Abuse by Conservatives on Finance Committee Verify Thesis Findings


Prior to my tes­ti­fy­ing at the Stand­ing Finance Com­mit­tee in Ottawa on Octo­ber 27 about my the­sis find­ings, the peo­ple I sur­veyed sug­gested that one of two things would hap­pen. Option one, the Lib­er­als and New Democ­rats would be friendly and ask ques­tions that elab­o­rated on my tes­ti­mony, but the Con­ser­v­a­tive major­ity on the com­mit­tee would ignore me.

After all, there was the committee’s response when oppo­si­tion com­mit­tee mem­ber Mur­ray Rankin of Vic­to­ria, BC pre­vi­ously intro­duced a motion call­ing on the gov­ern­ment to appoint an inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tor. The inves­ti­ga­tor would exam­ine alle­ga­tions (includ­ing my the­sis find­ings) that the gov­ern­ment has politi­cized Canada Rev­enue Agency. But the committee’s Con­ser­v­a­tive major­ity forced an in-camera dis­cus­sion and then refused to allow the motion.

Alter­na­tively, I was told, the Con­ser­v­a­tives will be aggres­sive and go for the throat of the tes­ti­fy­ing researcher who kicked off the national con­ver­sa­tion about the CRA politi­ciza­tion. My work was widely dis­sem­i­nated in media, spread­ing the mes­sage about the result­ing muf­fling and dis­tract­ing of char­i­ties from their mis­sions, and the abuse of power/bullying of these expert orga­ni­za­tions. The results are to the detri­ment of strong debate about impor­tant pol­icy options such as whether to expand the oil­sands, build pipelines, and export bitu­men by ship to Asia.

After all, Cana­di­ans recently wit­nessed the bul­ly­ing of pros­ti­tutes tes­ti­fy­ing to a com­mit­tee about the con­tro­ver­sial new bill that they say would con­tinue to put their lives at risk.

Being ignored. Or being bul­lied. Fine choice. But such are our times.

And sure enough, the response to my tes­ti­mony, or more par­tic­u­larly the behav­iour of two Con­ser­v­a­tive mem­bers, became a metaphor for the government’s cur­rent rela­tion­ship with civil soci­ety groups, and par­tic­u­larly char­i­ties: bul­ly­ing, attempted silenc­ing, men­dac­ity, and abuse of power.

Lib­eral and NDP mem­bers of the com­mit­tee (Rankin for the NDP and Lib­eral Arnold Chan of Ontario), did indeed ask pointed ques­tions that enabled me to elab­o­rate just a bit on my tes­ti­mony. I wish they’d asked more, because I had lots to say, but the tes­ti­mony of co-panelist bankers, accoun­tants and small busi­ness wit­nesses also required clar­i­fi­ca­tions and elaborations.

Most Con­ser­v­a­tives ignored me but two lay in wait­ing. Ger­ald Keddy, after not­ing he’d been research­ing me as well as my the­sis, pro­ceeded to rant about my research method. He clearly pre­ferred that I do a sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis of the opin­ions of a large num­ber of char­ity lead­ers and CRA staffers, all of them open with their names. I had to ask him if he had a ques­tion for me and then he just cut me off again any­way. Clearly, more inter­ested in “uni­logue” than dialogue.

But the kind of study that Keddy seemed to pre­fer was not pos­si­ble in the cur­rent polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment and the very real fear of peo­ple in the char­ity sec­tor. His government’s behav­iour was the direct cause of the approach taken with interviews.

My biggest early chal­lenge was get­ting char­ity lead­ers to speak to me at all despite the promise of full anonymity, so scared are they of ret­ri­bu­tion from the tax­man under this cur­rent gov­ern­ment. Some lead­ers were not even happy my study was tak­ing place. Even three of five sec­tor experts (which included lawyers, for­mer senior CRA staff, fundrais­ing pro­fes­sion­als, sec­tor insid­ers, and aca­d­e­mics) wanted guar­an­teed anonymity.

A few char­ity lead­ers and two experts were will­ing to be iden­ti­fi­able to vary­ing degrees, but I chose to keep every­one on an equal foot­ing. (And lest we cast these peo­ple as victims—participants and those who refused—I also note that most were very happy that my study was occur­ring and some were eager to par­tic­i­pate if they and their orga­ni­za­tions were pro­tected from direct or indi­rect identification.)

Keddy also care­fully, so very care­fully, con­fused the polit­i­cally moti­vated new “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” audits of char­i­ties with the per­fectly rea­son­able finan­cial and pro­gram audits that char­i­ties have always under­gone on a ran­dom basis or if there is an appar­ent prob­lem with the char­ity. Keddy is cor­rect that audits are a nec­es­sary and use­ful fact of life and char­i­ties should expect them. Char­ity lead­ers I inter­viewed wanted to be clear that they favour them. This men­dac­ity, an attempt to con­fuse the pub­lic about the kind of audits in this new pro­gram, has been a cen­tral plank of the government’s response to my the­sis, along with asser­tions by senior CRA admin­is­tra­tors that they’re not being influ­enced by the government’s agenda.

But my the­sis is about the polit­i­cally moti­vated audits designed to muf­fle and dis­tract char­i­ties from their Mis­sions (or “chill” and instill fear) while the gov­ern­ment imple­ments a series of con­tentious eco­nomic and envi­ron­men­tal poli­cies and ide­o­log­i­cal priorities.

