Charity Leaders See Need for Fair Audits, but That’s Not What They See Happening


In his col­umn July 28 in the Finan­cial Post, Ter­ence Cor­co­ran let fly spit­balls at Mar­garet Atwood, PEN Canada, and “left­wing” jour­nal­ists and writ­ers over their con­cerns about the politi­ciza­tion of Canada Rev­enue Agency by the cur­rent fed­eral government.

Corcoran’s always been a fun read and he has the integrity as a com­men­ta­tor to make it clear where he’s com­ing from polit­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally. But his attempt to paint those ques­tion­ing excesses of the cur­rent government’s approach to char­i­ties and civil soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions as left­ist whin­ers seek­ing a free ride from gov­ern­ment is a step too far.

My inter­views with 16 lead­ers of five char­ity sec­tors, in five provinces, revealed not one who thought they ought be fully unre­strained. They accepted they owe the pub­lic finan­cial and pro­gram­ming account­abil­ity in exchange for the tax receipt­ing ben­e­fits char­i­ties receive. Most orga­ni­za­tions had repeat­edly been through audits of var­i­ous kinds, from the basic finan­cial audits to the pro­gram­ming audits that include the organization’s pur­poses and polit­i­cal activ­i­ties. Some, but not all, had been through, and passed, three or four such audits over the decades.

Some specif­i­cally noted that going through gov­ern­ment audits on top of their own inter­nal audits is an oppor­tu­nity to improve their inter­nal account­ing, track­ing, man­age­ment, and staff-training processes, and can result in tweaks to improve their effi­ciency. Even in prepa­ra­tion for the cur­rent round of government-mandated tar­get­ing for polit­i­cal audits, the orga­ni­za­tions saw ben­e­fits in improved processes and set­ting up inter­nal peer-training programs.

Some even dis­cov­ered that their “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” were sig­nif­i­cantly less, in fact, than they had pre­vi­ously been report­ing to CRA and their boards had responded by order­ing increased polit­i­cal activ­ity to improve their effec­tive­ness in con­tribut­ing to pub­lic con­ver­sa­tions con­cern­ing pub­lic pol­icy. Per­haps not what the cur­rent gov­ern­ment intended, but then per­haps the cab­i­net didn’t actu­ally real­ize how few resources most char­i­ties spend on polit­i­cal activities—they’re allowed 10 per­cent of their resources, but most spend between zero per­cent and five percent.

So, in a very real way, the government’s audit­ing is not likely to find many char­i­ties in violation—unless the inter­pre­ta­tion of reg­u­la­tions and def­i­n­i­tions are under­go­ing change as some char­i­ties believe it is. Despite these pos­i­tive spin-offs from prepar­ing for audits, should they have been dis­tracted in the first place? One is left won­der­ing why these audits are deemed nec­es­sary, and why now, along with accom­pa­ny­ing rhetoric por­tray­ing char­i­ties as some­how doing some­thing wrong, crim­i­nal, or even seditious.

One char­ity lawyer I inter­viewed sug­gested the gov­ern­ment does not need to take away char­i­ta­ble sta­tus from orga­ni­za­tions that it dis­likes for the audits to be effec­tive. The fear that is lead­ing to char­i­ties muf­fling their com­mu­ni­ca­tion and being dis­tracted from their mis­sion activ­i­ties in prepa­ra­tion for audits is the actual goal. In other words, quiet down and keep busy those char­i­ties whose pol­icy ideas—particularly around expan­sion of the oil­sands, pipelines, ship­ping, etc—are con­trary to those of the gov­ern­ment while those poli­cies and project approvals are firmed up.

CRA says it is not choos­ing polit­i­cally which char­i­ties to audit for polit­i­cal activ­i­ties. But the gov­ern­ment has cre­ated a fun­nel that guides CRA to char­i­ties more likely to oppose the cur­rent government’s poli­cies (i.e. that have high polit­i­cal activ­ity lev­els com­pared to other char­i­ties) and have drawn com­plaints from orga­ni­za­tions such as Eth­i­cal Oil, a pro-petroleum advo­cacy group.

Mean­while, Ter­ence Cor­co­ran speaks of those who ques­tion or write about the politi­cized audits as left-leaning “sensation-mongering writ­ers, jour­nal­ists and envi­ron­men­tal activists.” Cute, but how about such right-wing and libertarian-right com­men­ta­tors as The Globe and Mail’s Mar­garet Wente and The Van­cou­ver Sun’s Don Cayo, who have sug­gested the Harper gov­ern­ment cut it out and warned that this tar­get­ing is a dan­ger­ous prece­dent that could be used by future gov­ern­ments to clamp down on right-leaning orga­ni­za­tions? Wente and Cayo may be sen­sa­tional (and a good read, like Cor­co­ran) but they’re far from leftist.

Cor­co­ran also notes that Fraser Insti­tute has under­gone three audits in 40 years. Some in the sec­tor believe that the Fraser Insti­tute recently under­went an audit, but that it was a tra­di­tional finan­cial and receipt­ing audit rather than a “pur­pose” and “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” audit of the kind directed in 2012 by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. If that’s inac­cu­rate, per­haps the Fraser lead­er­ship would help set the mat­ter straight?

So far, there do not appear to be any right-leaning orga­ni­za­tions being tar­geted for political-activity audits. Nor should there be. Nei­ther for right-leaning nor pro­gres­sive organizations—other than the 800–900 annual ran­dom audits or audits trig­gered by a seem­ing prob­lem at an indi­vid­ual organization.

Mean­while, please check out my Master’s the­sis and feel free to for­ward and tweet it. And you can fol­low me on Twit­ter: @garethkirkby

NOTE: I have made minor gram­mat­i­cal tweaks to the orig­i­nal version.

I am a for­mer jour­nal­ist and media man­ager who recently com­pleted my Master’s the­sis for Royal Roads Uni­ver­sity and now work as a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sional. I have earned a Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among other awards, for my reporting.

Categories: Uncategorized

Enemy’ Lists, Tax Audits, and Acceptable Government Actions


I was reminded recently by a reader of Richard Nixon’s “Ene­mies List” that freaked out a gen­er­a­tion of US cit­i­zens who expected their politi­cians to play by the rules. The list came to light when John Dean, the for­mer White House Coun­sel for Nixon, tes­ti­fied before the Sen­ate Water­gate Committee.

The orig­i­nal list had 20 names, includ­ing actor Paul New­man, but was later expanded to hun­dreds on a “mas­ter list.” The orig­i­nal list had lead­ers of non-profit orga­ni­za­tions and unions, human rights sup­port­ers, mem­bers of the media, and oppo­si­tion politi­cians and their mon­eyed supporters.

Here’s how Dean explained the list to the committee:

This mem­o­ran­dum addresses the mat­ter of how we can max­i­mize the fact of our incum­bency in deal­ing with per­sons known to be active in their oppo­si­tion to our Admin­is­tra­tion; stated a bit more bluntly—how we can use the avail­able fed­eral machin­ery to screw our polit­i­cal enemies.

