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Black Friday, the unofficial start to the holiday shopping season, isn't always what people expect.
In Colorado, for instance, marijuana stores got into the act. In Arizona, families skipped the spending frenzy to go hiking. And in Chicago, shoppers snapped photos of demonstrators protesting the police shooting of a black teenager.
Overall, there seemed to be smaller crowds throughout stores and malls across the country.
Here's how the day played out:
PROTESTS ON CHICAGO'S MAGNIFICENT MILE
Hundreds of protesters blocked entrances to stores in Chicago's high-end shopping district to draw attention to the police shooting of a black teenager.
The demonstration came after the release of a video this week showing the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald last year. The video touched off largely peaceful protests.
On Friday, some of the demonstrators in Chicago linked arms to form human chains in front of main entrances to stores.
Store employees directed shoppers to exit from side doors. When one person tried to get through the front door of Saks Fifth Avenue, protesters screamed at him, shouting, "Shut it down! Shut it down."
Entrances were also blocked at the Disney Store, the Apple Store, Nike, Tiffany & Co., and Neiman Marcus.
Many shoppers seemed to take the disturbance in stride, and some even snapped photos of the crowd.
Protesters took different approaches. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, for instance, led a prayer with a group from the steps of Chicago's historic Water Tower.
NO MAD RUSH
Business was brisk but not overwhelming at a Macy's in Kansas City as rain that started Thursday morning continued falling. There didn't appear to be any lines more than a few customers deep.
Gerri Spencer and her daughter left home at 4 a.m. and made their way to a Macy's store several hours later. Spencer said the crowds seemed sparser than in the past when Black Friday meant "getting out at the crack of dawn" to get the best deals.
Some Black Friday shoppers seemed to miss the holiday crowds.
At a Kmart in Denver, Susan Montoya had nearly the entire store to herself. She half-heartedly flipped through a rack of girls' holiday party dresses and looked down the store's empty aisles.
"There's no one out here! No challenge!" she said.
Lynette Norcup also is nostalgic for Black Fridays of the past.
Sitting in the warmth of her daughter's SUV waiting for Wal-Mart to open, the resident of Pleasanton, California said she thinks the excitement has fizzled with stores opening on Thanksgiving.
Norcup misses the challenge of strategizing to score deals.
Colorado has a new Black Friday tradition: Marijuana shops drawing shoppers with discounted weed and holiday gift sets.
At Denver Kush Club in Denver, about two dozen customers were lined up in subfreezing temperatures and snow showers to take advantage of the deals.
The first few customers got free joints, free rolling papers and a T-shirt with purchase. Medical customers were offered ounces of marijuana for $99 — a savings of about 50 per cent.
The shop blasted reggae music and welcomed the crowd with Green Friday welcome cheers. Similar deals were offered last year, the first in which retail recreational marijuana sales opened.
"We get a lot of people in the first few hours, just like any store on Black Friday," said co-owner Joaquin Ortega. He said marijuana gift-giving is becoming more common, though most were shopping for themselves Friday.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
At Catalina State Park just north in Arizona, dozens of families and dogs hiked through the saguaro cactus-covered mountains. Many said they didn't plan on shopping on Black Friday anyway.
Krista Wells, of Tucson, said she wanted her daughters to understand that the holidays are about spending time with family, not shopping.
"This is about the season of bringing together and reflecting upon family and getting into the Christmas holiday. I don't think there's a retail holiday," she said.
Jennifer Rojas was hiking down a steep hill with her mother. She said she tries to hike every year after Thanksgiving and likes to avoid the shopping crowds.
"I'd rather appreciate nature, rather than being at a mall or watching TV," Rojas said.
STORES VS. WEBSITES
For the first time, analysts had predicted more than half of online traffic to retailer sites would come from smartphones than desktops during the four-day Black Friday holiday shopping weekend.