It’s hard to find other exam­ples in Cana­dian his­tory of a gov­ern­ment deter­mined to abuse its power by so sys­tem­at­i­cally mar­gin­al­iz­ing alter­na­tive pol­icy ideas through defund­ing, end­ing con­sul­ta­tions, fir­ing sci­en­tists, “man­ag­ing” other sci­en­tists and their stud­ies, and going after civil soci­ety organizations—see Voices-Voix web­site for an in-depth cat­a­logue of actions.

In any case, those in the room and on TV were treated to Keddy’s art­ful rant, aimed at under­min­ing the cred­i­bil­ity of the study and the researcher through attack­ing the research method.

Con­ser­v­a­tive com­mit­tee mem­ber Mark Adler from Ontario was even more charm­ing in his rant. I had to chal­lenge him to ask me a ques­tion: how I could insist that there was polit­i­cal inter­fer­ence at CRA when even senior staffers deny it. He very rudely, child­ishly even, pro­ceeded to talk over me as I explained the “fun­nel” con­structed by his gov­ern­ment to move CRA to audit­ing cer­tain char­i­ties. I called him on it.

He asked the Con­ser­v­a­tive chair, James Rajotte of Alberta if it was not true that it was his seven min­utes. A bemused look­ing Rajotte affirmed that it was indeed Adler’s seven min­utes, but that it would be good to allow the wit­ness to answer his question.

Though he returned to his rant, Adler was by then bright red and main­tained the com­plex­ion for the rest of the meet­ing. I don’t know what infu­ri­ated him so—was it hear­ing my the­sis find­ings entered into the Par­lia­men­tary record, my insis­tence on answer­ing his rant, or the chair’s chid­ing his rude behaviour?

Of course, Adler’s and Keddy’s attacks are an old PR tac­tic. I can under­stand that Con­ser­v­a­tives are unhappy to hear some­one tes­tify about the impacts of their government’s cor­rup­tion of the tra­di­tional sep­a­ra­tion of the polit­i­cal and admin­is­tra­tive arms of government—and espe­cially the tax­man of all depart­ments. The tac­tic is not to argue the research, but to trash the study and researcher. It is an unimag­i­na­tive response (and one that, in a dif­fer­ent con­text, makes it hard to make progress on address­ing cli­mate change), but one of the hoary old tools in the PR toolbox.

What I tried, not with com­plete suc­cess, was to avoid giv­ing defen­sive answers about my the­sis find­ings or method. I felt, I still feel, secure in the method and integrity of my research. It’s solid research, so I’m not inter­ested in par­tic­i­pat­ing in an attempt by gov­ern­ment mem­bers to change the con­ver­sa­tion in that direc­tion. For the record, I fol­lowed ethics pro­to­cols, uti­lized per­haps the most esteemed qual­i­ta­tive research method (grounded the­ory), and my final paper was approved by my committee.

It was tempt­ing to note, but I resisted, that my school had nom­i­nated me for a Gov­er­nor General’s Gold Medal and that I also earned a Pub­lic Ethnog­ra­phy Award. It was tempt­ing, when Rankin con­grat­u­lated me on the qual­ity of my the­sis, to note that I felt hon­oured to hear that praise com­ing from the for­mer Dean of Law at Uni­ver­sity of Vic­to­ria, given that he, cer­tainly more than any other panel mem­ber (ahem!), actu­ally knew what he was talk­ing about when dis­cussing research.

It’s easy to second-guess, and I’ve gone over it a few times in my head, but I think I made the right deci­sion in mainly avoid­ing the bait­ing and stick­ing to the topic—my the­sis find­ings and their impli­ca­tions for improv­ing CRA reg­u­la­tions and processes and behav­iour of the gov­ern­ment itself. Some who saw the meet­ing said that I han­dled myself well under attack, espe­cially in politely push­ing back and insist­ing on ques­tions and a chance to answer.

I guess I’ll know how it came off when I view the video record­ing of the event and read the tran­script. If noth­ing else, I can use the video for teach­ing media train­ing work­shops. It will pro­vide exam­ples of what to do and what to avoid when encoun­ter­ing politi­cians who ignore their mother’s guid­ance on the impor­tance of polite­ness and respect, and who for­get that the pur­pose of the com­mit­tee sys­tem is to hear from mem­bers of the pub­lic rather than insult, bully, and attempt to silence them.

Keddy and Adler stood in for their gov­ern­ment per­haps more than they real­ized and served as liv­ing exam­ples of what my inter­views with char­ity lead­ers and experts found: the cur­rent gov­ern­ment is abus­ing power and dam­ag­ing democ­racy in its attempt to muf­fle pol­icy ideas that dif­fer from their own through bul­ly­ing indi­vid­u­als and groups. And they try to shout down peo­ple and ideas they don’t like rather than debate them maturely.


Have you checked out my Master’s the­sis? Feel free to for­ward and tweet it. Check out media cov­er­age of my the­sis find­ings and the national con­ver­sa­tion it trig­gered. 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 com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­fes­sional. I have been awarded the Jack Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among oth­ers, for my report­ing and edit­ing. My the­sis was nom­i­nated for a Gov­er­nor General’s Gold Medal, and I was hon­oured to earn a Pub­lic Ethnog­ra­phy Award.