Wikipedia notes that the com­mis­sioner in charge of tax­a­tion, refused to audit the peo­ple on the list.

The reader’s note reminded me of a cou­ple of news reports from 2013 about the “enemy” list given new cab­i­net min­is­ters in the cur­rent fed­eral gov­ern­ment. A senior PMO staffer directed staffers about what to include in tran­si­tion book­lets given to new min­is­ters. Items include: “Who to engage or avoid: friend and enemy stake­hold­ers” and “Who to avoid: bureau­crats that can’t take no (or yes) for an answer.” The gov­ern­ment later con­firmed that the Prime Minister’s Office had pre­vi­ously sent an email to Con­ser­v­a­tive min­is­te­r­ial aids ask­ing for “enemy” lists.

Crit­ics, includ­ing 200 public-interest and aid orga­ni­za­tions for­mally asked Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper to reveal who was con­sid­ered an “enemy” on the list.

The National Post reported for­mer Envi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Peter Kent’s con­cerns with the “juve­nile” lan­guage of the lists and its obvi­ous res­o­nance with the Nixon list.

Inter­est­ingly, the National Post piece also quoted resigned Con­ser­v­a­tive MP Brent Rathge­ber, who found the lan­guage “very, very trou­bling. We can have respect­ful dis­cus­sions and dis­agree with each other with­out resort­ing to name-calling or vil­i­fi­ca­tion by refer­ring to some­body as an ‘enemy.’”

And the Post quoted Coun­cil of Cana­di­ans exec­u­tive direc­tor Garry Neil:

They don’t view us as cit­i­zens with strongly held opin­ions that come from places of prin­ci­ple. They view us as eco-terrorists. They see us stand­ing with the child pornog­ra­phers. I mean that’s the way they view politics.

Neil expected the Coun­cil to be on an ene­mies list because of its vocal crit­i­cism of pub­lic poli­cies pur­sued by the government.

Now, I’m not sug­gest­ing a direct com­par­i­son between Stephen Harper and his PMO on the one hand and the deeply para­noid psy­chosis that gripped Richard Nixon and his inner circle.

But my research did find that the gov­ern­ment is abus­ing its author­ity and oper­at­ing out­side of tra­di­tional Cana­dian polit­i­cal bound­aries. It is doing so by using admin­is­tra­tive bod­ies, in par­tic­u­lar Canada Rev­enue Agency, to muf­fle and dis­tract its crit­ics in the form of char­i­ties that have dif­fer­ent pub­lic pol­icy pref­er­ences to those of the cab­i­net. This politi­ciza­tion of the bureau­cracy is a cor­rup­tion of Cana­dian democracy.

It may not be Water­gate, but it’s beyond tra­di­tional bound­aries of accept­able polit­i­cal behav­iour. I won­der if it passes the “smell test” among citizens.

Mean­while, please check out my Master’s the­sis and feel free to for­ward and tweet it. And you can fol­low me on Twit­ter: @garethkirkby


I am a for­mer jour­nal­ist and media man­ager who recently com­pleted my Master’s the­sis for Royal Roads Uni­ver­sity and now work as a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sional. I have earned a Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among other awards, for my reporting.

Categories: Uncategorized

Blame Harper, not CRA, for Audits but Don’t Target Rightwing Charities


Sorry for the blog length, but I think you’ll find this one inter­est­ing and thought-provoking.

In rapid suc­ces­sion we’ve heard from Chris­t­ian char­i­ties announc­ing that their sat­is­fac­tion with the fed­eral government’s audit pro­ce­dure, Canada Rev­enue Agency deny­ing that it is being used by the cur­rent gov­ern­ment to tar­get char­i­ties crit­i­cal of gov­ern­ment poli­cies, and a colum­nist call­ing for audit­ing of right-leaning char­i­ties to even the score.

It’s great to see a national con­ver­sa­tion about the politi­ciza­tion of the CRA’s audit­ing. But if I may, I’d like to take a dif­fer­ent tack on this. The real issue that most char­ity lead­ers and some experts I inter­viewed for my the­sis is not with CRA staff. They acknowl­edged that those work­ing at CRA are decent, pro­fes­sional, ded­i­cated employ­ees doing their best to keep focused on their respon­si­bil­i­ties. (There are some related issues with CRA that emerged in my research, but more about that in a future blog.) And not one char­ity leader spoke against the need for audit­ing char­i­ties, rec­og­niz­ing the prin­ci­ple that the tax ben­e­fits they receive cre­ate an oblig­a­tion to society.

So it’s wrong-headed to focus on CRA itself in the mat­ter of stepped-up ‘polit­i­cal activ­i­ties’ audits and the three cat­e­gories of charities—all of them rel­a­tively ‘progressive’—being tar­geted: envi­ron­men­tal, development/human rights, and those with sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing from labour unions.

The issues for the lead­ers are: who is get­ting audited, why, why this tim­ing, what are the effects and impli­ca­tions for char­i­ties and society?

Atten­tion needs to be on the gov­ern­ment, not the tax man. The gov­ern­ment has cre­ated a fun­nel that leads CRA staff to focus their atten­tion on cer­tain sec­tors. By allo­cat­ing addi­tional audit funds to CRA while other gov­ern­ment depart­ments saw cut­backs, by des­ig­nat­ing those funds for ‘polit­i­cal activ­i­ties,’ by speak­ing pub­licly about the need for CRA to respond to pub­lic com­plaints, the gov­ern­ment cre­ated a fun­nel that led CRA audi­tors to char­i­ties with rel­a­tively higher self-reported ‘polit­i­cal activ­i­ties’ (which are per­fectly allow­able up to 10% of the organization’s resources when done prop­erly) and char­i­ties with com­plaints in their files.

These will very strongly tend be orga­ni­za­tions with dif­fer­ent pub­lic pol­icy per­spec­tives than that of the government.

Now add to the mix the real­ity that the com­plaints, which CRA has acknowl­edged play a role in who is selected for audit­ing, include a sub­stan­tial num­ber from Eth­i­cal Oil in the case of envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions and oth­ers deal­ing with envi­ron­men­tal pol­icy options. In fact, in the spirit of open­ness, Eth­i­cal Oil has his­tor­i­cally sent copies of its CRA com­plaints to the orga­ni­za­tion it is com­plain­ing about. Eth­i­cal Oil was started by a for­mer staffer of cab­i­net min­is­ter Jason Ken­ney who left briefly to set up the orga­ni­za­tion and then returned to the fold with a new assign­ment to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Given that CRA does not pub­licly release com­plaints, we don’t know how many com­plaints are on file against orga­ni­za­tions in sec­tors not deal­ing with energy-related pol­icy. But one of the lead­ers I inter­viewed from a non-environmental char­ity, had been told by CRA staff of mul­ti­ple com­plaints in the organization’s file.

