Has the Harper government declared war on Canadian charities?

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Anyone who follows the career of author Maggie Atwood knows not to mess with the formidable lady of Canadian letters.  She is not afraid to pick public fights with her critics, especially when she feels those fights are politically motivated.  Atwood tweeted last week that her arch nemesis Stephen Harper and his Minister of taxation, Kerry Lynne Findlay, had a hand in the Canadian Revenue Agencies (CRA) decision to audit PEN Canada, a charity that counts Atwood as a spokeswoman among other giants of the Can-lit scene.

PEN Canada is mandated to promote literature and “fights censorship, helps free persecuted writers from prisons, and assists writers living in exile in Canada.”  President Philip Slayton claims that the audit came as a shock as they are a non-partisan organization with a tiny budget that relies mostly on charitable donations to function.

If this were an isolated incident, it probably wouldn’t make headlines, but PEN is not the only charity under the microscope.  Indeed, 52 other civil society groups have been served with audit notices by CRA’s agents and are under investigation for their alleged political activities.  The other civil society groups are conspicuously on the anti-Harper side of the political spectrum, leading to raised eyebrows in Ottawa and rampant speculation about abuses of government influence over the supposedly neutral CRA’s auditing division.

A quick glance of the list of names reads like a list of whose who of, in Finance Minister Joe Oliver’s infamous words, “foreign-funded radicals.”  Groups such as Oxfam (more on them later), the David Suzuki Foundation, Amnesty International Canada (etc.), who’s only apparent common denominator, it would seem, is that they have challenged this PM and his agenda at one time or another on a wide range of different issues and continue to be a thorn in his side.

Meantime, the government and the CRA itself maintain that there is nothing fishy going here and that these organizations are simply the victims of bad luck, not partisan vendettas.  The minister in charge claims that all decisions regarding auditing are made at ‘arm’s length” from the government.  Cathy Harwa, Director General of the “probes” in question (much worse than any torture aliens could possibly inflict) can’t imagine what all the kerfuffle is about, suggesting that the charities merely reflect the regional and philosophical diversity of the non-profit sector side of Canada’s lobbying business.

But others such as Murray Rankin (NDP MP for Victoria, BC) are not so sure.  In fact, they’re calling on the government to appoint an independent investigator to look into the process of auditing charities and make sure that everything is above the board.  Indeed, it’s hard not to notice a slightly suspicious pattern when you look at the auditing targets.  As one former journalist put it, they seem to fall into one of three categories: environmental groups, development and human rights charities, and charities receiving donations from labour groups.  Besides, the CRA can claim non-partisanship all they want, but there’s no escaping the fact that the auditing division received a huge boot in their latest budget for investigating political activities (from 8 million in 2013 to 13 million today).  The decision to allocate these resources for auditing political activities is typically made by the big kahuna at the CRA (i.e. Ms. Findlay).  With all the extra money, comes extra pressure to produce results and, implicitly at least, make the boss happy.

Full disclosure time: I worked as lobbyist/liaison/strategist/consultant/ whatever for a year in Ottawa for a well-known international organization involved in animal welfare issues and did my best to promote them on Parliament Hill.  But we were hamstrung by the rules regarding what a charity can do in terms of its political lobbying.  For starters, what constitutes a “political activity” under Canadian Income Tax Act?  No one could ever give me a clear answer.  Secondly, the 10% rule that says that any organization that spends more than this amount on its political campaigns, doesn’t qualify as a charity under the act.  Why should this matter?  It matters a great deal for charities like PEN because it means that you can’t give your donors a tax refund on the amount they give, drastically affecting your biggest source of revenue.  And even if you do manage to jump through all those hoops, and register as a charity, the Feds still hold all the cards and may revoke your status for the most arbitrary of reasons.  For example, animal welfare is not regarded as a charitable purpose under the Act on account of it not helping humans directly.

Oxfam Canada recently got a slap on the wrists from the CRA for the most inane and incomprehensible reason imaginable.  Evidently, the folks at the faceless bureaucracy in Ottawa deemed Oxfam’s respectable goal of poverty prevention, to be unworthy of a charity “because preventing poverty might benefit people who are not already poor.”  Okay then.  Oxfam, of course, changed the language in their application to the CRA to reflect the Kafkaesque logic of the ministry so as to ensure their continued status as a charity, even though they admitted to being baffled by the objection to their mission statement.  And, really, who wouldn’t be?  However, “alleviating poverty” is a goal endorsed by the Ministry, presumably because it connotes a passive approach to helping the poor.  Social justice advocates beware: you’re advised not to attempt any proactive tackling of social ills in Canada, otherwise this government will send their tax-collectors to your door.

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Other articles by David DesBaillets

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Trudeau legalization stance makes for some strange bedfellows
The NDP Month from Hell
New Bloc leader Mario Beaulieu will drive party into the ground
Chickens coming home to roost on “open nominations” promise

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