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Gareth Kirkby’s Thesis Testimony to Canada’s Finance Committee


I tes­ti­fied before the Stand­ing Com­mit­tee of Finance in Par­lia­ment Octo­ber 27, 2014 about the find­ings of my Master’s the­sis, Unchar­i­ta­ble Chill. Below is my testimony.

I’m here today to share with you the impli­ca­tions of the find­ings of my Master’s the­sis. I inter­viewed 16 lead­ers of char­i­ties of var­i­ous sizes, in five sec­tors, and five provinces. Also, 5 char­ity experts.

The lead­ers spoke, most on con­di­tion of anonymity, of the impact on their orga­ni­za­tions of the threat of CRA audits for polit­i­cal activ­i­ties, and the rhetoric of cab­i­net min­is­ters since 2012 con­flat­ing char­i­ties with money-launderers, crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tions, and even ter­ror­ist organizations.

My study dis­cov­ered that char­i­ties are being muf­fled in their com­mu­ni­ca­tions and dis­tracted from their pub­licly ben­e­fi­cial mis­sions by these gov­ern­ment actions.

Stud­ies show most char­i­ties have less than 3% of their resources going toward “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” as seem­ingly defined by reg­u­la­tions. My data sug­gests that even those orga­ni­za­tions tar­geted by CRA are on aver­age well under the allow­able 10% of resources devoted to polit­i­cal activities.

Clearly, there is no obvi­ous prob­lem that needs address­ing through stepped-up auditing—the pre-2012 audit­ing regime was suf­fi­cient. Few char­i­ties exceed polit­i­cal activ­ity lim­its as they are gen­er­ally under­stood, a fact con­firmed by how few char­i­ties have pub­licly been iden­ti­fied by CRA as being out of line. This beg­gars the ques­tion as to why the gov­ern­ment would devote $13.4 mil­lion to beef up polit­i­cal activ­ity audits, while, to use a recent exam­ple, reas­sign­ing audit­ing staff pur­su­ing gen­uine criminals—tax evaders who shift their money to off-shore tax havens.

I found that the gov­ern­ment is using the tax col­lec­tor to fight par­ti­san bat­tles against char­i­ties that have dif­fer­ent pub­lic pol­icy pref­er­ences to the gov­ern­ment. Researchers who have long stud­ied the vol­un­tary sec­tor have since 2012 found evi­dence of politi­ciza­tion of CRA. I am not the first to warn that some­thing is seri­ously amiss. My con­tri­bu­tion is in detail­ing the effects on char­i­ties and national con­ver­sa­tions and explor­ing some of the impli­ca­tions for the health of democracy.

I would sug­gest that the clearly unnec­es­sary new political-activities audit pro­gram should be aban­doned. Rather than find­ing a nest of cheat­ing char­i­ties, this audit pro­gram is muf­fling and dis­tract­ing char­i­ties from their Mis­sions. Mis­sions that their cit­i­zen sup­port­ers pre­sum­ably want them focused on. Char­i­ties are experts in their Mis­sion areas, and Cana­di­ans know that. The pro­gram is thus inter­fer­ing with impor­tant national con­ver­sa­tions about pub­lic pol­icy choices, arguably at the very time in our his­tory that we need the widest pos­si­ble input from experts.

A demo­c­ra­tic soci­ety needs to hear all sides of an issue. Why, my inter­view sub­jects kept ask­ing, is our fed­eral gov­ern­ment afraid of vig­or­ous national dis­cus­sions? Some answered their own ques­tion, and that can be found in my thesis.

I’d like to raise another major issue that came to light in my research. The lack of clear def­i­n­i­tions of spe­cific terms in the reg­u­la­tions leaves char­i­ties con­fused and receiv­ing dif­fer­ent advice from dif­fer­ent lawyers.

The exam­ples posted on the CRA web­site for char­i­ties to apply to real-life sit­u­a­tions, while acknowl­edg­ing an improve­ment over the sit­u­a­tion before 2002, are described by some char­ity lead­ers as “naïve” and “unhelpful.”

There are numer­ous “grey areas” open to too much inter­pre­ta­tion. Allow­ing peo­ple to stay in a state of con­fu­sion despite years of feed­back about vague def­i­n­i­tions and illus­tra­tions, leads some to think that this is inten­tional. On top of that, some char­ity lead­ers believe that politi­ciza­tion of CRA since 2012, has resulted in these spe­cial audits using new inter­pre­ta­tions of the reg­u­la­tions. Char­i­ties that have repeat­edly passed pre­vi­ous, in-depth audit­ing, worry about results this time. That’s a head-scratcher.

Char­i­ties do impor­tant work that has his­tor­i­cally had all-party sup­port. This audit­ing pro­gram and the government’s con­fronta­tional rhetoric is not help­ing address society’s needs. And it is hurt­ing all char­i­ties, includ­ing those beyond the tar­geted sectors.

Thank you for invit­ing me to present today.

Have you checked out my Master’s the­sis? Feel free to for­ward and tweet it. Check out media cov­er­age of my the­sis find­ings and the national con­ver­sa­tion it trig­gered. 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 com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­fes­sional. I have been awarded the Jack Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among oth­ers, for my report­ing and editing.

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Is CRA Avoiding Audits of Right-leaning Charities Filing Inaccurate Returns?


The Broad­bent Insti­tute is call­ing for an inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tion into CRA audit­ing choices after a study by the left-leaning non­profit (but not char­ity) found strange inconsistencies.