On Friday, there was evidence that shoppers were vacillating between both stores and online.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s chief merchandising officer Steve Bratspies told the Associated Press that the chain saw more shoppers buying both on its website and in its stores than the same time a year ago. Target's CEO Brian Cornell said that online sales on Thanksgiving were strong, outpacing the performance on the holiday a year ago. That's making it Target's biggest day online for sales yet, driven largely by electronics. He also was pleased with store traffic.
And J.C. Penney's CEO Marvin Ellison said that the chain worked hard to make its app more user friendly, and as a result, its online sales.
"We saw customers going back and forth, researching online and then go to the stores," he said.
Meanwhile, Chip Gentry in Atlanta headed out to stores instead of purchasing items online. He walked out of a Best Buy with an Xbox One and extra controller, saving about $150 in total.
"I'm looking for the deals online and going out to stores to get them," he said.
Kristen Wyatt in Denver, Colorado, Scott Smith in Pleasanton, California, Jonathan Landrum in Atlanta, Mae Anderson, Candice Choi and Anne D'Innocenzio in New York, Bill Draper in Kansas City, Kansas and Astrid Galvan in Tucson, Arizona contributed to this report.
The chief of an Alberta First Nation is suing three companies over spill from a coal tailings pond that went into waterways that feed the Athabasca River.
Ronald Kruetzer of the Fort McMurray First Nation filed the lawsuit as a class action to include anyone who resided near, used, relied on or prospered from the Plante and Apetowun creeks, Athabasca River and Peace-Athabasca delta.
The Obed coal mine near Hinton had a spill of about 670 million litres of waste water on Oct. 31, 2013.
At the time, Coal Valley Resources Inc. operated the mine as a subsidiary of Sherritt International Corp. (TSX:S).
Both companies were named in the statement of claim, along with Westmoreland Coal Co., which bought Coal Valley from Sherritt in 2014.
In the weeks following the spill, the province advised communities downstream not to draw water from the river and farmers not to let livestock drink from it.
The lawsuit alleges the plaintiffs could not safely hunt, fish or use drinking water due to the toxins contained in the waste water that spilled.
It also claims the defendants should have known the waste water contained materials hazardous to the environment and failed to properly construct, design and inspect the tailing pond.
The plaintiffs are seeking general and punitive damages.
It's not known if the defendants have filed a statement of defence and the companies could not immediatly be reached for comment.
In October, Coal Valley and Sherritt were charged with six counts under Alberta's Environmental Protection Act, Public Lands Act and Water Act.
The companies are to appear in Hinton provincial court on the charges on Jan. 20.
Even though the overwhelming majority of Canadians still watch live TV, a new study says there has been "rapid" growth in people accessing video on demand through their service providers.
Canadian audience measurement firm Numeris released a report Friday which found about 90 per cent of overall viewing is still live — a broadcast over the air or through cable — as compared with on demand.
But the findings also noted a shift in how younger demographics are watching television.
"Services such as video on demand are relatively new offerings in Canada, but they have been steadily on the rise," the report said.
"Catch-up viewing is growing rapidly, especially for the younger age groups."
In the study, video-on-demand was considered anything viewed through either a set-top box or a broadcaster's website or smartphone app. It conducted the study with its radio and TV panel of 5,000 households, made up of 11,000 individuals more than two years old.
Numeris did not consider other sources, such as video streaming services like Netflix and Shomi or illegal online downloads, which are harder to accurately track.
The most common VOD users were females 25 to 49 years old, with a job, and children under 12 years.
In the United States, many cable channels have been shifting away from determining a TV show's success by its "same-day" ratings numbers, arguing that advertisers should pay based on the popularity of shows over several days of VOD availability.
Last week, Fox became the first of the big U.S. networks to stop providing "same-day" ratings to the public.
In Canada, the changes have been much slower, though an eventual shift is expected by Numeris.
"The importance of this viewer information will increase in value as time-shifted platforms continue to grow in popularity," it said.
McDonald's Mexico says it will prosecute whoever planted a rodent's head in one of its hamburgers, causing authorities to close down one of its restaurants near Mexico City.
