Registered charitable organizations (charities) have been and continue to be an important part of our social, economic and political landscape. We support them financially through our donations and volunteer work. Governments support us to support them by offering partial refunds, in the form of tax credits, to taxpayers who make donations to charities.
While we most often think of charities in the context of work they do in the community, they have played and continue to play an important advocacy role. A role, not just tolerated but encouraged, by us and our governments. A role which brings public issues to our attention, which advocates for change to address these public issues, and which works with us and our governments to design policies and programs to deal with these issues. A thorn in our side, yes, particularly when it is nice and comfortable to be ignorant or accepting of the status quo. Necessary, yes: to give voice to citizens who will not be or cannot be heard; to give voice to issues that we should not and cannot ignore. A role highly political by definition.
This advocacy role played by some charities appears to be coming to an abrupt end. The media, including the Brandon Sun (July 10, 2014: “Facts, Figures on a New Crop of Tax Audits of Charities for Political Activists” and July 30, 2014: “Small Foreign-Aid Charity Struggles with Onerous CRA (Canada Revenue Agency) Demands After Audit”), are reporting the activities of the CRA in auditing charities for compliance with rules and regulations which grant an organization charitable status. In particular, the media report that the audits appear to be focused on one rule in particular — that charities are not to spend more than 10 per cent of their resources on political activities.
According to Revenue Minister Kerry-Lynne Findlay, the (federal) government is “simply holding charities to account, enforcing the rules and safe guarding public money.” Given the activities of Canadian charities up until 2011, when the audit crusade seems to have begun, it can be argued that the first two reasons, while laudable and necessary, are, at this time, essentially spurious and convenient. As to safe-guarding public money, thoughts are being voiced that the CRA would be much better directed to pursue individuals and corporations that are hiding their money in off-shore tax havens to avoid paying taxes to Canadian governments (estimated at $7.8 billion per year). Or, CRA could audit associations, organizations, foundations, which, although not charitable organizations, derive significant benefit from tax incentives in the form of tax-deductible expenditures used almost exclusively by corporations, small businesses and the self-employed. Organizations that do a significant amount of, and, at times it would appear are dedicated to, lobbying governments for the benefit of corporations and the rich. Or, CRA could audit all political parties, organizations that devote 100 per cent of their resources to political activities in support of policies that some Canadians do not like, while relying on donors who get a 75 per cent tax refund on their respective donations.
So it is necessary to look further afield for a convincing rationale to explain this crusade. Reports in the media, including the Brandon Sun, suggest a high correlation between the timing of comments from senior cabinet ministers of the federal government and the beginning of and the targets of these audits. Ministers were lamenting that environmental organizations (registered as charities) were acting as “terrorists” and “money-launderers” and were subverting the government’s policies with respect to pipeline and energy projects. So could it be that the government doesn’t like organizations that have opinions, ideas and maybe even evidence that do not fit the government’s agenda?
Other actions by the government appear to support this theory. Withdrawal or decreased funding of advocacy groups dealing, for example, with women’s issues, trade agreements, First Nations issues. Muzzling of our government scientists when wanting to speak out about public issues such as the environment, health, trade.
Should we be worried if the theory proves to be correct? Not necessarily. It is possible, although not conceivable, that the government is all-knowing, in addition to being all-powerful. Then we better be concerned and worry about what has happened to us and what we have missed these past 150 years. Absent of that possibility (seeing as the position of all-knowing and all-powerful is already taken) we should embrace our charities and encourage them to encourage us to see our world from varied and differing perspectives. Absent of that possibility, we should understand that some humility and openness is in order and that harassing those of opposing ideas, opinions and evidence simply means that we are empty of logic and rationale.
Rosemarie and Chester Letkeman
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition August 12, 2014