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.