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.