A company statement says it will hire the best investigation firm to find the identity of the person responsible for what it calls "a serious attack against the (restaurant's) image."
The statement, distributed through social media this week, says government testing proved the mouse was not cooked with the hamburger.
The Federal Commission for Protection Against Sanitary Risks would not comment on the testing, but referred The Associated Press to media interviews by a commissioner who confirmed that no rodent meat was found.
A man complained Nov. 9 that he found a mouse's head in his hamburger in the store in Tlalnepantla.
One of Canada's largest tech retailers has incurred the wrath of Black Friday shoppers who say a website malfunction prevented them from taking advantage of the annual markdowns.
The online backlash against Best Buy Canada began shortly after the company tweeted Thursday night that its Black Friday sales were in effect.
By midnight, many were complaining that the site wouldn't allow them to make purchases and tweeting photos of themselves shopping on competitors' websites.
Some suggested that the retailer, which also owns the Geek Squad computer support company, should be able to avoid tech-related problems on one of the busiest shopping days of the year.
Best Buy Canada posted on its website about 15 minutes after midnight that it had encountered an "issue" but expected to be up and running soon. It asked shoppers to be patient as staff tried to fix the problem.
An update 2 1/2 hours later said "many" customers were now able to complete their purchases and that it was working to resolve any lingering technical issues.
But many online had jumped ship much long before then.
"Waiting for your site to work. Wandered over to Amazon. SAME PROMOS, and a working website! #bestbuy," one person tweeted earlier.
"I bought my stuff from Walmart. Same prices and their site works," another person said on Twitter.
"@BestBuyCanada you ARE a technology based online business right? This sale proves you're in the wrong business. #WorstBuy #YOUHADONEJOB," another shopper said.
Nearly 100 million shoppers were expected to head to stores on Black Friday, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season in the U.S.
Add that to the millions who shopped Thursday on Thanksgiving, a relatively new phenomenon in the U.S. where the holiday has traditionally been reserved for family meals. In recent years, some major retailers have been opening their doors on the evening of Thanksgiving and staying open all night.
Overall, the National Retail Federation expected about 30 million to shop on Thanksgiving, compared with 99.7 million on Black Friday.
The trade group estimates about 135.8 million people will be shopping during the four-day weekend, compared with 133.7 million last year. And it expects sales overall for November and December to rise 3.7 per cent to $630.5 billion compared with the same period last year.
But people may not be in the mood to shop much this year. Unemployment has settled into a healthy 5 per cent rate, but shoppers still grapple with stagnant wages that are not keeping pace with rising daily costs like rent. And years later, they still insist on the deep discounts they got used to retailers offering during the recession.
Yet again, trend experts say there's no single item that's making shoppers run to stores. Perhaps that's why Ron Waxman, 51, a sports agent from New York, was able to shop with ease on Black Friday morning and find a nearby parking spot at 2 a.m.
"It's quiet very quiet," he said. "This is dead for Black Friday."
A California farm is recalling a vegetable mix believed to be the source of E.coli in Costco chicken salad that has been linked to an outbreak that has sickened 19 people in seven states, the Food and Drug Administration said Thursday.
Taylor Farms Pacific Inc. of Tracy, California, has recalled a mix of diced celery and onion used in Costco chicken salad and other foods containing celery "out of an abundance of caution," the FDA said in a statement.
The foods range from Thai-style salads to packaged dinners and wraps, and they are sold at Costco, Target, Starbucks and many other outlets, the FDA said.
Costco says it uses one supplier for those vegetables in the chicken salad sold in all its U.S. stores.
A message left Thursday with Taylor Farms was not immediately returned.
Costco, based in Issaquah, Washington, pulled the chicken salad off store shelves nationwide, posted signs in its stores and provided detailed purchase logs to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help it track who bought the product and where the salad ingredients came from.