The study con­clu­sions sug­gest that pro­gres­sive crit­ics of the Harper government’s pub­lic poli­cies are being tar­geted by CRA while right-leaning char­i­ties are get­ting spe­cial treat­ment despite seem­ingly inac­cu­rate annual reports.

Their find­ings
add to what has been acknowl­edged by pol­icy aca­d­e­mics since 2012, as out­lined in my the­sis, that Canada’s tax­man has been politi­cized by the cur­rent fed­eral gov­ern­ment and its cred­i­bil­ity compromised.

The insti­tute, named after for­mer fed­eral NDP leader Ed Broad­bent, looked at the web­sites and other pub­lic com­mu­ni­ca­tions of 10 right-leaning char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions that have declared that 0% of their resources were devoted to allow­able “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties.” The dec­la­ra­tions were made on the annual fil­ings to CRA for the three years of 2011–2013 and are pub­licly available.

Despite the char­i­ties hav­ing declared no polit­i­cal activ­i­ties, the Broad­bent study found exam­ples of appar­ent “polit­i­cal activ­ity” com­mu­ni­ca­tions for all 10 orga­ni­za­tions in each of the three years.

Some of the sam­ples are fairly mild calls for changes in gov­ern­ment poli­cies or con­tin­u­a­tion of policies—as per­mit­ted under CRA reg­u­la­tions. Oth­ers have more bite to them in their call for changes—again gen­er­ally per­mit­ted so long as a respect­ful tone is used. But a few com­ments seem to be push­ing up against the unfor­tu­nately fuzzy line where allow­able polit­i­cal activ­i­ties cross over into for­bid­den par­ti­san activ­i­ties (includ­ing one which seems to call on the leader of an oppo­si­tion party to pull the plug on a gov­ern­ment and force an elec­tion in order to stop a pol­icy being imple­mented). I would argue that the def­i­n­i­tion of par­ti­san activ­i­ties is too broad, but the issue here is about whether CRA is sin­gling out for audits those char­i­ties that have dif­fer­ent public-policy posi­tions than that of the cur­rent fed­eral government.

As reg­u­lar read­ers of this blog know, tax reg­u­la­tions allow char­i­ties to devote up to 10% of their resources (and higher for smaller char­i­ties) to polit­i­cal activ­i­ties. But these char­i­ties declared 0% despite what cer­tainly looks to an edu­cated observer to be meet the def­i­n­i­tion used by CRA (it must be noted that there is some con­fu­sion in the sec­tor about def­i­n­i­tions, but many of these par­tic­u­lar char­i­ties are large enough to afford to hir­ing char­ity lawyers to reduce their risk).

In con­trast, some left-leaning char­i­ties, or char­i­ties doing work on envi­ron­men­tal, human rights and inter­na­tional devel­op­ment, and social issues are being audited for polit­i­cal activ­i­ties despite hav­ing declared those activ­i­ties in their fil­ings. In most cases these orga­ni­za­tions have declared polit­i­cal activ­i­ties at 3% or less of their resources. Often, they are at 1–2%. The high­est of those audited pro­gres­sive char­i­ties is Envi­ron­men­tal Defence which declared a declin­ing per­cent­age, from 8%, 7%, and 5% in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively—still well below the 10% limit.

The obvi­ous ques­tion is why the unequal treat­ment? Why are orga­ni­za­tions that declare 0% polit­i­cal activ­ity when they seem­ingly are par­tic­i­pat­ing in polit­i­cal activ­i­ties not being audited, while some of the most respected char­i­ties in Canada are being audited despite hav­ing doc­u­mented their polit­i­cal activ­ity to CRA?

Could it be that CRA is audit­ing char­i­ties that declare polit­i­cal activ­i­ties, while assum­ing that they don’t need to worry about those who do not declare polit­i­cal activ­i­ties? Cer­tainly, that would be inept. But the sus­pi­cion, of course, is that the deci­sions about which char­i­ties to audit is rooted in darker impulses.

And the study also asks why the right-leaning char­i­ties seem not to know what con­sti­tutes a polit­i­cal activ­ity when the def­i­n­i­tion (though not crys­tal clear) is right there on the CRA web­site. “It raises ques­tions about the accu­racy of the fil­ings” of the 10 char­i­ties to CRA, notes the study. I’ll say.

The study care­fully notes that “the evi­dence pre­sented here is not intended to ques­tion whether these char­i­ties should or shouldn’t be engaged in polit­i­cal activ­ity. Rather, it is meant to raise ques­tions about how the CRA’s def­i­n­i­tion of polit­i­cal activ­ity is being inter­preted and the trans­parency of the CRA’s process for deter­min­ing which groups to audit.” They see bias.

In con­clud­ing, the Broad­bent report flags the grow­ing belief that the Harper gov­ern­ment has a pro­gram aimed at silenc­ing dis­sent (my the­sis used the word “muf­fling,” though some char­ity lead­ers and experts I inter­viewed pre­ferred “silenc­ing”). And it referred to the ”mount­ing evi­dence of a politi­cized CRA” before call­ing for an inde­pen­dent inquiry into CRA processes to ensure its fair­ness in enforc­ing reg­u­la­tions in the face of polit­i­cal interference.

Pro­gres­sive or con­ser­v­a­tive, the blunt­ing of the abil­ity of civil soci­ety to advo­cate and to engage in that most fun­da­men­tal demo­c­ra­tic right—debate, and occa­sion­ally, dissent—should con­cern us all.”

