VANCOUVER -- It's a story that is becoming all too familiar. Last week, the CBC reported the Canadian Mennonite, a church-based organization with a monthly magazine of the same name, received a letter from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). The organization's charitable status was at risk, said the letter, due to its engagement in "partisan political activities." The message: Stop the objectionable activity or lose your status.
Apparently, under the Income Tax Act, subsections 141.9 (6.1 and 6.2), a charitable organization's political purpose or activity must not "include the direct support or indirect support of, or opposition to, any political party." Further, it must not distribute materials that "promote or oppose a candidate or party explicitly or by implication."
These clauses were cited in the letter the Canadian Mennonite received from the CRA. Among its objectionable activities cited by the auditor were voicing concerns about the federal omnibus crime bill (C-10), and an article about Mennonite youth urging the federal government to spend less money on war.
Yet the political criteria of the CRA are applied with remarkable selectivity.
On the federal list of registered charities is the Fraser Institute, a self-described "think-tank" whose mission is to promote free-market economics. It produces a guide called Miningfacts.org, which promotes the economic benefits and safety of the mining industry. This puts the institute squarely behind the Harper government's controversial development and export policies on the oil sands industry via the Northern Gateway Project. The Fraser Institute also posted a recent study on the plan of the federal and B.C. governments to export liquefied natural gas to Asia, advocating removal of "the existing cumbersome and overlapping regulatory process and environmental reviews."
How is this for "direct or indirect support"?
Then there is the Friends of the Oil Sands Interpretive Centre, also a registered charity. Its mission is "to serve as the gateway to Alberta's oilsands by presenting its history, science, and technology, promoting appreciation for it, and providing learning opportunities to all visitors." According to its website, the organization was founded by donations from "individuals, companies, and the Alberta government."
Apparently, that doesn't disqualify it for offering political support either.
Or take Imperial Oil, which -- yes -- appears on the registered charity list although it invites investors, not donations.
Organizations that criticize government policy are another matter, notably on environmental issues.
The Vancouver-based Tides Canada, which opposes the Northern Gateway Project, has found itself subject to repeated audits from the CRA. Environmentalist opposition by organizations such as the Sierra Club has been condemned as "radical" by Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, and labelled as domestic extremism by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.
Once again, review of charitable status has been used as a threat to encourage silence.
These are hardly isolated episodes of individuals or groups being demonized or intimidated for criticizing the policies of the Harper government.
The ecumenical development organization KAIROS made headlines in 2011 when former minister Bev Oda overrode CIDA's recommendation to continue funding for the organization -- and then lied about it. After questioning in Parliament, it became clear the decision was made for reasons of political difference with the Conservative party, not organizational efficiency.
The use of the Income Tax Act by the Canadian Revenue Agency is a poorly disguised attempt to veil a political agenda as bureaucratic rule enforcement. Charitable organizations that seek to inform public debate on issues of the moment are -- under the extraordinary reading of the legislation pushed by Ottawa -- free only to offer explicit or implicit support for official policies.
"Sing in tune or shut up" is becoming our way of regulating public debate, through methods that are as unethical as they are uncharitable.
Troy Media columnist Eva Sajoo is a research associate with the Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Her published academic writing focuses on the rights of women and minorities. She currently teaches at SFU.
-- Troy Media