Six people got sick in Montana, five in Utah, four in Colorado, and one each in California, Missouri, Virginia and Washington state. The illness reports began on Oct. 6 and involved people from age 5 to 84, the CDC said.
Health officials urged people who bought chicken salad at any U.S. Costco store on or before Nov. 20 to throw it away, even if no one has gotten sick.
The strain of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli can be life-threatening, but no deaths have been reported. Five people have been hospitalized, including two with kidney failure.
Symptoms of E. coli infection include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting. The incubation period is three to seven days from the time of exposure.
The number of people sickened in the outbreak will likely grow over the next few weeks, even though the product has been removed from store shelves, the CDC said Wednesday.
Health officials urge anyone with the symptoms, especially people who have eaten Costco chicken salad, to go to their doctor.
A tug-of-war over a Russian warplane downed by a Turkish fighter jet at the border with Syria escalated Thursday, with Moscow drafting a slew of economic sanctions against Turkey and the Turkish president defiantly declaring that his military will shoot down any new intruder.
The spat reflected a clash of ambitions of two strongman leaders, neither of whom appeared willing to back down and search for a compromise.
Turkey shot down the Russian Su-24 military jet on Tuesday, insisting it had violated its airspace despite repeated warnings. The incident marked the first time in half a century that a NATO member shot down a Russian plane, raising the threat of a military confrontation between the alliance and Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the Turkish action as a "treacherous stab in the back," and insisted that the plane was downed over Syrian territory in violation of international law.
"Until that moment, we haven't heard a clear apology from Turkey's top political leadership, or an offer to compensate for the damage or a promise to punish the criminals," he said at the Kremlin while receiving credentials from several ambassadors. "It gives an impression that the Turkish leadership is deliberately driving Russian-Turkish relations into a deadlock, and we regret that."
But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in no mood to apologize, and warned that Ankara would act in the same way in the event of another intrusion.
"Faced with the same violation today, Turkey would give the same response," Erdogan said. "It's the country that carried out the violation which should question itself and take measures to prevent it from happening again, not the country that was subjected to a violation."
Erdogan said Turkey had not specifically targeted Russia when it shot down the plane, saying it was "an automatic response" in line with its rules of engagement.
He spoke on a more conciliatory note in separate comments on France 24. Asked if Turkey would still have targeted the plane if it positively knew it was Russian, he said: "If we had determined it, the warnings would have been different."
Speaking later in the Kremlin after the talks with French President Francois Hollande, Putin said he was sorry to hear that Erdogan sees no need to apologize.
"For us, Turkey was not just a neighbour, but a friendly state, almost an ally," he said. "It's very sad to see all of it being destroyed so thoughtlessly and brutally."
The Russian and Turkish leaders are often compared to each other. Both are populist, frequently crack down on critics and often revert to anti-Western rhetoric. They had enjoyed close relations until recently, despite differences over Syria, and regularly exchanged visits. In September, Erdogan travelled to Moscow where he and Putin attended the opening of a new mosque, and they also met separately at the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit hosted by Turkey.
On Thursday, Erdogan told France 24 television in an interview that he had tried talking to Putin but that the Russian leader did not respond.
Turkey has released audio recordings of what it says are the Turkish military's repeated warnings to the pilot of a Russian bomber before it was shot down at the border with Syria.
The recordings, made available to The Associated Press on Thursday, indicate the plane was warned several times that it was approaching Turkey's airspace and asked to change course, but there is no indication of a Russian reply.
In the recordings, a voice is heard saying in broken English: "This is Turkish Air Force speaking on guard. You are approaching Turkish airspace. Change your heading south immediately." The voice gets increasingly agitated as the warnings appear to go unnoticed.
The audio that was released only involved Turkish warnings, no replies by a Russian pilot. It was not clear if Turkey had received any replies from the Russian pilots but did not release them; if the Russian pilots never replied to the warnings; or if the Russians never even heard the warnings.
A Russian airman who survived the shoot-down and was later rescued by the Syrian and Russian commando, denied veering into Turkey's airspace "even for a single second." Turkey insists the plane was in its airspace for 17 seconds.