Of course it is pos­si­ble that the fun­nel con­struc­tion is a series of indi­vid­ual acts that coin­ci­den­tally lead to con­cen­trated atten­tion on orga­ni­za­tions with dif­fer­ent pol­icy pref­er­ences than the government’s, and par­tic­u­larly in the envi­ron­men­tal sec­tor. And it’s pos­si­ble that a min­is­ter gave an order to a deputy min­is­ter and on down the line—but that would be a major vio­la­tion of bound­aries that surely no min­is­ter, or senior man­darin, would con­sider. In any case, nobody’s had their photo taken hold­ing a smok­ing gun. Most char­ity lead­ers and experts I inter­viewed see a series of steps, which I call a fun­nel, that leads CRA right to where the gov­ern­ment wants them to end up—indirect, but politi­ciza­tion just the same. One leader who took pains to speak of high regard for the CRA staff char­ac­ter­ized it as an “insid­i­ous” process.

So, it can be argued that CRA employ­ees are caught up in some­thing not of their mak­ing. And if the gov­ern­ment PR staff can focus media atten­tion on CRA and away from the PMO and cab­i­net, with the gov­ern­ment offi­cially back­ing up their tax authority’s inde­pen­dence, well that would be a very bright media strat­egy, wouldn’t it?

The CBC report quoted Chris­t­ian Char­i­ties Asso­ci­a­tion CEO Rev. John Pel­lowe say­ing, “CRA has the right to inves­ti­gate char­i­ties to deter­mine if you’re fol­low­ing the rules.” Pel­lowe went fur­ther, “You can do polit­i­cal engage­ment, but you can­not engage in par­ti­san pol­i­tics, and in the cases I’ve heard about, that’s exactly what they’re doing—they’ve crossed the line.” His mem­bers haven’t expressed any con­cerns about polit­i­cal activ­i­ties audits.

As I pre­vi­ously noted, none of the char­ity lead­ers I inter­viewed had any prob­lem with CA inves­ti­gat­ing char­i­ties to ensure they were fol­low­ing the rules. It’s a mat­ter of ensur­ing a fair process, with­out gov­ern­ment inter­fer­ence. It’s about the gov­ern­ment not using the tax man to fight its pol­icy bat­tles by instill­ing fear, muf­fling, and divert­ing char­i­ties from their missions—and at the very time that key pol­icy issues are work­ing through the sys­tem and Cana­di­ans need vig­or­ous pub­lic con­ver­sa­tions about them.

I’m intrigued by Pellowe’s judg­ment that “in the cases [he’s] heard about” the char­i­ties are par­tic­i­pat­ing in for­bid­den par­ti­san activ­i­ties rather than accept­able polit­i­cal activ­i­ties. Which char­i­ties, exactly? What par­ti­san activ­i­ties, exactly? Churches and reli­gious orga­ni­za­tions have often taken strong stands on issues such as abor­tion, same-sex mar­riage, divorce, and birth con­trol. Reli­gious char­i­ties are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble if a future gov­ern­ment heeds the call of activists who claim some cross the line into par­ti­san activ­i­ties and so the sec­tor should lose their char­i­ta­ble sta­tus en mass. With an eye to the future, some might have expected a char­ity umbrella orga­ni­za­tion rep­re­sent­ing reli­gious orga­ni­za­tions to speak up for the widest pos­si­ble pub­lic con­ver­sa­tions in society.

Heather Mallick’s spicy take on the issue in her Toronto Star col­umn sug­gests that audits should be extended to right-leaning orga­ni­za­tions. “Groups that help cre­ate a bet­ter world for bitu­men extrac­tion or urge preg­nant teenagers not to have abor­tions, in other words, groups that don’t scrape at Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper’s rage gland, are not audited in a sud­den blitz. They should be. Let’s be fair.”

Play­ful, but not where the char­ity lead­ers I spoke to are com­ing from. Many of them did note that their track­ing sug­gests that only “pro­gres­sive” char­i­ties (and that’s a wide swath of polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion, isn’t it?) are get­ting audited. But only one leader thought that the way to deal with that is to even the score by audit­ing more con­ser­v­a­tive and right-leaning char­i­ties. Almost uni­ver­sally, they thought that any sort of polit­i­cal tar­get­ing is wrong. That soci­ety needs char­i­ties of all ori­en­ta­tions and mis­sions to be given the space to con­tribute to society’s pub­lic con­ver­sa­tions. with­out harass­ment That polit­i­cal audits should be ran­dom or respond­ing to obvi­ous prob­lems, not the ide­ol­ogy of, and mis­use of power by, what­ever gov­ern­ment hap­pens to be in power.

Mean­while, please check out my Master’s the­sis and feel free to for­ward and tweet it. And you can fol­low me on Twit­ter: @garethkirkby


I am a for­mer jour­nal­ist and media man­ager who recently com­pleted my Master’s the­sis for Royal Roads Uni­ver­sity and now work as a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sional. I have earned a Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among other awards, for my reporting.

Categories: Uncategorized

How Government Created a ‘Funnel’ to Target


The ques­tion I’m most asked about the audits of char­i­ties for their ‘polit­i­cal activ­i­ties’ con­cerns how Canada Rev­enue Agency could end up sin­gling out char­i­ties from the “pro­gres­sive” end of the polit­i­cal spec­trum, par­tic­u­larly envi­ron­men­tal char­i­ties work­ing on issues around var­i­ous aspects of energy policy.

How is it that the process has been politi­cized? Peo­ple won­der whether a cab­i­net min­is­ter told a senior CRA bureau­crat who to audit, and then it got passed down the line. That would be a clear vio­la­tion of the sep­a­ra­tion of admin­is­tra­tive tax­a­tion deci­sions from the polit­i­cal arm of government.

But it’s also the hard­est to prove, because a smok­ing gun would prob­a­bly involve a memo from a senior bureau­crat dis­cov­ered through a free­dom of infor­ma­tion request. Given how wrong it would be for a senior bureau­crat to fol­low such instruc­tions from a cab­i­net min­is­ter or polit­i­cal oper­a­tive in the Prime Minister’s Office (equally wrong as giv­ing such instruc­tions in the first place), it’s hard to imag­ine a min­istry offi­cial writ­ing about it.

So if that’s how the polit­i­cal inter­fer­ence is tak­ing place, it’s unlikely there would be a smok­ing gun. That said, it’s telling that some of the char­ity lead­ers I inter­viewed thought it pos­si­ble for this to hap­pen in the cur­rent polit­i­cal cli­mate. Per­haps trust is not high for the integrity of gov­ern­ment min­is­ters and senior bureaucrats?

The best expla­na­tion though, is what I’ll call the “Con­struct­ing the Fun­nel” approach to ensur­ing CRA tar­gets orga­ni­za­tions that have dif­fer­ent pol­icy pref­er­ences to those of the gov­ern­ment. Now, keep in mind that for this to work it does not have to be a con­scious, well-thought-out strat­egy. Whether very delib­er­ate or the result of a series of actions, the fun­nel gets con­structed and the char­i­ties get dis­tracted and muffled.

