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PEN Canada hit with CRA Audit

PEN Canada, a Toronto-based charity that advocates for free expression and the rights of writers, became the subject of a CRA audit into its political activities yesterday. PEN has been critical of the Harper government for muzzling scientists as well as on eavesdropping and espionage issues.

According to the Globe and Mail there have been more than 50 such political activities audits launched by the CRA since the Federal Government announced a crackdown on charities in the 2012 budget. The Times Colonist notes other prominent charities on the list of targets including Amnesty International Canada, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Canada Without Poverty, and the United Church of Canada. They also quote Agency Director Cathy Jawara as telling a meeting of the Canadian Bar Association that “[t]he 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.”

Many watchers and commentators are not convinced. The Canadian Press reports on several ongoing investigations, noting that several of the subject charities, including Tides Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation, and Environmental Defence Canada, were the subjects of formal complaints made in early 2012 by Ethical Oil, an organization dedicated to “encouraging businesses, people, and governments to choose ethical oil from Canada, its oil sands, and from other liberal democracies.” EthicalOil.org is not itself a charity.

Canadian Magazines Blog notes that many charities are reporting an “audit chill” – avoiding political speech entirely although charities are permitted to spend up to 10% of their revenues on political activities. PEN Canada’s President Phillip Slayton remains unbowed, however, saying “I refuse to let it have a chilling effect on us. We are not going to have some kind of fear — about having our charitable status questioned by authorities — stop us speaking out on issues.”

The Chill is real, according to researcher Gareth Kirkby. His paper “An Uncharitable Chill” claims that certain charities are targetted, that changing interpretations of the regulations cause uncertainty, and that the impact has in fact been to discourage advocacy and “narrow society’s important policy conversations.” Finally, he concludes that “the cur­rent fed­eral gov­ern­ment is cor­rupt­ing Canada’s demo­c­ra­tic processes by treat­ing as polit­i­cal ene­mies those civil-society orga­ni­za­tions whose con­tri­bu­tions to pub­lic pol­icy con­ver­sa­tions dif­fer from gov­ern­ment pri­or­i­ties.”

Blogger J. Baglow is more direct: “Don’t piss on me and tell me that it’s raining,” he says on Rabble.ca. He notes that the list of targets reads like a Who’s Who of Canadian charities, but includes none of Canada’s prominent right-wing charities that are politically active such as the Fraser Institute or Knights of Columbus. “Harper has already targeted scientists, and artists, and First Nations, and trade unionists, and Elections Canada, and Statistics Canada, and the employees of the National Library, and our diplomats, and even weather forecasters. Now it’s the turn of registered charities who don’t toe the line.”

The initial budget of $8 million for the audits has ballooned to $13 million and the audits have now become a permanent part of the CRA’s work, according to CTV news. No charities have lost their status in the current round and only one, a doctor’s charity, lost its status in the previous round.

The NDP is calling for an independent probe.

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