Capt. Konstantin Murakhtin also said he and his crewmate, who was killed by ground fire after bailing out, hadn't heard any Turkish warnings. The Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed the audio recording released by Ankara as a fake.
Erdogan accused Russia of using its declared goal to fight the Islamic State group in Syria as a pretext to target opposition groups including the Turkmen, in order to shore up Syrian President Bashar Assad.
He also challenged Russia to prove its accusation that Turkey is buying oil and gas from IS, calling the claims "shameful" and even pledging to step down if the claim is proven.
"This is a great disrespect to Turkey and those who make the claims are slanderers," he said. "If they prove it, Tayyip Erdogan would step down."
Commenting on Erdogan's statement, Putin said that at the G-20 summit in Antalya he showed fellow leaders the aerial pictures of convoys of oil trucks carrying the IS oil into Turkey.
"Let's assume that Turkey's political leadership knows nothing about it, it's theoretically possible, albeit hard to believe," he said sarcastically. "There may be elements of corruption and insider deals. They should deal with it."
Putin responded to the plane's downing by ordering the deployment of powerful long-range air defence missiles to a Russian air base in Syria.
On Thursday, Russian state television stations ran a report showing the S-400 missiles already deployed at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria's coastal province of Latakia, just 50 kilometres (30 miles) away from the border with Turkey.
The Russian navy missile cruiser Moskva also moved closer to the shore to help protect Russian warplanes with its long-range Fort air defence system.
The Russian Defence Ministry has warned that the military was prepared to destroy any aerial target that may threaten its warplanes, and announced the severance of all military ties with Turkey.
Concerned by the move, Turkey's High Military Council, which included top government and military leaders, called Thursday for keeping all diplomatic and military channels of communication open to avoid new "undesired" incidents on the Turkey-Syria border.
In addition to the military moves, the Kremlin also acted Thursday to inflict economic pain on Turkey.
Since the plane was downed, Russia has already restricted tourism, left Turkish trucks stranded at the border and announced the confiscation of large quantities of Turkish food imports.
On Thursday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered a range of economic sanctions against Turkey within the next two days. They will include "restrictions and bans on Turkish economic structures operating in Russian territory, restrictions and bans on deliveries of products, including foodstuffs," as well as on labour and services.
Russia was the biggest source of Turkish imports last year, worth $25 billion, which mostly accounted for Russian gas supplies. It also is the largest destination for Turkish exports, mostly textiles and food, and Turkish construction companies have won a sizable niche of the Russian market.
Erdogan lamented Russia's intention to halt economic co-operation with Turkey, saying political leaders should talk first. "We are strategic partners," he said.
The CEO of one of Canada's licensed medical cannabis producers says a delivery-by-courier model would be a good first step as the new Liberal government looks to allow recreational access to the drug.
"I think there may be an interim opportunity for distribution to happen quickly, to show a milestone of achieving things, because milestones in politics seem to be important," Bruce Linton, CEO and chairman of Canopy Growth Corp. (TSXV:CGC) said during the company's second-quarter earnings call Thursday.
"If the feds wish to have limited recreational access by way of direct courier, and then evolve it into presentation into LCBOs or SAQs or wherever, that could be something that could happen, and certainly we are actively, actively advocating that kind of first step."
Linton made his comments as Canopy Growth Corp. — a combined company formed by Tweed Marijuana Inc. and Bedrocan Cannabis Corp. — reported net income of $3.9 million, or five cents per share on a diluted basis, for the three months ended Sept. 30, 2015.
That's compared with a net loss of $2.4 million, or six cents per share, in the corresponding quarter last year.
Revenue for the quarter was $2.4 million, up from $316,117 in the previous year's comparable quarter.
Linton said the company has already begun engaging in high-level talks with Health Canada and other senior government officials about how the current medical program could be improved, as well as how a recreational program might best be implemented.
