as well the director. This makes it possible for directors and officers to have better oversight of the corporation's management, for members to monitor the organization's financial position between annual meetings and to ensure that the monies are truly used for the stated purposes and objectives.
We were speaking earlier of the interest in democratization so that members truly know what organization they belong to, what powers they have and how to obtain information. This clarification is welcomed by most stakeholders and organizations. This bill is the result of consultations undertaken in various parts of Quebec and Canada. This is the umpteenth version and one which, I believe, will result in an important consensus in this House.
The current legislation allows anyone to obtain a copy of the list of members of a non-profit organization, and the law contains a list of permissible uses. The new bill would restrict this right to members, creditors and directors. This provision will make it easier for members to communicate, to require directors to keep an up-to-date list of members, to protect the sales of certain types of non-profit organizations, prevent the misuse of such a list and ensure that it is not forwarded to just anyone. We have all received documents inviting us to apply for a certain credit card or program. We wonder where they get their information? On occasion, these lists were provided under this law, which was not specific and did not prohibit this type of transfer of information. That will now be prohibited. That is a useful benefit.
In terms of effectiveness, the former law had a system of letters patent that were very difficult to obtain. Under the law, establishing a corporation was not a right. Now, it will be one and it will be much easier to be approved. In an “as of right” system the establishment of a company is automatically granted. With this major change, the procedure for discretionary approval will disappear.
This is an improvement to the whole of the system and advances its democratization. The incorporation process will be simplified and corporations will benefit from increased flexibility, and a more efficient and less costly system. In that regard, improvements are considerable and well-thought-out.
As regards fairness, we can see that with the new legislation the clear definition of the duties and responsibilities of directors will facilitate the recruitment and retention of qualified people on boards of directors. This was not always the case under the previous act.
The due diligence standards that are being proposed are well defined by the courts. Thus, they offer an established instrument to not-for-profit corporations. This standardizes diligence standards for directors, and the bill takes harmonization with other federal acts into account.
It was urgent that this be done, as the acts that are affected were obsolete and referred to several acts that were no longer in effect or had been modernized.
This too is important: directors and officers are currently exposed to much liability. The new legislation introduces several measures to limit liability, for instance, the incorporation of the organization, which creates a legal entity that can be held responsible; a clear definition of diligence standards; the possibility for the director of defending him or herself by invoking a due diligence defence; new provisions which would compensate the director for costs incurred and costs entailed by legal action pursuant to an unfounded suit or incidents which would, in the opinion of the corporation, justify compensation.
After several years of consultation, this act now appears to us to be one which deserves our support. There will be some specific follow-up to be done on certain aspects of the bill but overall this is a positive piece of legislation. The Bloc Québécois contributed to making this a bill of the highest possible quality. We have arrived at the final stage and I think that the House of Commons will see fit to pass this bill. We will thus have carried out the modernization of the not-for-profit corporations legislation, which will be to the advantage of this entire sector.