Step 1
Start­ing in 2012 and last­ing all the way to the 2014 fed­eral bud­get, fed­eral cab­i­net min­is­ters, with back-up com­ments from the Prime Min­is­ter, write and speak in pub­lic of char­i­ties in the same breath as money-launderers, crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tions, and ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions. Envi­ron­men­tal­ists are labeled “extrem­ists” under­min­ing Cana­dian fam­i­lies. Envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions are added to the national ter­ror­ism strat­egy as poten­tial threats to secu­rity. CRA staff see this as surely as the rest of us and know who the gov­ern­ment is con­cerned about.

Step 2
In 2011, a polit­i­cal employee leaves the employ of fed­eral cab­i­net min­is­ter Jason Ken­ney to found Eth­i­cal Oil, an aggres­sive pri­vate non-profit that advo­cates on behalf of Canada’s petro­chem­i­cal sec­tor. The orga­ni­za­tion starts a web­site and files com­plaints to the CRA against energy-issue char­i­ties, accus­ing them of break­ing reg­u­la­tions con­cern­ing “polit­i­cal” and par­ti­san activ­i­ties. The oper­a­tive returns to Ottawa with a pro­mo­tion to the Prime Minister’s Office. Peo­ple with con­nec­tions to the Con­ser­v­a­tive Party con­tinue to run Eth­i­cal Oil.

Step 3
The 2012 fed­eral bud­get sets aside $8 mil­lion for stepped-up CRA audits of “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” and other mat­ters, at the same time as other gov­ern­ment depart­ments get cuts in an aus­ter­ity bud­get that laid off approx­i­mately 2000 gov­ern­ment sci­en­tists and mas­sively reduced envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions and pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion processes. In dis­cussing the changes, Finance Min­is­ter Jim Fla­herty refers to cit­i­zen complaints.

Step 4
CRA now has the finan­cial resources to increase audits for “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” and aims for 60 over three years. Staff check files to dis­cover which orga­ni­za­tions are declar­ing higher per­cent­age of resources devoted to “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” (most char­i­ties are allowed up to 10 per­cent of resources, smaller char­i­ties up to 20 per­cent). These tend to be orga­ni­za­tions with dif­fer­ent ideas than the cur­rent gov­ern­ment about the best pub­lic poli­cies for Canada.

Step 5
CRA finds mul­ti­ple com­plaints from Eth­i­cal Oil in the files of orga­ni­za­tions that address envi­ron­men­tal and eco­nomic issues around cli­mate change, expan­sion of the oil sands or gas extrac­tion, pipeline and train trans­porta­tion, export by ocean tankers, and pro­tec­tion of habi­tat and species in Alberta and BC related to the above.

Inter­est­ingly, a Feb­ru­ary 6, 2014 news report by CBC quoted Alberta Con­ser­v­a­tive MP James Rajotte noted that he assumes CRA “receive all sorts of infor­ma­tion from all sorts of Cana­di­ans, in terms of who they should or should not audit.”

Step 6
Per­haps there are com­plaints from indi­vid­u­als or groups in the CRA files of char­i­ties in other sec­tors my data iden­ti­fied as targeted—development/human rights groups and groups with sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing from labour unions—or per­haps there are other yel­low or red flags that drew CRA attention.

Step 7
Char­i­ties with high self-declaration of “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” and/or com­plaints are given early and par­tic­u­lar atten­tion for auditing.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment has con­sis­tently denied that it either tar­gets indi­vid­ual char­i­ties or tells CRA to do so. In any case, three sec­tors are being tar­geted for audits. It seems that the gov­ern­ment has, unin­ten­tion­ally or by design, con­structed a fun­nel that increases the like­li­hood of audits focus­ing on groups that have dif­fer­ent ideas than the gov­ern­ment about pub­lic poli­cies, and are more likely to voice their dissatisfaction.

My fun­nel is derived from the com­ments of 16 char­ity lead­ers and five experts who par­tic­i­pated in my the­sis research on con­di­tion of anonymity, along with a sur­vey of lit­er­a­ture on the Cana­dian char­ity and vol­un­tary sec­tor. It is a rea­son­able expla­na­tion for explain­ing the tar­get­ing now being expe­ri­enced, and reflects the expe­ri­ences of char­i­ties, char­ity lawyers and for­mer gov­ern­ment staffers. As they say in the TV com­mer­cials, “Actual results may vary.” There’s no trade­mark on this fun­nel; feel free to share it.

Mean­while, please check out my Master’s the­sis and feel free to for­ward and tweet it. And you can fol­low me on Twit­ter: @garethkirkby

I am a for­mer jour­nal­ist and media man­ager who recently com­pleted my Master’s the­sis for Royal Roads Uni­ver­sity and now work as a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sional. I have earned a Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among other awards, for my reporting.

Categories: Uncategorized

Philanthropic and Charity Umbrellas Could Pressure Feds


Monday’s Toronto Star edi­to­r­ial exam­ines the NDP’s recent call for an inde­pen­dent inquiry into politi­ciza­tion of the CRA audits of reg­is­tered charities.

The NDP let­ter call­ing for the inquiry “will sig­nal to Canada’s embat­tled char­i­ties that they have a cham­pion in Par­lia­ment,” says the edi­to­r­ial. Mildly goad­ing oth­ers to join the NDP, the edi­to­r­ial says, “If there is a groundswell, with the Lib­er­als, the provin­cial pre­miers and a few influ­en­tial phil­an­thropists demand­ing answers, the Tories may be shamed into sus­pend­ing their ill-conceived crackdown.”

Well said. As I wrote in my last post, “will all par­ties sup­port probe into politi­ciza­tion of CRA char­ity audits,” all par­ties (and I would add at all lev­els of gov­ern­ment) have a vested inter­est in pre­serv­ing broad par­tic­i­pa­tion in impor­tant pol­icy dis­cus­sion, keep­ing sep­a­rate the admin­is­tra­tive and polit­i­cal arms of gov­ern­ment, and enhanc­ing rela­tion­ships between civil soci­ety and government.

I’m par­tic­u­larly enam­ored of the sug­ges­tion that a few influ­en­tial phil­an­thropists could help per­suade the gov­ern­ment to change its course. Cana­dian fam­i­lies such as the Aspers, and Bronf­mans, McCains and West­ons have a his­tory of phil­an­thropy. Some (includ­ing the first three named above, plus cor­po­rate names such as Bom­bardier) have estab­lished foun­da­tions bear­ing their names and these foun­da­tions make grants to charities.

Phil­an­thropic Foun­da­tions Canada (PFC), the largest umbrella orga­ni­za­tion rep­re­sent­ing foun­da­tions, ques­tioned the government’s 2012 rhetoric, increased reg­u­la­tion of char­i­ties, and pro­gram of increased audit­ing of the per­fectly legal “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” of charities.