It is widely anticipated within the medical cannabis industry that the medical program will continue to exist alongside any recreational program to be rolled out. Recreational access to the drug is expected to be tightly regulated, for example by selling the product through provincially licensed liquor stores.
Linton said Canopy plans to enlist the help of lobbyists at both the provincial and federal levels to ensure that the strength of the medical cannabis program is preserved and that the rollout of the recreational program is as smooth as possible.
"What we don't want to do is have a misstep that turns into a public reaction to rescind," Linton said. "So we're giving as much guidance as we can on what a great and safe system we have and maybe they should stay close to this and evolve slowly."
Canopy has also begun producing cannabis extracts and is waiting for approval from Health Canada to be able to begin selling those products. Linton said Thursday that he expects that licence to come by the end of the year.
Three decades ago, a University of Nevada researcher who obtained one of the first U.S. Energy Department grants to study the potential to turn plants into biofuels became convinced that a roadside weed — curly top gumweed — was growing along the road to the future.
Now, scientists who've been cultivating gumweed on the Reno campus think they are on the verge of producing diesel fuel, and perhaps someday jet fuel, from the sticky cousin of the sunflower that grows across much of Nevada's high desert and doesn't compete for acreage with animal feed or food crops used to make ethanol.
Glenn Miller, an environmental sciences professor in UNR's College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources, is leading the project in the second year of a four-year, $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Miller didn't know much about gumweed when Darrell Lemaire, a mining engineer, secured the DOE grant in 1980 and approached him about doing some research in his lab.
Lemaire was an interesting guy.
"He read chemical abstracts for recreation," Miller recalled. "He built a big house up in the rocks (above campus) with a wine cellar 50 feet down. He gave me a couple bottles — of Gumweed Extract, 1981-82, 1982-83."
The two scientists began growing gumweed on campus about 10 years ago and their project evolved from the premise that biofuels shouldn't be competing with food crops in Nebraska and Kansas.
Gumweed, also known as tar weed, requires little water to grow.
"You could grow it in places like Nevada where you are not growing soybeans or corn," Miller said.
Lemaire, 89, published his findings in a 1982 book, Cultivation of Hydrocarbon Producing Plants Native to the Western U.S., and the Whole Plant Utilization of the Oils and Byproducts.
"This was after the Carter years when Jimmy Carter wore sweaters whenever he addressed the nation from the White House to indicate to everybody we were running out of energy," Miller said.
Miller said UNR researchers have successfully produced fuel by extracting hydrocarbons from the weed's oil and are in the process of getting it tested as a diesel fuel. Now it's a question of refining the process to determine if farmers can make money on it.
In recent years, environmentalists have argued that ethanol adds to global warming by removing millions of acres of land from conservation reserve programs for use in corn production, and has led to higher food costs worldwide as more corn is used for fuel.
Bill Payne, dean of UNR's College of Agriculture, said the gumweed research addresses those concerns while anticipating current low oil prices won't last forever.
"As prices once again reach $80 or more per barrel, this type of technology will look increasingly attractive to an industrial world struggling to reduce its carbon emissions," Payne said.
Hongfei Lin, a collaborator in UNR's College of Engineering, is trying to find a more cost-effective way to convert biomass into fuel. Instead of adding hydrogen to biomass, he's exploring utilization of oxidation — the same process involved when substances come in contact with oxygen molecules, such as when a fresh cut apple turns brown or a copper penny turns green.
Lin estimates that if gumweed was raised on just 10 per cent of the thousands of square miles in Nevada where sagebrush currently grows, it could produce an estimated 400 million to 600 million gallons of biofuels annually.
Gumweed has been used many different ways historically. Native Americans used it for medicinal purposes and early pioneers chomped on it as a substitute for chewing gum.
"I have tried eating the stuff," Miller said. "It tastes terrible. I don't think there's any future in that."
A new survey from Manulife Bank suggests that nearly 40 per cent of Canadians have struggled to cover their household expenses at least once in the past year.
