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Taxman warns Mennonite mag

Charitable status could be revoked over politics, agency says

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OTTAWA -- The editor of Canadian Mennonite magazine thinks his publication has struck a nerve -- but doesn't know whose -- after the Canada Revenue Agency threatened its charitable status could be revoked.

Dick Benner received a letter in July warning him "registered charities that engage in partisan political activities jeopardize their charitable status."

"It has come to our attention that recent issues of the organization's monthly periodical, entitled Canadian Mennonite, have contained editorials and/or articles that appear to promote opposition to a political party or to candidates for public office."

The letter said for now the magazine will be let off with a warning but it could lead to the loss of its charitable status.

When Benner asked which articles were questionable, six were cited, including an editorial Benner wrote during the 2011 federal election. The piece asked readers to remember the core beliefs of peacemaking, compassion for the poor and care for creation before choosing whom to vote for. Benner specifically wrote "we won't endorse candidates... or tell you how to vote."

Benner is incredulous that would be considered partisan.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think this was coming," he said. "I went through a series of emotions -- first was shock, then anger, then frustration."

Canadian Mennonite magazine, based in Waterloo, Ont., publishes 24 issues a year and has a circulation of about 14,000. Nearly a third of that is in Manitoba. It is a registered charity and receives much of its funding through Mennonite Church Canada. All copies are sold to churches, which distribute them to their members.

CRA rules limit the political activities registered charities can partake in, including a prohibition on activities that directly or indirectly support or oppose any party or candidate.

Benner said he understands that naming politicians or political parties may contravene the guidelines, but that the government can use charitable status to impose restrictions on speech is chilling.

"I chafe under this as a journalist," he said. "I consider this a speech matter."

Although the warning to the magazine came last summer, it is only alerting its readers now because the magazine wanted to have a meeting of its board to discuss whether to go public. That meeting was held in Winnipeg last month.

Benner believes the magazine is being specifically targeted. He noted no other publications of the Canadian Church Press have received such warnings.

"I read them and they are engaging in political commentary all the time," Benner said.

He said he has suspicions about who is behind it but he isn't sure.

Manitoba NDP MP Pat Martin said the government should be ashamed of itself.

"This is unprecedented interference with the right to free speech," Martin said. "Of all the groups to pick on, they go after a bunch of pacifists? It's beyond offensive."

Martin said he didn't think any of the articles contravened the rules.

Clarke Olsen, spokesman for Revenue Minister Gail Shea, said he cannot comment on a particular case because of privacy protections in the Income Tax Act but in general, the rules about charities and political activities are clear.

"In order to protect Canadian interests we also have a duty to ensure that these organizations are operating properly and in compliance with federal laws," he said. "In cases where the activities of a charity are suspect, CRA will conduct a review and take action as appropriate under the act."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2012 A13

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