The rules around “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” are clear and don’t need fur­ther atten­tion, the group told Cana­dian Press in 2012.

J.W. McConnell Fam­ily Foun­da­tion, Canada’s sec­ond old­est fam­ily foun­da­tion, talked to Cana­dian Press. “I think what we have to be con­cerned about is the fear that peo­ple have to speak up or take a posi­tion on an issue of pub­lic impor­tance,” foun­da­tion pres­i­dent Stephen Hud­dart said. “The reg­u­la­tions are clearly laid out so peo­ple feel that they’re able to do so, and in many cases have a respon­si­bil­ity to do so, to speak up on behalf of under­priv­i­leged or dis­pos­sessed or vul­ner­a­ble populations.

There’s a need for informed debate, a diver­sity of views, on these kinds of issues, and this sec­tor is good at doing that.”

Talk about pre­scient! I dis­cov­ered that the fog of fear has now set­tled upon some char­i­ties in my research. And Hud­dart makes that vital point, more rel­e­vant today than ever, that it is the job of char­i­ties to speak up about issues about which they are expert.

Another impor­tant player is Imag­ine Canada, the umbrella orga­ni­za­tion of the char­i­ties them­selves. My par­tic­i­pants are count­ing on Imag­ine Canada to go to bat for them, to spear­head a major nar­ra­tive cam­paign that touts the “good news” about the con­tri­bu­tion char­i­ties have made and con­tinue to make to Cana­dian soci­ety and pub­lic pol­icy. Like national and provin­cial parks. Or the seat­belt, drunk-driving, and smok­ing reg­u­la­tions that have saved thou­sands of lives.

As The Star edi­to­r­ial rec­om­mends, this is the time for them to step up and divert this gov­ern­ment from a course of action that is clearly hurt­ing soci­ety, includ­ing the very char­i­ties that the foun­da­tions are fund­ing and Imag­ine Canada is representing.

Mean­while, check out my Master’s the­sis and feel free to for­ward and tweet it. And you can fol­low me on Twit­ter: @garethkirkby

I am a for­mer jour­nal­ist and media man­ager who recently com­pleted my Master’s the­sis for Royal Roads Uni­ver­sity and now work as a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sional. I have earned a Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among other awards, for my reporting.

Categories: Uncategorized

Will All Parties Support Probe Into Politicization of CRA Charity Audits?


Sorry for the inter­rup­tion in blog post­ings; I’ve been trav­el­ling these past two days, largely out of wifi range and not in con­trol of my sched­ule. Bad timing.

Before board­ing the plane, I got the news that a fed­eral party had asked ques­tions in Par­lia­ment directly related to the find­ings in my the­sis.

NDP rev­enue critic Mur­ray Rankin and envi­ron­ment critic Megan Leslie called for an inde­pen­dent probe into the Canada Rev­enue Agency’s audit­ing of char­i­ties for their polit­i­cal activities.

In a July 16 let­ter to gov­ern­ment Rev­enue Min­is­ter Kerry-Lynne Find­lay Rankin and Leslie write that they “fear that the evi­dence strongly sug­gests that the Con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment has been mis­us­ing the CRA to tar­get its polit­i­cal oppo­nents.” Cana­dian Press reports that Findlay’s office re-released a state­ment deny­ing any polit­i­cal inter­fer­ence with CRA.

My the­sis find­ings, which were widely pub­lished in Cana­dian media in two reports writ­ten by Cana­dian Press deputy-bureau chief Dean Beeby, found that the tar­get­ing by CRA has extended beyond envi­ron­men­tal char­i­ties to also include inter­na­tional development/human rights orga­ni­za­tions and char­i­ties receiv­ing sig­nif­i­cant funds from labour unions. Beeby’s own leg­work found that anti-poverty orga­ni­za­tions are also being caught up in the audits.

The audit­ing, in short, seems to tar­get char­i­ties of a “pro­gres­sive” nature that have dif­fer­ent ideas about the best pub­lic poli­cies for Canada than does the cur­rent fed­eral cabinet.

Pre­vi­ous researchers have warned that politi­ciza­tion of the CRA is under­way and that this is not in line with West­ern demo­c­ra­tic val­ues and will dam­age our inter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion. My the­sis pointed to a “fun­nel” cre­ated by the gov­ern­ment that more or less pushes CRA toward audit­ing cer­tain charities.

That fun­nel includes increased fund­ing for audit­ing of char­i­ties’ “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” (which, though seem­ingly almost uni­ver­sally below the 10% of a charity’s resources that the cur­rent reg­u­la­tions allowed, tend to be higher in some char­ity sec­tors than oth­ers), and the pres­ence of com­plaint let­ters from Eth­i­cal Oil in the CRA files of char­i­ties that are directly or indi­rectly involved in issues of cli­mate change, oil­sands expan­sion, pipelines, tankers, and ecosys­tem impacts of those indus­trial activities).

Also impor­tant is that Eth­i­cal Oil, an aggres­sive pri­vate activist orga­ni­za­tions, was founded by a staffer of min­is­ter Jason Ken­ney who left to set up the orga­ni­za­tion and then returned to serve the party in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Any gov­ern­ment has a vari­ety of state tools at its dis­posal that can, but should not, be used to short-circuit debate and cit­i­zen par­tic­i­pa­tion in order to force through its own pol­icy agenda. Those include the army, police, secu­rity appa­ra­tus, and tax author­ity. Even use of access to the media that gov­ern­ment min­is­ters enjoy to a level far above that of oth­ers should not be used to let loose with rhetoric that, for exam­ple, con­flates char­i­ties, money-laundering, crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tions and ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions as has hap­pened repeat­edly since 2012.

The audits and asso­ci­ated rhetoric on the part of the cur­rent fed­eral gov­ern­ment is hav­ing an impact on the abil­ity of char­i­ties to carry out their Mis­sions. It is affect­ing some organization’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion about issues that Cana­di­ans very much needs to dis­cuss widely and deeply, and so is nar­row­ing society’s con­ver­sa­tions. And in cre­at­ing the fun­nel and dis­tract­ing char­i­ties from their impor­tant social pur­pose as civil-society par­tic­i­pants, idea gen­er­a­tors, alter­na­tive voices, the government’s actions are reduc­ing the vigor of our democracy.

So, it’s good to see a polit­i­cal party weigh into the debate. It’s a fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple of democ­racy that politi­cians do not cor­rupt the neu­tral­ity of the admin­is­tra­tive func­tions and indi­vid­ual bureau­crats through politi­ciza­tion. I would think that all polit­i­cal par­ties have a long-term invest­ment in that, includ­ing the party now in power.

Mean­while, check out my Master’s the­sis and feel free to for­ward and tweet it.

I am a for­mer jour­nal­ist and media man­ager who recently com­pleted my Master’s the­sis for Royal Roads Uni­ver­sity and now work as a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sional. I have earned a Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among other awards, for my reporting.

