A small group of nature lovers in southern Ontario enjoy spending weekends watching birds and other wildlife, but lately they're the ones under watch — by the Canada Revenue Agency.

The Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists, a registered charity, is apparently at risk of breaking tax agency rules that limit so-called political or partisan activities.

Earlier this year, tax auditors sent a letter to the 300-member group, warning about political material on the group's website.

The stern missive says the group must take appropriate action as necessary "including refraining from undertaking any partisan activities," with the ominous warning that "this letter does not preclude any future audits."

A copy of the five-page March 11 letter, signed by Valerie Spiegelman of the charities directorate, was obtained by CBC News.

Officials in the naturalist group are declining comment about the cannon shot across the bow, apparently for fear of attracting more attention from the tax agency.

Member speaks out

But longtime member Roger Suffling is speaking up, saying the issue is about democratic freedom and not about arcane tax rules.

'Effectively, they've put a gag on us.'  — Roger Suffling, member of Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists

"Effectively, they've put a gag on us," he said in an interview, noting that the letter arrived just after the club had written directly to two federal cabinet ministers to complain about government-approved chemicals that damage bee colonies.

"You can piece together the timing," said Suffling, an adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo. "The two things are very concurrent."

Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq responded to the group's complaint in a March 14 letter — or just days after the Canada Revenue Agency letter arrived — and Suffling is convinced the two events are linked. Aglukkaq's office denies there's any link, saying the agency operates independently. 

Suffling said that if government is using the tax agency as a "pit bull to stifle dissent, then there's something very wrong."

The group, with annual revenues of just $16,000, has also had a guest speaker to talk about the oilsands, and has publicly defended the Endangered Species Act from being watered down.

Suffling said members of the group are older, small-c conservative, "not radical in the least sense."

Political activity audits

The Canada Revenue Agency launched a special program of so-called political activity audits after Budget 2012 provided $8 million for the project, later topped up to $13.4 million.

CDA UN 20140923

Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq speaks at the UN Climate Summit in New York in September 2014. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The rules say a charity can devote no more than 10 per cent of its resources to political activities, and none to partisan activities, but critics say the guidelines are fuzzy or can be Byzantine in their complexity.

A special squad of 15 auditors has so far targeted some 52 charities, many of them critical of Conservative government policies. Environment groups were hard hit in the first round in 2012-13, but the net has since widened to snare social justice and poverty groups, among others.

So far, no group has been deregistered, but the audits have been expensive and disruptive for charities, many of which operate on a shoestring.

Critics cite 'advocacy chill'

Critics say the program has led to "advocacy chill."

"What we've seen and what we've heard is this nervousness," said Bruce MacDonald, president and CEO of the charities lobby Imagine Canada, based in Toronto.

"Whether it is increased scrutiny, increased attention of the scrutiny, we're not entirely sure what's causing it. It does seem, though, to be top of mind for everybody right now."

Canada Revenue Agency officials say they do not target any one charitable sector, and are choosing groups impartially, without input from the minister's office.

The decision to launch an audit is also not based on any group's position on the political spectrum, charities directorate chief Cathy Hawara has said.

In a statement released Friday in response to this story, the NDP said it isn't buying that.

"The timing simply doesn't pass the smell test — the CRA letter arrived just days after this bird watching club wrote directly to two ministers, expressing their concern about the impact of government-approved chemicals on vulnerable bee colonies," said Murray Rankin, the NDP's national revenue critic.

"The Conservatives' attack on anyone who questions their short-sighted policies is ridiculous. It is also deeply disturbing," Rankin said in the statement.

snowy egret

A snowy egret takes flight in the Kitchener-Waterloo Region. A local naturalist club has come under scrutiny by the Canada Revenue Agency for allegedly paying too much attention to politics and not enough to wildlife. (Contributed by Brett Woodman)

The CRA has another tool in its arsenal beside audits. "Reminder letters" are issued to some groups to warn that Canada Revenue Agency analysts have been watching their political activities, and may launch full audits if things aren't rectified.

So far, 23 such letters have been issued, including to the Kitchener-Waterloo group, though the agency won't say exactly which groups are on the list, citing the confidentiality provisions of the Income Tax Act.

"The local naturalists' club was silenced when its views became known to government and it was silenced for voicing public concern, not for breaking the rules," Suffling wrote on a recent blog.

"How many other inconvenient charities are there out there?"

The Canada Revenue Agency declined interviews. But spokesman Philippe Brideau sent an email indicating the decision about whether to launch a full audit or to issue a reminder letter comes after an initial screening process based on internal files as well as publicly available material.

"Where the regular activities of a registered charity appear charitable and the political activities appear to have minor issues or to be increasing or changing, following an office review/monitoring, a reminder letter informing the charity about the rules for political activities may be sent," he said.

Brideau declined comment about the Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists, citing confidentiality.

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With files from Margo McDiarmid