Sixty-two per cent of those polled said they were never "caught short" without enough money in their bank account to cover expenses in the past 12 months.
Meanwhile, 24 per cent found themselves in that position once or twice in the past 12 months, 10 per cent were short on cash a few times a year and four per cent said they were caught short almost every month.
Lines of credit were the most popular solution for those who came up short, with 33 per cent reporting that they accessed one the last time they were short on funds.
The online survey conducted by Environics Research between July 22 and August 7 polled 2,372 homeowners across the country.
Respondents were between the ages of 20 to 59 and had a household income of at least $50,000.
The Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, the polling industry's professional body, says online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error due to their lack of random sampling.
"The challenge faced by many Canadians is that their income is relatively stable from month-to-month, but their expenses can vary significantly," Rick Lunny, president and CEO of Manulife Bank of Canada, said in a statement.
"Access to rainy day savings or a low-cost line of credit are good options to safeguard against these fluctuations. However, if your backup plan is to carry high-interest credit card debt or borrow from a family member — you could be putting undue stress on your finances or relationships."
More than nine in 10 Canadians follow the example of reformed miser Ebenezer Scrooge and give to charity every year, but experts advise taking a page from his tightwad ways and treat those charitable donations like an investment.
Philanthropy professionals and charity watchdogs say that as the holiday season approaches and the airwaves fill with messages of altruism, you should still analyze your chosen charities the same way you would research the purchase of mutual funds or property.
Financial adviser Kate Bahen, managing director of watchdog group Charity Intelligence Canada, says key things to look for include whether the charity's financial statements are audited and up-to-date, if the charity has an independent oversight board, and if it spends more on programs than administration and fundraising.
"People need to look at that giving as an investment," she says. "If they could bring that business brain to the giving table, I think that's where we would see such huge change in Canada for the good."
Bahen says charities will often play on the heartstrings by telling one story of one client in need, but big businesses don't ever limit their quarterly reports to talking about just one customer.
While Tiny Tim's blessing brought a smile to Scrooge's face, he would surely also be pleased by the charity tax credits offered by the federal government that can reduce your total income and therefore, your tax bill.
The Canada Revenue Agency gives a tax credit of 15 per cent on the first $200 you donate, rising to 29 per cent for amounts over $200. If you haven't donated before, you can claim an additional 25 per cent tax credit for any donations made before the end of 2017, up to $1,000. The provinces have their own tax credits.
The CRA posts a searchable list of the more than 85,000 registered charities in Canada online and provides a detailed breakdown of their finances. Third-party organizations such as Charity Intelligence Canada also provides guidance on giving and ratings on individual charities.
Lawyer Mark Blumberg says people are happiest when their tax savings reflect their values.
"It would be nice if people would have a sense of how they want to give, so that at the end of the year when you look at all the receipts you have it is a fair reflection of what you want to support," he says.
He says Canadians shouldn't just rely on the grades given out by third parties to make their decisions.
The best way to get to know if a charity is worthy of your support is to volunteer, he adds.
Financial planner Cynthia Kett says it's best to form long-term relationships with charities that share your values, instead of doling out many smaller gifts throughout the year.
"We often have a tendency to make donations on the fly, and I think it's useful to be strategic in your giving," she said.
When it comes to taxes, Kett says it's important to understand the nuances of the charitable giving tax credit.
Because the first $200 has a lower credit, married couples can save a little money by combining their donations on one return and having the higher-income spouse claim the credit.
Kett says Canadians should report their charitable donations every year, but can hold off on claiming for up to five years in order to maximize their returns. You can also use your spouse's unclaimed charitable donations towards your returns.
Sandra Miniutti, chief financial officer of American watchdog group Charity Navigator, says that over the last decade, more and more charities have begun to measure the impact of their work and publicize the results.
She says those looking to give should make sure their chosen charity is monitoring the outcome of its work.
"If you're not measuring and tracking your impact, how do you know you're doing good and not harm?"
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