Categories: Uncategorized

Political Activities by Charities Legal and Good For Society


I’ve been watch­ing the com­ments sec­tions of news reports and columns run­ning on some of the larger media web­sites. And I notice a con­sis­tent piece of mis­in­for­ma­tion creep­ing in: that char­i­ties are not allowed to engage in polit­i­cal activ­i­ties. That’s sim­ply not true.

One con­trib­u­tor below Carol Goar’s excel­lent col­umn (and I say excel­lent not just because she quotes me and sends read­ers to my web­site and online the­sis, of course) of today (July 16), sug­gested that it was not the role of char­i­ties to be involved in “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties.” Those who do, sug­gested the con­trib­u­tor, “should not be sup­ported by tax­payer dol­lars via tax deduc­tions.” Fur­ther, sug­gested the writer, “there are plenty of orga­ni­za­tions out there play­ing fast and loose with our money.”

Whether or not this con­trib­u­tor is a party oper­a­tives post­ing in an effort to deflect crit­i­cism (all par­ties have their paid staff and over-enthusiastic vol­un­teers, of course), I think the point is wor­thy of direct atten­tion. Here goes:

  • Cur­rent reg­u­la­tions and inter­pre­ta­tions allow char­i­ties to par­tic­i­pate in “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” as defined by Canada Rev­enue Agency up to a limit of 10 per­cent (20 per­cent for smaller char­i­ties) of the charity’s resources — staff and vol­un­teer time and budget;
  • This is because CRA has for some years now rec­og­nized that soci­ety ben­e­fits when charities—who are experts in their areas of work—participate in society’s con­ver­sa­tions but not as their pri­mary activity;
  • Char­i­ties are restricted to com­ment­ing on mat­ters that are in line with their offi­cially rec­og­nized “purpose”—relief of poverty, advance­ment of edu­ca­tion, advance­ment of reli­gion, or other pur­poses that the courts have upheld as an appro­pri­ate ben­e­fit to the community.

Char­i­ties are not, how­ever, allowed to par­tic­i­pate in “par­ti­san activ­i­ties” like call­ing for the ouster of the cur­rent gov­ern­ment, endors­ing spe­cific par­ties or can­di­dates and that sort of thing.

One way to think about it is this:

  • If a can­cer char­ity funds a study that finds that expo­sure to second-hand smoke is asso­ci­ated with increased rates of can­cer, it is “char­i­ta­ble activ­ity” if that char­ity holds a press con­fer­ence, announces that the find­ings sug­gest that the gov­ern­ment should out­law smok­ing in work­places. As a “char­i­ta­ble activ­ity,” the char­ity can pur­sue this approach to its heart’s content;
  • If that char­ity then sends emails to its mem­bers or tweets the gen­eral pub­lic and asks them to con­tact their MP to ask for leg­is­la­tion out­law­ing smok­ing in the work­place, they are par­tic­i­pat­ing in allow­able “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” if the topic and com­mu­ni­ca­tion fits their “purpose;”
  • If that char­ity uses an intem­per­ate tone in crit­i­ciz­ing cur­rent gov­ern­ment pol­icy, or sug­gests peo­ple vote for another party in the next elec­tion in order to get leg­is­la­tion against work­place smok­ing, this is for­bid­den “par­ti­san activ­i­ties” and the char­ity is vul­ner­a­ble to a spank­ing by CRA or loss of its char­i­ta­ble sta­tus if there’s a his­tory of this.

I bet you can see the grey areas. Char­i­ties cer­tainly do and some are con­fused. So fac­ing a politi­cized audit­ing process, they are con­sult­ing lawyers, hold­ing sem­i­nars, care­fully mea­sur­ing their var­i­ous activ­i­ties to ensure they stay under 10 per­cent “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties,” and chang­ing the con­tent, tone fre­quency, and chan­nels of communication—all of which are a diver­sion of time and money and vigor away from the mis­sion that their mem­bers, and per­haps soci­ety in gen­eral, expects them to focus on.

And please note that the char­ity sec­tor umbrella group, Imag­ine Canada, found in a 2010 study that 37 per­cent of char­i­ties engage in “polit­i­cal activ­ity.” How do you think we got drunk-driving leg­is­la­tion, smok­ing reg­u­la­tions, and emis­sions reg­u­la­tions that reduced the acid rain destroy­ing our lakes? Though many char­i­ties dab­ble in polit­i­cal activ­i­ties, both char­ity lead­ers and indus­try experts I spoke to agreed that few come any­where near their 10 per­cent limit. The stepped-up audits, in short, are a solu­tion in search of a non-existent prob­lem; unless, that is, there’s another agenda at work on the part of elected officials.

Those grey areas I men­tioned above have been around a long time and have not been fully clar­i­fied by CRA, which puts orga­ni­za­tions under unac­cept­able stress. Per­haps senior man­darins and cab­i­net min­is­ters like it that way; I don’t know. And there’s a poten­tial loom­ing prob­lem: orga­ni­za­tions that have been going through audits, and some of which have repeat­edly passed audits in their his­tory, believe that the above def­i­n­i­tions of “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” and “par­ti­san activ­i­ties” are being rein­ter­preted by audi­tors right now.

But here’s the nub: Some sug­gest that some of the audi­tors are inter­pret­ing any crit­i­cism of the poli­cies of the cur­rent gov­ern­ment is being seen as “polit­i­cal activ­ity.” Of course, that is absurd and against the spirit of cur­rent reg­u­la­tions and will no doubt end up in the courts if that’s where CRA is head­ing. That inter­pre­ta­tion would essen­tially move from the cur­rent “muf­fling” of char­ity voices that I found in my the­sis research to a full-fledged vir­tual “silenc­ing” of the voices of these experts. We need these experts to speak up in our national con­ver­sa­tions to ensure we make the best pos­si­ble pol­icy deci­sions for our country.

I guess we will soon see if their fears are cor­rect. Audit results are trick­ling out. Char­i­ties will undoubt­edly share their find­ings if we’re enter­ing such a period. But given that there doesn’t appear to be a deep-seated prob­lem here with regard to “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties,” why would the gov­ern­ment step-up audit­ing and accom­pany it with stri­dent anti-charity rhetoric? That will have to wait for another post.

Mean­while, check out my Master’s the­sis.

I am a for­mer jour­nal­ist and media man­ager who recently com­pleted my Master’s the­sis for Royal Roads Uni­ver­sity and now work as a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sional. I have earned a Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among other awards, for my reporting.

Categories: Uncategorized

Would You Mistake a Charity for Radical Extremists?


But why would any­one want to tar­get charities?

After all, char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions are among the most mod­er­ate civil soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions. They are not nor­mally drawn to highly con­tentious actions. They tend to do research and speak about pol­icy based on that research.

