Ecological gifts program: overview

Canada’s Ecological Gifts Program provides a way for Canadians with ecologically sensitive land to protect nature and leave a legacy for future generations. Made possible by the terms of the Income Tax Act of Canada and the Quebec Taxation Act, it offers significant tax benefits to landowners who donate land or a partial interest in land to a qualified recipient. Recipients ensure that the land’s biodiversity and environmental heritage are conserved in perpetuity.

The Ecological Gifts Program is administered by Environment and Climate Change Canada in cooperation with dozens of partners, including other federal departments, provincial and municipal governments, and environmental non-government organizations. Thanks to this team approach and a dedication to continuously evolving and improving, the Program has become more successful each year.

Between the inception of the program in 1995 and March 31, 2019, 1433 ecological gifts valued at over $900 million have been donated across Canada, protecting over 195,000 hectares of wildlife habitat. Many of these ecological gifts contain areas designated as being of national or provincial significance, and many are home to some of Canada's species at risk.

Ecological gift donations and the motivations behind them are as varied as the Canadian landscape. They range from corporations in British Columbia donating covenants on forested land in the Gulf Islands to Atlantic communities pulling together to preserve treasured coastal habitat. What all donors share, however, is the comfort of knowing that their cherished piece of nature will be cared for in the future.

An increasing number of conservation-minded Canadian landowners take part in the Ecological Gifts Program each year. Each donation, no matter how small, makes a substantial contribution to the creation of a network of protected areas that reaches across virtually every habitat and region in Canada.

Tax benefits

Most people who donate through the Ecological Gifts Program do not do so for financial reasons. However, as an incentive to take part and to assist those who could not otherwise afford to donate the Income Tax Act provides favourable income-tax treatment for gifts of ecologically sensitive land and partial interests in land. In Quebec, there are also provincial tax benefits under the Quebec Taxation Act. The benefits of ecological gifts can thus be significant when the federal and provincial tax benefits are combined.

Specific tax benefits include:

  • corporate donors may deduct the amount of their ecological gift directly from their taxable income, while the value of an individual’s ecological gift is converted to a non-refundable tax credit. The tax credit is calculated by applying a rate of 15 per cent to the first $200 of the donor’s total gifts for the year and 29 per cent to the balance
  • in most provinces, a reduction in federal tax payable will also reduce provincial tax
  • while for most gifts the taxable portion is 50 per cent of the capital gain, in the case of an ecological gift it is reduced to 0
  • the carry-forward period for claiming these donations is now 10 years

More detailed information on the tax benefits of the Ecological Gifts Program can be found in the Ecological Gifts Program Handbook or the Donation and Income Tax Scenarios factsheet.

Lands qualifying as ecological gifts

Each donation of land or a partial interest in land must be certified as ecologically sensitive according to specific national and provincial criteria, before it can be included under the Ecological Gifts Program. This certification is carried out by the federal Minister of the Environment or a delegated authority. Delegated authorities range from provincial governments to environmental charities.

Ecologically sensitive lands are areas or sites that currently or could, at some point in the future, contribute significantly to the conservation of Canada’s biodiversity and environmental heritage. Some provinces, including Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, have more precise definitions of ecologically sensitive lands.

Where ecologically sensitive land is a significant part of a larger parcel of land, the entire property donated usually qualifies as an ecological gift.

Donation options

Although many ecological gifts are outright donations of land with no conditions attached (sometimes called fee-simple donations), making a gift of property does not necessarily mean severing the connection donors have with their land. There are options available that allow donors and recipients to tailor their arrangements to suit their particular needs.

A conservation easement, covenant, or servitude is a legal agreement that is registered on title and that protects a property’s conservation value by permanently placing terms and conditions on its use that are determined by the donor. For example, it can place limitations on subdividing, the number and location of structures and the types of land-use activities that can take place. Under the terms of the agreement, the donor continues to own the land and may live on it, sell it, or pass it on to heirs. The recipient ensures that the restrictions put on the property are followed in the future, regardless of who owns the land. This type of agreement makes up over half of all ecological gifts to date.