As I’ve blogged pre­vi­ously, the solu­tion is not to audit right-leaning char­i­ties. Instead, the answer lies in call­ing off this witch-hunt and depoliti­cize CRA. And for gov­ern­ment to stop view­ing as ene­mies those in soci­ety, includ­ing expert char­i­ties, that have dif­fer­ent pub­lic pol­icy ideas than the cabinet.

Though the mech­a­nism remains debated, my the­sis found that the gov­ern­ment has influ­enced CRA to tar­get cer­tain char­i­ta­ble sec­tors, and pri­mar­ily from the pro­gres­sive end of the polit­i­cal spec­trum. And that the con­se­quence is dam­age to democ­racy from this bul­ly­ing abuse of power, and the loss of expert input to pub­lic pol­icy debates as char­i­ties alter their com­mu­ni­ca­tions out of fear of audits. Except, appar­ently, the right-leaning char­i­ties stud­ied by the Broad­bent Institute.

List of Char­i­ties Stud­ied for Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Activ­i­ties
Atlantic Insti­tute for Mar­ket Stud­ies
Cana­dian Con­sti­tu­tion Foun­da­tion
CD Howe Insti­tute
Energy Probe Research Foun­da­tion
Fraser Insti­tute
Focus on the Fam­ily
Fron­tier Cen­tre for Pub­lic Pol­icy
Insti­tute for Cana­dian Val­ues
Macdonald-Laurier Insti­tute
Mon­treal Eco­nomic Forum

Mean­while, please check out my Master’s the­sis and feel free to for­ward and tweet it. Check out media cov­er­age of my the­sis find­ings and the national con­ver­sa­tion it trig­gered. 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 com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­fes­sional. I have been awarded the Jack Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among oth­ers, for my report­ing and editing.

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Smoking Gun Not Needed to Find Abuse of Power


Have the bird­watch­ers in Water­loo county found a smok­ing gun prov­ing direct gov­ern­ment inter­fer­ence in Canada Rev­enue Agency’s audits of the “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” of char­i­ties? I don’t think so, but it’s sure start­ing to add weight to those who claim so.

The char­ity lead­ers and experts I inter­viewed for my the­sis were divided about whether the gov­ern­ment directly inter­fered in the audit­ing process of CRA or whether it indi­rectly pushed CRA in the direc­tion of audit­ing char­i­ties that got in the way of the Harper cabinet’s pol­icy priorities.

Some char­ity lead­ers spoke of a peer who allegedly has a doc­u­ment that points to a min­is­ter telling the tax­man to audit their orga­ni­za­tion. Per­haps so. But I couldn’t get near that alleged doc­u­ment holder and nobody else was shar­ing any­thing resem­bling ink on paper or fin­gers hav­ing graced a key­board. So per­haps the doc­u­ment exists and will emerge in due course. Cer­tainly, some of CRA deci­sions around audits are strange, includ­ing at least a cou­ple of char­i­ties being in a vir­tu­ally per­pet­ual audit. If that’s not an abuse of author­ity, it’s hard to imag­ine what is.

In con­trast, there is plenty of evi­dence of indi­rect stage-managing by the gov­ern­ment to push CRA to the char­i­ties that are caus­ing has­sles for the gov­ern­ment and its resource indus­try friends. I shall elab­o­rate that below, but first let’s look at some recent news that seems to add a few weights to the side of the scale for those who believe there is direct interference.

The lat­est news, more great work by reporter Dean Beeby who recently left Cana­dian Press to head to CBC, con­cerns a group of ama­teur nat­u­ral­ists in semi-rural Water­loo County. The Kitchener-Waterloo Field Nat­u­ral­ists received a “warn­ing let­ter” from CRA after they made pub­lic com­ments that the tax­man found prob­lem­atic. CRA, to its credit, sent a let­ter rather than audit­ing the group for polit­i­cal activ­i­ties. That’s prob­a­bly just as well for the gov­ern­ment. I used to work as a jour­nal­ist in K-W and area, and in my expe­ri­ence the mem­ber­ship of the ama­teur nat­u­ral­ists and bird-watching groups heav­ily leaned toward middle-class Con­ser­v­a­tive voters.

For­mer group leader Roger Suf­fling told Beeby that the let­ter arrived soon after the group had writ­ten to two fed­eral cab­i­net min­is­ters to protest government-approved chem­i­cals that sci­en­tists believe are caus­ing cat­a­strophic declines in bee colonies. The CRA let­ter arrived just days before a let­ter of response from Envi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Leona Aglukkaq, and Suf­fling sees a con­nec­tion. The group has also invited a guest speaker to speak about the oil­sands and has pub­licly defended the Endan­gered Species Act from gov­ern­ment weakening.

Suf­fling has writ­ten on a blog that the field nat­u­ral­ists have reacted to the warn­ing let­ter by choos­ing silence. In my research, I spoke to char­ity lead­ers who had expe­ri­enced their boards of direc­tors, or those of col­leagues, pull sharply back from speak­ing pub­licly out of fear of being audited by CRA. I found that the Harper gov­ern­ment was try­ing, with some suc­cess, to muf­fle and dis­tract char­i­ties from their mis­sions. And in some cases silenc­ing them.