Envi­ron­men­tal char­i­ties, for exam­ple, have his­tor­i­cally drawn on the research of gov­ern­ment and aca­d­e­mic sci­en­tists to advo­cate to soci­ety and gov­ern­ment evidence-based pol­icy options. (With recent fed­eral gov­ern­ment lay­offs of a large num­ber of sci­en­tists includ­ing world-famous author­i­ties, our coun­try lost our early-warning envi­ron­men­tal radar systems—see Chris Turner’s excel­lent book, The War on Sci­ence, for more information.)

Envi­ron­men­tal char­i­ties tend to edu­cate the pub­lic and the pow­er­ful about what we can do. They show us how our per­sonal choices can reduce our car­bon foot­print, and reduce toxic chem­i­cals and trou­ble­some addi­tives in our food and cos­met­ics, for example—hardly the stuff of “rad­i­cal extrem­ist groups” referred to in Joe Oliver’s open let­ter in the Globe and Mail.

The same sort of prac­ti­cal spirit per­vades char­i­ties in other sec­tors, whether inter­na­tional devel­op­ment, human rights, emer­gency aid, poverty, hous­ing, social ser­vices, HIV pre­ven­tion, women’s health, can­cer research, hos­pi­tals, uni­ver­si­ties, or research institutes.

This is surely not a new notion for the cur­rent fed­eral gov­ern­ment? I bet some cab­i­net min­is­ters have donated to char­i­ties over the years—perhaps even to some of the very pop­u­lar ones now under­go­ing audits thanks to their own actions.

In the case of envi­ron­men­tal char­i­ties, their work on issues that might upset the petro­leum indus­try and its spin-offs are pretty pre­dictable. Char­i­ties know they can’t be directly con­fronta­tional or their sta­tus can be revoked. So they edu­cate, par­tic­i­pate in pub­lic processes, speak through the media, teach us how to reduce our per­sonal car­bon use, advo­cate for spe­cific poli­cies that would reduce car­bon emis­sions. And sue the gov­ern­ment if it ignores due process, as the gov­ern­ment has a demon­stra­ble record of doing.

Using pub­lic edu­ca­tion, build­ing pub­lic opin­ion, using the courts when the gov­ern­ment, reg­u­la­tors, or the petro­leum indus­try breaks the law: all of these are mod­er­ate actions. They involve “work­ing within the sys­tem.” Most of them qual­ify as “char­i­ta­ble activ­i­ties” and the rest are allow­able “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” that are allowed up to 10 per­cent of a charity’s resources. There’s noth­ing unprece­dented or inher­ently par­ti­san in any of this list. They are actions that I dare say most Cana­di­ans would want from char­i­ties that advo­cate on pub­lic pol­icy options.

To get char­ity sta­tus, with its atten­dant tax breaks, involves con­scious con­sent to wear a straight-jacket. You can speak up for the best poli­cies within a lim­ited range. They must con­nect to your “pur­pose,” one of four rea­sons for exis­tence that a new char­ity chooses and Indus­try Canada and Canada Rev­enue Agency affirms. They can either be “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” (e.g., “please call your MP to ask them to put this pol­icy in place”) up to 10 per­cent of resources, “char­i­ta­ble activ­i­ties” that build on spe­cific knowledge—for exam­ple, speak­ing in favour of a con­clud­ing rec­om­men­da­tion found in a research report that your orga­ni­za­tion commissioned.

The more con­fronta­tional lan­guage, the peace­ful direct action, the sug­ges­tion that a new party should be elected, those sorts of things: they’re not what char­i­ties do. They’re what grass­roots and com­mu­nity orga­ni­za­tions do (and they also are rarely “extrem­ist” by any rea­son­able def­i­n­i­tion of the word.) And the char­i­ties I inter­viewed knew the difference.

Surely the cab­i­net does too? So, why would they call char­i­ties “extrem­ist” and audit them for “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties?” That’s for another blog entry.

Mean­while, check out my Master’s the­sis.

I am a for­mer jour­nal­ist and media man­ager who recently com­pleted my Master’s the­sis for Royal Roads Uni­ver­sity and now work as a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sional. I have earned a Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among other awards, for my report­ing. Fol­low me on Twit­ter: @garethkirkby

Categories: Uncategorized

Which Charities are Being Targeted by CRA


Three kinds of char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions are dis­pro­por­tion­ately under­go­ing audits by Canada Rev­enue Agency.

You may recall the Feb­ru­ary 2014 CBC news report announc­ing that seven envi­ron­men­tal char­i­ties face CRA audits. The report quoted an Alberta Con­ser­v­a­tive deny­ing that the gov­ern­ment tar­gets any one sec­tor or any one char­ity, but tellingly the MP hinted at one of the trig­gers of selec­tion when he noted that CRA used “all sorts of infor­ma­tion from all sorts of Cana­di­ans” when choosing.

In my last blog I noted what most char­ity lead­ers I inter­viewed con­sider the most likely process: CRA staff try not to hear the gov­ern­ment loudly denounc­ing envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, look for which groups tend to declare more “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” than other groups, and then look for com­plaints on file against those char­i­ties. And, lo and behold, many groups, par­tic­u­larly but not exclu­sively envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, that oppose the government’s petroleum-friendly eco­nomic strat­egy just hap­pen to have com­plaints in their files from Eth­i­cal Oil, an aggres­sively pro-petroleum pri­vate non­profit organization.

So you may not be sur­prised to learn that my data sug­gests that it is a par­tic­u­lar sec­tor of envi­ron­men­tal char­i­ties that are mainly audited: those deal­ing with petro­leum issues. More specif­i­cally, it is groups that focus on or have projects related to cli­mate change, oil sands devel­op­ment, pipeline trans­port, tanker export, and on pro­tect­ing the species and habi­tats of the Alberta and B.C. inte­rior rivers, forests, and coast­lines that would be most affected by the oil sands, pipelines, tankers, and ports.

But it is not only envi­ron­men­tal char­i­ties being audited. My data shows that two other cat­e­gories of char­i­ties dis­pro­por­tion­ately have their oper­a­tions under the micro­scope: development/human rights groups, and those receiv­ing sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing from labour unions.

While the Eth­i­cal Oil com­plaints seem rel­e­vant in direct­ing CRA staff to par­tic­u­lar envi­ron­men­tal char­i­ties, it’s less clear how they are led to the other two cat­e­gories. Are there com­plaints on file against these orga­ni­za­tions? CRA doesn’t make com­plaints pub­lic; we know of the Eth­i­cal Oil com­plaints because the com­plainant sent copies to the groups they com­plained about and some­times posted them pub­licly includ­ing on the Eth­i­cal Oil web­site. Could it have any­thing to do with some devel­op­ment char­i­ties ques­tion­ing the behav­iour of Cana­dian min­ing com­pa­nies in the devel­op­ing world, where they are seem­ingly increas­ingly con­tro­ver­sial? Could selec­tion of the other two sec­tors be coin­ci­dence, I won­dered? I think not based on my inter­view data.

