If a democratic system thrives on participation from a civil society free to express itself without state intervention, then Canadian democracy could use some help these days.
Citizens who band together into groups that push politicians to engage a problem should, in theory, be a vital aspect of democratic decision-making. Yet the Harper administration, in its infinite political wisdom, has devoted millions of taxpayer dollars via Canada Revenue Agency, formerly Revenue Canada, to, in effect, target groups that are critical of federal policies.
The CRA launched a series of 60 audits in 2012, and, tellingly, the targeted organizations all seem to espouse views that don't fit so well with the Harper agenda.
Canadian NGOs with charitable status can devote up to 10 per cent of their resources to political activities, or risk losing their status as a charity under the law. Since 2012, $13 million has been earmarked by the Harper administration to audit organizations that, in the eyes of the CRA, may have devoted too much to political activities.
These 'political-activity audits' have primarily targeted environmental groups, human rights organizations, and labour-backed think tanks like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Meanwhile, more conservative-minded groups like the Manning Foundation or the Fraser Institute have not faced such aggression from the CRA. Many of them have also, like their leftist counterparts, participated in 'political activities.'
'Right-wing' groups don't get same attention
Though a CRA spokesperson will come out once in a while to proclaim that the executive branch has no influence over which groups the agency targets, right-wing civil society organizations have yet to receive much attention from the tax agency. Rather, the latest charity to be targeted in a significant way is the United Steelworkers' Humanity Fund, a labour-backed organization that has supported food banks and disaster relief initiatives for over 30 years.
It has donated about two per cent of its annual revenue to the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA), an umbrella organization that advocates for more accountability in the Canadian mining sector, among other things.
This support for the CNCA, an organization that hasn't shied away from its political purposes, is apparently what the CRA is zeroing in on. The fund has often butted heads with the Harper administration over labour issues, and wants more oversight of Canadian mining practices abroad, which, according to its president Ken Neumann, is primarily why the CRA began auditing the group's finances last year.
Such audits can certainly disrupt an organization's day-to-day operations significantly, but this kind of trouble isn't the main reason why these intrusions are bad for Canadian democracy in the long run. Targeted organizations that are forced to go through the lengthy auditing process can, whether the government intends it or not, become examples of what not to say or do in the Harper era.
Groups practice self-censorship
One can hardly blame other charities if they decide to interpret the current inquisitorial atmosphere as being politically motivated. This means that if they want to keep their charitable status, practicing a degree of self-censorship may end up being totally rational. This is an anti-democratic development almost by definition, and it hardly matters whether a particular agenda is behind it all, though the available evidence suggests that Revenue Canada's choices aren't exactly politically neutral.
Earlier this year, Dying with Dignity Canada lost its charitable status after being audited for about three years. It's a non-profit that advocates for terminally ill patients to have a choice when it comes to euthanasia - not exactly a 'pro-life' stance according to contemporary political standards.
The CRA says that it made a mistake back in 1982 and 2011 when it confirmed charitable status for Dying with Dignity. It remains a mystery as to how more conservatively minded charities have managed to follow the rules so well as to not even attract the attention of the agency, which has certainly found a new kind of zeal for revoking charitable status.
Equally mysterious is why there hasn't been more uproar when it comes to the government's auditing targets. The list of charities being investigated and audited by the CRA looks increasingly like Stephen Harper's enemy list. The numbers are so lopsided as to be almost comical, yet no significant amount of public scrutiny coalesced to call for a re-evaluation of the agency's methods.
Steven Zhou is a Toronto-based journalist and writer.