The reg­u­la­tions allow char­i­ties to devote 10 per­cent of their resources (up to 20% for smaller char­i­ties) to polit­i­cal activ­i­ties so long as they do not cross the line into party pol­i­tics. But it’s under­stand­able when peo­ple get scared and with­draw, to the detri­ment to our soci­ety which loses the expert input of these groups.

In any case, the tim­ing of the let­ter may point to polit­i­cal inter­fer­ence. It’s evi­dence for con­sid­er­a­tion, but it’s not proof.

Yet more evi­dence comes from the results of Access to Infor­ma­tion requests by the Cana­dian Cen­tre for Pol­icy Alter­na­tives, which has been under­go­ing a CRA audit into its polit­i­cal activ­i­ties since autumn 2013. CRA con­ducted a review of the web­site of the left-leaning think-tank (one of very few left-leaning think-tanks in Canada, com­pared to many more that are right-leaning) before con­clud­ing that an audit was nec­es­sary. A one-page sum­mary con­cluded that the web­site review “sug­gests that the orga­ni­za­tion may be car­ry­ing out pro­hib­ited par­ti­san polit­i­cal activ­i­ties, and that much of its research/educational mate­ri­als may be biased/one-sided.”

Though the CRA doc­u­ment referred to two prior audits of “polit­i­cal activ­ity” in 1989–90 and 2002, CCPA exec­u­tive direc­tor Bruce Camp­bell says that if CRA had pre­vi­ous con­cerns, they were not shared with the think-tank. Camp­bell also notes, and I think any­one who views the web­sites of any think-tank (e.g. the Fraser Insti­tute, the Mon­treal Eco­nomic Insti­tute) will agree, that these research insti­tutes all approach their work informed by a “core set of val­ues” though the study find­ings are based on data.

CCPA declares 1% polit­i­cal activ­ity in its annual fil­ing, so why was it sin­gled out for polit­i­cal activ­ity audits—it’s got room for nine times as much polit­i­cal activ­ity as it’s declar­ing. And why are none of the right-leaning think-tanks under­go­ing polit­i­cal activ­ity audits when their web­sites also clearly speak for cer­tain pol­icy changes?

Is it because it chal­lenges eco­nomic poli­cies of the cur­rent gov­ern­ment, such as through its annual Alter­na­tive Bud­get, while the right-leaning think-tanks come from the same philo­soph­i­cal per­spec­tive as the Harper cab­i­net and merely chal­lenge it to go even fur­ther in that direction?

At the very least, the expe­ri­ence of CCPA sup­ports the claims made to me by other char­i­ties that the CRA is chang­ing its inter­pre­ta­tions of reg­u­la­tions. Char­ity lead­ers have long been con­fused by unclear reg­u­la­tions and are now wor­ried that head­way made since 2002 in CRA com­mu­ni­ca­tions is being thrown into reverse.

There’s no smoke vis­i­ble yet. But if you sniff the gun-barrel, it seems to me that there’s increas­ing evi­dence of a recently dis­charged weapon.

But my the­sis finds that a smok­ing gun show­ing direct gov­ern­ment inter­ven­tion is not even the point in the CRA audits.

At the end of the day, I con­clude, it does not really mat­ter whether a cab­i­net min­is­ter whis­pered to a deputy min­is­ter who whis­pered to a sub­or­di­nate who made things hap­pen. If another, indi­rect, route was taken to the same effect, the result is still cor­rup­tion of the proper dis­tance between the polit­i­cal and admin­is­tra­tive arms of gov­ern­ment, I con­cluded. There’s clear evi­dence that the Harper cab­i­net is using CRA to fight its pol­icy bat­tles and view­ing as ene­mies those orga­ni­za­tions that have dif­fer­ent pol­icy ideas than the cab­i­net. I found a fun­nel pushed CRA to audit those enemy charities.

First step in the fun­nel was the over-the-top rhetoric start­ing in 2012 com­par­ing char­i­ties, par­tic­u­larly envi­ron­men­tal char­i­ties, to money-launderers, crim­i­nals, ter­ror­ists and well, un-Canadian pat­sies of US interests.

A cou­ple years ear­lier, a polit­i­cal oper­a­tive in cab­i­net min­is­ter Jason Kenney’s office had taken a leave to found Eth­i­cal Oil, an apol­o­gist orga­ni­za­tion for the Cana­dian petro­leum indus­try that refuses to answer whether it is funded by pipeline oper­a­tor Enbridge. Eth­i­cal Oil started fil­ing com­plaints against envi­ron­men­tal and other char­i­ties who were work­ing on energy-related issues that could impact on the petro­leum indus­try. The polit­i­cal oper­a­tive returned to the Con­ser­v­a­tive fold with a pro­mo­tion to the Prime Minister’s Office.

In the 2012 bud­get, after the vicious rhetoric had begun, some $8 mil­lion (now raised to $13.4 mil­lion) was allo­cated to CRA, along with spe­cific instruc­tions to, among other things, audit char­i­ties for polit­i­cal activ­i­ties. When CRA started check­ing files, they found that some char­i­ties had mul­ti­ple com­plaints against them from Eth­i­cal Oil. Guess which char­i­ties got the brunt of the first round of polit­i­cal activ­ity audits?

So, that’s the “fun­nel” that drove CRA to tar­get the char­i­ties the gov­ern­ment wanted muf­fled and dis­tracted from their mis­sions, mis­sions that got in the way of a full-steam-ahead devel­op­ment of nat­ural resources, par­tic­u­larly the oil­sands. Of course, other orga­ni­za­tions were also hurt by this activ­ity, but there are always civil­ian deaths in a bomb­ing cam­paign, and the Harper cab­i­net was treat­ing as ene­mies those orga­ni­za­tions that had dif­fer­ent pol­icy ideas on key issues.