There is one other group being sin­gled out, it seems: those that have had some rela­tion­ship with Tides Canada Foun­da­tion over the past few years. When CRA audits a char­ity, it some­times fol­lows the money trail to recip­i­ents. Tides Canada has been under per­pet­ual audit since 2012 and drawn the per­sonal inter­est of fed­eral cab­i­net min­is­ters and some of their grant recip­i­ents are now of high inter­est, too.

A Cana­dian Press report recently noted char­i­ties in other sec­tors, includ­ing those address­ing poverty, are being audited, too, but not seem­ingly so sys­tem­at­i­cally as the three I iden­ti­fied. But what almost all char­i­ties under­go­ing these “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” audits have in com­mon is that they are from the “pro­gres­sive” end of the socio-political spectrum.

That’s a broad catch­ment, for sure, but there are many char­i­ties on the con­ser­v­a­tive end, includ­ing most of the nation’s think thanks such as the Fraser Insti­tute and it’s hard to find any being audited. And of course local churches make up approx­i­mately half of the 85,000 reg­is­tered char­i­ties in Canada and many of the rest are schools, hos­pi­tals, and health-related charities—and they don’t seem to be get­ting many audits above the 800–900 yearly “ran­dom” audits con­ducted by CRA. Yet many of them also advo­cate on public-policy changes and employ “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties.” Can­cer and drink­ing char­i­ties, for exam­ple, pres­sured the gov­ern­ment to bring in increas­ingly strict cig­a­rette reg­u­la­tions and mas­sively stepped up drunk-driving enforce­ment. That’s “polit­i­cal activity.”

So, who is tar­geted for “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” audits, of which 60 will be per­formed in 2013–2015? Pri­mar­ily three sec­tors: envi­ron­men­tal groups that chal­lenge the government’s petroleum-based eco­nomic strat­egy and/or draw the atten­tion of Eth­i­cal Oil, development/human rights orga­ni­za­tions, and char­i­ties receiv­ing monies from trade unions. And a sprin­kling of oth­ers. Almost all of which are “pro­gres­sive” in ori­en­ta­tion. And there’s your answer.

But why? What’s the point of audit­ing these orga­ni­za­tions? What does it accom­plish for gov­ern­ment, for the petro­leum indus­try, and for pub­lic con­ver­sa­tions on impor­tant issues? Those are for upcom­ing blog postings.

Mean­while, check out my Master’s the­sis.


I am a for­mer jour­nal­ist and media man­ager who recently com­pleted my Master’s the­sis for Royal Roads Uni­ver­sity and now work as a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sional. I have earned a Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among other awards, for my reporting.

Categories: Uncategorized

Targeting Enviros for Audits an ‘Insidious’ Process


Has the fed­eral gov­ern­ment directly inter­fered in the oper­a­tions of Canada Rev­enue Agency (CRA), telling them which char­i­ties to audit for “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties”? Or is there some other way that the gov­ern­ment ensures the tax man tar­gets tthose char­i­ties advo­cat­ing for dif­fer­ent pub­lic poli­cies than those pur­sued by the cab­i­net? Espe­cially envi­ron­men­tal issues con­cern­ing the petro­leum industry.

It’s a ques­tion very much on the minds of the char­ity lead­ers and experts that I spoke to anony­mously in research­ing my the­sis, which asked what is the effect on char­i­ties of the denun­ca­tory rhetoric and audit­ing actions taken by the cur­rent fed­eral government.

Some char­ity lead­ers think that a cab­i­net min­is­ter sim­ply told senior CRA staff to audit cer­tain char­ity sec­tors, par­tic­u­larly envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions and oth­ers doing energy-policy research and advo­cacy. Since then, I’ve found that other sec­tors have been tar­geted by CRA for inves­ti­ga­tion or audits, the sub­ject of my next post.

But the gov­ern­ment does not need to whis­per in anyone’s ear to get heard at CRA, and to point them in the desired direc­tion. First, remem­ber that in the 2012 fed­eral bud­get, while other min­istries had their fund­ing cut back, CRA was given an addi­tional $8 mil­lion over two years to, among other things, audit char­i­ties for “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties.” Mean­while, CRA has received many for­mal, lawyer signed, com­plaints against orga­ni­za­tions work­ing on energy-related issues, from Eth­i­cal Oil. That’s an activist orga­ni­za­tion that Green­peace has sug­gested is tied to Big Oil and was founded by a for­mer polit­i­cal staffer of cab­i­net min­is­ter Jason Ken­ney who was later hired into the Prime Minister’s Office.

So the money was there, and the direc­tive to step up audit­ing, and com­plaints were in the files of many, mainly envi­ron­men­tal, orga­ni­za­tions. And I was told by my par­tic­i­pants that envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions tend to have more resources devoted to “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” than some other sec­tors (they are per­mit­ted up to 10 per­cent of their resources to be used to pres­sure gov­ern­ment to change or keep poli­cies but few I inter­viewed said that they came any­where near that figure).

So, per­haps the min­is­ter spoke to a senior CRA man­ager who spoke to, a super­vi­sor, who spoke to a junior, and so on down the line. But many of the par­tic­i­pants agreed that a more “insid­i­ous” process, as one char­ity leader put it, could achieve the same result. After all, CRA staff can hear the gov­ern­ment rail­ing against envi­ron­men­tal­ists as clearly as any of us. And then

if the CRA takes their polit­i­cal direc­tion, which is to look at the “polit­i­cal activ­ity” of orga­ni­za­tions, and here are some resources to do that, and then they go and see what are the com­plaints against “polit­i­cal activ­ity,” then they can draw the con­clu­sion that that’s how they arrived at this par­tic­u­lar sector.

And that’s how the envi­ron­men­tal sec­tor may have been tar­geted for audits. And though I found that other sec­tors are also being tar­geted, the main focus is def­i­nitely on envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions and oth­ers advo­cat­ing energy poli­cies that dif­fer from the cur­rent government’s stated goal of mak­ing Canada an energy super­power. A pol­icy that no doubt makes the petro­leum indus­try and its spin-offs very happy.

So, a cab­i­net min­is­ter does not have to directly instruct CRA harass­ment of any one sec­tor. The process could be politi­cized by con­struct­ing a fun­nel that points CRA in the direc­tion that the gov­ern­ment wants them to go. But politi­cized it clearly is.

But that just leads to more ques­tions for future blogs. What other sec­tors are tar­geted? Is CRA defin­ing “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” dif­fer­ently than before, now view­ing any­thing that chal­lenges gov­ern­ment pol­icy as being “par­ti­san?” What is Eth­i­cal Oil and why are they lay­ing com­plaints against char­ity orga­ni­za­tions? Is there a strong con­nec­tion between Eth­i­cal Oil, the oil indus­try, the cur­rent fed­eral gov­ern­ment, and the Con­ser­v­a­tive Party of Canada?

Check out my Master’s the­sis.

I am a for­mer jour­nal­ist and media man­ager who recently com­pleted my Master’s the­sis for Royal Roads Uni­ver­sity and now work as a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sional. I have earned a Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among other awards, for my reporting.

Categories: Uncategorized