In Quebec, in order for a servitude to qualify as an ecological gift, it must be a real servitude as defined in the Civil Code and it must be made in perpetuity. A real servitude is a legal agreement that is registered on title. It allows for the protection of the property’s ecological characteristics through restrictions determined by both parties, which, in the case of an ecological gift, are the donor and the chosen recipient. The landowner retains his/her property rights and the right to live on the land, but relinquishes certain rights that could conflict with conservation objectives. For example, a servitude may prevent or limit subdivision, logging or road construction. The donor and the recipient determine together the servitude’s terms and conditions according to the donor’s specific needs and the conservation objectives established.

As the real servitude is tied to the property’s title, future owners will be bound by the same restrictions on use. Even if the property is sold, all subsequent owners will be required to respect the terms and conditions of the servitude and contribute to the conservation of the property’s natural features.

Another option may be for the property owner to donate the land to a qualified recipient, while retaining the right to use the land for a period of time. In common-law jurisdictions, a donor can give away a remainder interest in land but retain a life interest that is, the right of the donor (or someone else named by the donor) to live on the land for life. In Quebec, donors who give away land for conservation purposes can retain a right of usufruct, use, or superficies each of which allows ongoing use of the donated land. For more information, see the Ecological Gifts Program fact sheet Retaining the Right to Use Land Donated as an Ecological Gift.

Donation of land located outside Quebec, by a Quebec Resident:

On July 2001, amendments were introduced to the Quebec tax legislation so that the gift of land located in a border region, by a Quebec resident, may give rise to tax relief relating to ecological gifts, subject to the established conditions. A border region includes a province, a Canadian territory or an American State having a common border with Quebec. Gifts of land or servitudes located in a border region should demonstrate that the preservation of the assets is important and beneficial to Quebec’s natural heritage. These donations must meet the criteria and requirements relating to ecological gifts.

Since the tax implications of donating a conservation easement, covenant, or servitude or a remainder interest are dependent on the facts of a particular situation, donors should consult with a tax professional for more information on such arrangements.

What constitutes a gift

Any individual or corporate landowner may donate land or a partial interest in land through the Ecological Gifts Program. Ecological gifts must be made in perpetuity.
In order for an official donation receipt to be issued, the donation must fully qualify as a gift under Canadian tax law. For a donation to be considered a gift, the following conditions must be met:

  • the donor transfers ownership of property to a qualified recipient
  • the transfer is voluntary
  • no benefit is provided to the donor or a person selected by the donor

If there is any question about whether a proposed ecological gift qualifies as a gift for tax purposes, donors should contact their tax and legal advisors. The Minister of the Environment does not assess whether or not the transfer of the land or the partial interest in land qualifies as a gift under the Income Tax Act.

The following additional information is available from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA)

The following additional information is available from Environment and Climate Change Canada

Safeguards for ecological gifts

As a disincentive to unauthorized alterations to properties donated under the Program, a federal tax equal to 50 per cent of the current fair market value of the land may be imposed on charitable and municipal recipients for land-use changes (even those perceived as beneficial) and dispositions made without prior written authorization from the Minister of the Environment or a delegated certification authority. In some cases, this tax would also be triggered if a recipient wished to keep only the ecologically sensitive portions of a donated property and sell the remainder.

Land transfers or changes in use that are consistent with the original objectives of the ecological gift are likely to be authorized. Examples might include wanting to transfer ownership of a donated property to another conservation organization that is eligible to receive ecological gifts or to undertake a change in land use that would enhance or restore the conservation value of the property.

To seek authorization, recipients should write to the Ecological Gifts Program office in their region in advance of making any dispositions or changes in land use.

 

Tax-related questions should be directed to the Canada Revenue Agency, which is responsible for implementing these provisions under the Income Tax Act.

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