So, a fun­nel, yes. And just as effec­tive it seems as a direct whis­per being passed through the senior ranks of CRA. Smart like a fox, if out of line with the sep­a­ra­tion of admin­is­tra­tive and polit­i­cal func­tions. And out of touch with the usual oper­a­tions of our democ­racy and the expec­ta­tions Cana­di­ans hold of their gov­ern­ment, I’d say.

Who knows what future Access to Infor­ma­tion requests will uncover, or whether the char­ity with the doc­u­ment prov­ing politi­ciza­tion, if it exists, comes for­ward? But, really: it doesn’t mat­ter whether the gov­ern­ment directly influ­enced CRA to tar­get cer­tain char­ity sec­tors with audits, or whether they con­structed a fun­nel. In either case, their rhetoric and audit­ing has muf­fled and dis­tracted char­i­ties. In either case, it was a cor­rup­tion of demo­c­ra­tic process.

Mean­while, please check out my Master’s the­sis and feel free to for­ward and tweet it. Check out media cov­er­age of my the­sis find­ings and the national con­ver­sa­tion it trig­gered. 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 com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­fes­sional. I have been awarded the Jack Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among oth­ers, for my report­ing and editing.

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Jim Deva: How Yoda Defeated the Emperor


Note: I wrote a ver­sion of this blog to com­mem­o­rate my friend, Jim Deva, a Van­cou­ver GLBT and anti-censorship activist and co-owner of Lit­tle Sister’s book­store. It was writ­ten for Xtra Van­cou­ver in print and can be found online at daily.xtra.ca.

Jim Deva faced the world with mis­chief writ large. His Yoda face—pointy ears, intense deep-blue eyes and tooth­less smile—conspired with a vis­i­tor: “I know you’ve been up to mis­chief,” his face said. “I like mis­chief, too. Tell me about it.”

You’d share. He’d share. His eyes would get even more intense and a tooth or two would appear.

At his core, Jim was a shit-disturber, the best kind: he always had a pur­pose in stir­ring it up. In eight years at the edi­to­r­ial helm of Xtra Van­cou­ver, I often inter­viewed him. For a while, I fre­quently met for break­fast with Jim and some­times his part­ner, Bruce. We were con­spir­ing a strate­gic com­mu­nity response to the mur­der of pho­tog­ra­pher Aaron Web­ster at the end of a base­ball bat in a gay cruis­ing area.

Jim was deeply affected by Webster’s death and plunged him­self into a multi-dimensional response. It must not be mean­ing­less, he insisted. It was a cat­alyz­ing event that could alter the flow of his­tory in how police, the Crown, and judges deal with the local gay—and extended—community. It’s par­tially achieved.

He wasn’t always strate­gic about an issue, some­times hold­ing his nose and jump­ing in. He was con­fi­dent that he would some­how best any croc­o­diles that might be await­ing him below. He fought big croc­o­diles, the biggest of which was Canada Cus­toms and the Cana­dian government.

Cus­toms dared put Jim’s young book­store at risk and more to the point, con­fis­cated the infor­ma­tion queers need to live safe, full, and diverse lives and cel­e­brate our sex­u­al­ity and cre­ative cul­ture. As detailed else­where, Lit­tle Sister’s won a par­tial court vic­tory over Canada Cus­toms. And in that very pub­lic jour­ney, Jim, Bruce and store man­ager Janine Fuller won over the Cana­dian pub­lic in a way still play­ing out through the con­tentious issues of mar­i­juana laws, pros­ti­tu­tion and gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance of all citizens.

He plunged equally into other issues, espe­cially those con­nect­ing directly to build­ing a diverse and wel­com­ing West End for gays through­out the region to build com­mu­nity. Jim helped get city hall acknowl­edge­ment of our com­mu­nity under COPE and now Vision. And more, oh so much more than most achieve in a lifetime.

He was often pas­sion­ately con­fronta­tional in meet­ings with power hold­ers. Jim knew from expe­ri­ence that progress on an issue requires begin­ning with vis­i­ble con­tention. You have to push against the sta­tus quo and also the tiny steps that some are pre­pared to set­tle for. Oth­er­wise, the pow­er­ful serve you ju-jubes from a gold plate while eat­ing steak them­selves. Ask for a lot, cre­ate fric­tion and dis­com­fort, set­tle for more than some are pre­pared to accept. Throw in a huge dose of love and good­will. Try to co-opt your adver­saries. Rinse, repeat. That was Jim’s approach and his legacy shows it works.

He loved to argue with friends, too. “Bull­shit, Kirkby,” he’d yell in the midst of light-hearted ban­ter at his store. And go off on a 10-minute rant that con­nected only tan­gen­tially to our orig­i­nal topic. It was a delight to expe­ri­ence. Rarely, he’d con­cede after a big laugh and, yes, with that con­spir­a­to­r­ial look on his face.

Jim’s legacy is a les­son in never set­tling. Fight for it all. From the right to own your own sex­u­al­ity and choose your own read­ing, to your right to a safe and ful­fill­ing life, to your responsibility—and pleasure—in build­ing an amaz­ing and cre­ative com­mu­nity. If we each do that, we will change the world.

