Left-leaning Think-tank Deserves More Respect from CRA


It’s been par­tic­u­larly sad to read that the Cana­dian Cen­tre for Pol­icy Alter­na­tives has been under­go­ing an audit since last year and that, as exec­u­tive direc­tor Bruce Camp­bell recently told Anna Maria Tremonti on The Cur­rent, it was a tough audit.

The Cen­tre has an excel­lent rep­u­ta­tion for its research, includ­ing being among the few think tanks in Canada to get research grants from the fed­eral government’s fun­der, Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties Research Coun­cil of Canada (SSHRC), which has high stan­dards to meet. And yet, the left-leaning Cen­tre is being audited for its polit­i­cal activ­i­ties. And it’s got it hands on a copy of a review of their web­site by a Canada Rev­enue Agency staffer that cre­ated the ratio­nale for the audit. The reviewer con­cluded that CCP “may be car­ry­ing out pro­hib­ited par­ti­san polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” and “much of its research/educational mate­ri­als may be biased/one-sided.”

This news inspired more than 400 aca­d­e­mics to sign a let­ter demand­ing that CRA drop its audit of this highly regarded research insti­tute until it adopts a neu­tral and fair process for audit­ing char­i­ties. Noted the open let­ter: “CCPA plays a vital role by sup­ply­ing much needed reflec­tion on a num­ber of poli­cies, which it has always done in a fair and unbi­ased way, and which respects the fun­da­men­tal tools of sound research…. All research in fact is crit­i­cal, by its very def­i­n­i­tion: it tests hypothe­ses, seeks answers, and must be allowed to find these answers wher­ever it can.”

The let­ter, orga­nized in part by econ­o­mist Mario Sec­ca­rec­cia of Uni­ver­sity of Ottawa and econ­o­mist Louis-Philippe Rochon of Lau­rent­ian Uni­ver­sity, accused the Con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment of try­ing to intim­i­date and silence dis­sent­ing voices and “muz­zle and impede sound and legit­i­mate research.”

There’s another char­ity, known for spon­sor­ing qual­ity energy-issues research, that we know from media reports is under­go­ing a major audit: The Pem­bina Foun­da­tion. The foun­da­tion is a char­ity, with a small staff, and yet is being audited for polit­i­cal activ­i­ties. Judg­ing by its web­site, the foun­da­tion is not the same orga­ni­za­tion as an insti­tute by a sim­i­lar name. The web­site of the Pem­bina Insti­tute reveals that it is not a char­ity and so has no real limit on the amount of polit­i­cal activ­ity it could choose to do. It’s much more out­spo­ken on issues than is the Pem­bina Foundation.

The foun­da­tion funds research and edu­ca­tion projects, inline with its pur­poses and as approved by the Char­ity Direc­torate of Canada Rev­enue Agency and Indus­try Canada. A close look shows that the non­profit insti­tute, and other groups and indi­vid­u­als, have been funded to do research by the char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tion. I’m left won­der­ing why the foun­da­tion is going through the audit. Per­haps CRA mis­took it for the Insti­tute when it decided to tar­get them. Per­haps there were com­plaints against the foun­da­tion from an orga­ni­za­tion sup­port­ing the oil indus­try just because they couldn’t com­plain about the insti­tute itself due to its lack of char­i­ta­ble status.

So, two insti­tutes doing research on issues that, shall we say, put them on this government’s hit list. Two out of two tar­geted with audits because the gov­ern­ment cre­ated a fun­nel that points CRA right at them. And because CRA staff are igno­rant of the research process and the role of think tanks in a democracy.

In con­trast, the Fraser Insti­tute, the Macdonald-Laurier Insti­tute, the C.D. Howe Insti­tute and the Mon­treal Eco­nomic Insti­tute are the right-leaning char­i­ta­ble equiv­a­lent of the CCPA, with pol­icy pref­er­ences pretty much lined up with the cur­rent gov­ern­ment. The CD Howe and Macdonald-Laurier Insti­tutes have con­firmed that they are not being audited by CRA for polit­i­cal activ­i­ties. The Fraser Insti­tute and Mon­treal Eco­nomic Insti­tute have declined to com­ment to Cana­dian Press, but Vancouver-based char­ity lead­ers say the for­mer has recently under­gone an audit of finances, but not polit­i­cal activities.

The new pres­i­dent of the Fraser Insti­tute, econ­o­mist Niels Veld­huis, tried to stake out a strange intel­lec­tual space in an inter­view with the Toronto Star. Veld­huis dis­agreed with Bruce Campbell’s asser­tion that all think-tanks come from a core set of val­ues. He said the Fraser Institute’s work is dri­ven by data. He went on to tell reporter Tonda Mac­Cha­rles that the role of a think-tank is to “ask a ques­tion, exam­ine the data and let the data tell you the answer.” Of course, that’s exactly what CCPA does, as more than 400 peo­ple noted in their let­ter to CRA. But Veld­huis strangely denies the Fraser Institute’s well-documented com­mit­ment to a core set of val­ues and rejected even that the insti­tute is a con­ser­v­a­tive organization.

And that is truly bizarre. Any fair observer can see that all five of these think-tanks, includ­ing CCPA, have world-views that influ­ence their research choices with­out mean­ing that the result is par­ti­san and biased.

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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