Tag Archives: Bill C-13

Why does Ottawa hate charity?

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I thank God Almighty that I am not a tax-exempt Canadian charity. The way I like to run my chops whilst simultaneously poking the bear that is Stephen Harper’s Conservative government virtually guarantees that the eternal vigilance of the Canada Revenue Agency would focus exclusively on me for the rest of my days.

PEN Canada’s president Philip Slayton knows what I mean. His organization represents about 1,000, mostly mouthy, writers. Their mission statement goes as follows: “PEN Canada is a nonpartisan organization of writers that works with others to defend freedom of expression as a basic human right, at home and abroad. (It) promotes literature, fights censorship, helps free persecuted writers from prison, and assists writers living in exile in Canada.”

Occasionally, the group issues news releases like this one in May:

“The Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act (Bill C-13), currently being discussed at the Standing Committee for Justice and Human Rights, would provide telecom companies with criminal and civil immunity for disclosing subscriber information to government agencies.

“According to information published following an access to information request by University of Ottawa Law professor Michael Geist, in 2011, nine of Canada’s major telecom providers and social media sites received 1.2 million data requests from government agencies. The companies complied in 784,756 cases. The total number of requests and disclosures from all telecom companies is likely higher.

“‘These figures give an idea of the government’s unsettling predilection for surveillance,’ said PEN Canada National Affairs Committee Chair William Kowalski. ‘If information has been volunteered this readily, then privacy would vanish if these practices became law.’”

So, perhaps, would any expectation of freedom of expression, which is kind of ironic, given PEN’s current straights. Earlier this week, two tax auditors arrived on the Toronto-based organization’s doorstep, demanding to be shown what The Canadian Press describes as “a wide range of internal documents.”

This was not exactly unexpected. Back in 2012, the Harper government announced that it was cracking down on so-called charities that pursue political “activities”, particularly those that it suspected of breaking the ten per cent rule – the proportion of time an organization can spend advocating outside the boundaries of is mandate and mission without compromising its charitable status.

Since then, The Canadian Press has uncovered more than 50 “political-activities” audits underway against a wide variety of groups, including Amnesty International Canada, The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Canada Without Poverty, and the David Suzuki Foundation.

The common thread is fairly plain. All are progressive, liberal, politically aware and archly critical of the current office-holders in Ottawa.

CRA officials, of course, deny any connection to operatives in government. This is, they say, just business as usual. “The process for identifying which charities will be audited, for any reason, is handled by the charities directorate itself and is not subject to political direction.” Cathy Hawara informed the Canadian Bar Association this spring, according to CP.

Maybe, but it does seem oddly coincidental. As for Mr. Slayton, he’s cooperating with the authorities, but he’s none too happy about it. “I refuse to let it have a chilling effect on us,” he to CP. “We are not going to have some kind of fear – about having our charitable status questioned by authorities – stop us speaking out on issues.”

Indeed, he said, “If it means you have to live in fear of the revenue authorities, and if it means that there are things you want to say, you feel you should say, but you feel you cannot because of the rules, well then, what price charitable registration?”

It’s a good question. And it’s worth pondering, awhile, how the federal government sets its priorities. Real fraudsters, con men and criminals ship their ill-gotten booty to tax havens all over the world. Somehow, though, politically active charities deserve the tax man’s vigilant eye.

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Warning: Canada’s privacy watchdog also bites

 

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Well, now, that didn’t take long. It seems the honeymoon had only just begun before the newlyweds were hissing and spitting at each other. 

And they all said it was a match made in parliamentary heaven, that it would last, if not forever, at least until the Harper wagon train pulled up its stakes for the last time and headed back home towards the setting sun.

But, in an interview with the Globe and Mail earlier this week, Daniel Therrien, Canada’s new privacy commissioner, took a largely unexpected leap and publicly repudiated the federal government’s interpretation of a recent Supreme Court decision on online privacy in Canada. He even termed parts of the controversial Bill C-13 – which seeks, among other things, immunity for telcos that voluntarily relinquish subscriber information to authorities – as nugatory.

“At a minimum, I would say the immunity clause in Bill C-13 becomes essentially meaningless,” he told the newspaper. “The Supreme Court agrees that this is sensitive information, that it is entitled to constitutional protection. That is a huge clarification. . .So the idea there would be voluntary disclosure from service providers to law enforcement agencies – it is now clear that is not going to pass constitutional muster. I think that is clear.”

In his statement to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights (JUST) on Bill C-13, he was just as categorical: “We are concerned this broad language (in the Bill) could lead to a rise in additional voluntary disclosures and informal requests. This is of particular concern with private-sector companies that are otherwise prohibited from disclosing personal information without consent under PIPEDA or substantially similar legislation. In essence, this could amount to permissive access without court approval and oversight.”

He added: “Canadians expect that their service providers will keep their information confidential and that personal information will not be shared with government authorities without their express consent, clear lawful authority or a warrant.

This does not sound like the guy about whom a panel of privacy experts warned the Prime Minister in an email prior to Mr. Therrien’s appointment earlier this month.

“With great respect and without any intended slight on his abilities, we feel obligated to object to the Government’s recently announced appointee for Privacy Commissioner of Canada,” the letter noted. “As long-standing Assistant Deputy Attorney General for Public Safety, Mr. Therrien lacks the perspective and experience necessary to immediately tackle Canada’s many privacy problems. . .Mr. Therrien’s direct responsibility for and oversight of the programs he will now be called upon to advocate against will exacerbate the already steep learning curve with which he is faced.”

As it turns out, not so much. Also broadly out of step with events was NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair who fumed in question period earlier this month, “Does the prime minister understand why Canadians find it more than a little bit creepy that the prime minister wants to name this guy to protect their privacy.”

In contrast, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau now comes off looking downright prescient. In his letter to the PM in late May, he wrote, “I have come to the conclusion that Daniel Therrien would be an excellent candidate for this position. . .His knowledge and experience, as well his distinguished record of public service will be of great benefit to Canadians.”

In fact, if Mr. Therrien’s initial performance is any indication, Canadians should rest a little more easily. 

Bills C-13 and S-4, which rewrites the regulations covering inter-company dissemination of user information, are time bombs that the Supremes have wisely sought to defuse. What’s more alarming, perhaps, than the proposed legislation is the government’s official response to the Court’s decision.

According to a Globe story, Justice Minister Peter MacKay claims that the ruling actually “backs up the government’s view because ‘voluntary disclosures do not provide legal authority for access to information without a warrant,‘ though the bill (C-13) allows police to get information without a warrant.”

Huh?

It is for reasons such as the foregoing bafflegab that individuals like Mr. Therrien are in great demand by democracies around the world. Their jobs are not to dance with power, but to push against it, especially where new communications technologies vastly expand the opportunities for unauthorized or explicitly illegal surveillance.

Yes, Ottawa officialdom, the honeymoon is indeed over.

 

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