To hon­our this five-foot-and-a-bit giant with the con­spir­a­to­r­ial gaze is to pick an issue you care about and fight for it with love in your heart.

Gareth Kirkby is a for­mer edi­tor and pub­lisher for Pink Tri­an­gle Press, pub­lisher of Xtra Vancouver.

Mean­while, please check out my Master’s the­sis and feel free to for­ward and tweet it. Check out media cov­er­age of my the­sis find­ings and the national con­ver­sa­tion it trig­gered. 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 com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­fes­sional. I have been awarded the Jack Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among oth­ers, for my report­ing and editing.

Categories: Uncategorized

Honored Bodies Dead or Gasping Along Harper’s Defunding Highway


The recent clo­sure announce­ment of the inter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized Cana­dian devel­op­ment orga­ni­za­tion, The North-South Insti­tute, is sadly just the lat­est in a series of civil soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions that have been hurt or wiped out by fund­ing cuts of the Harper government.

My the­sis details some of the pre­vi­ous actions that had the effect of nar­row­ing Canada’s national and even inter­na­tional conversations:

  • Upon com­ing to power, the cur­rent gov­ern­ment walked away from the national child­care plan, decades in the mak­ing and then elim­i­nated fund­ing for women’s orga­ni­za­tions that advo­cated for it, as well as women’s groups work­ing on a range of issues, and on lit­er­acy, First Nations and immi­grant issues;
  • The inter­na­tional devel­op­ment sec­tor has also been par­tic­u­larly hard-hit by defund­ing, includ­ing the Cana­dian Coun­cil for Inter­na­tional Coop­er­a­tion los­ing 70 per­cent of its fed­eral fund­ing in 2006 despite a 40-year part­ner­ship with gov­ern­ment. It has sur­vived as a shadow of what it once was and recently asked for a meet­ing with CRA to dis­cuss the taxman’s rela­tion­ship with their members;
  • Inter­na­tional devel­op­ment and human rights char­i­ties and non-profit orga­ni­za­tions have seen their fed­eral grants slashed and are forced to become vir­tual concierges to Cana­dian resource com­pa­nies that oper­ate inter­na­tion­ally in order to sur­vive. Mean­while, the Cana­dian Inter­na­tional Devel­op­ment Agency (CIDA), once inter­na­tion­ally acclaimed, has been restruc­tured until almost unrecognizable;

You can see some of what else has been cut on the Cana­dian Coun­cil for Pol­icy Alter­na­tives web­site and on Voices/Voix website.

One of the experts that I inter­viewed, com­ment­ing on the long list of civil-society orga­ni­za­tions defunded by the gov­ern­ment, said, “Etcetera, and a long list of etcetera, and I don’t think that by any means it has ended. … So, I’d argue that for many char­i­ties the empha­sis on polit­i­cal activ­i­ties and CRA audits is miss­ing the far more dan­ger­ous tool the gov­ern­ment is using in defund­ing charities.”

My the­sis draws on the research of Rachel Lafor­est of Queen’s Uni­ver­sity, who found that the cuts to orga­ni­za­tions engag­ing in advo­cacy have also hut asso­ci­a­tional net­works, “thereby restrict­ing avail­able routes cit­i­zens can use for mobi­liz­ing claims” and, through this means, wield suf­fi­cient power to influ­ence gov­ern­men­tal outcomes.

My the­sis found that char­i­ties were being muf­fled and dis­tracted by the extreme rhetoric of gov­ern­ment min­is­ters (treat­ing these expert orga­ni­za­tions as ene­mies of the State as well as of the Con­ser­v­a­tive Party) and by the prospect and real­ity of “polit­i­cal activ­ity” audits by Canada Rev­enue Agency. Muf­fling and dis­tract­ing charities.

But the gov­ern­ment went beyond that, to suc­cess­fully silence some the orga­ni­za­tions in the list above, and force oth­ers to focus resources on find­ing funds to con­tinue oper­at­ing and thus divert them from their mis­sions. Silenc­ing voices. Silenc­ing the expres­sion of impor­tant ideas, expert points of view, that hap­pened to point to dif­fer­ent pub­lic pol­icy choices than those favoured by the cur­rent cabinet.

And let’s not for­get the muf­fling of sci­ence by elim­i­nat­ing awk­ward research find­ings by lay­ing off 2,000 fed­eral sci­en­tists, shuf­fling other sci­en­tists out of their expert area, “han­dling” sci­en­tists to keep them away from media, destroy­ing sci­ence libraries, clos­ing research projects and facil­i­ties, gut­ting Sta­tis­tics Canada research, etc.

Espe­cially those doing envi­ron­men­tal research, and most espe­cially climate-change related research, as so well exam­ined by Chris Tuner in his very read­able The War on Sci­ence: Muz­zled Sci­en­tists and Wil­ful Blind­ness in Stephen Harper’s Canada.

Will the North-South Insti­tute be the last? Just how many inter­na­tion­ally cel­e­brated Cana­dian insti­tutes (or nation­ally trea­sured, for that mat­ter) are there remain­ing, anyway?

Mean­while, please check out my Master’s the­sis and feel free to for­ward and tweet it. Check out media cov­er­age of my the­sis find­ings and the national con­ver­sa­tion it trig­gered. 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 com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­fes­sional. I have been awarded the Jack Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among oth­ers, for my report­ing and editing.

Categories: Uncategorized