Call in the taxmen

How the Harper Government is destroying civil society and why that will hurt us all

Civil society—that’s you and me—is an essential part of every democratic society. Most democracies realise this and build civil society involvement into their institutional structures. As Canada used to do. They also help to fund their involvement. As Canada used to do.

Rather than confronting radical critiques of their policies and advocacy on behalf of progressive causes openly, this government has chosen to persecute and harass Canadian civil society organizations dedicated to advancing women’s rights, human rights, anti-poverty and other social justice causes.

At least since 2010, the Harper government’s chosen strategy was to cut funding for any groups engaging in advocacy. The Canadian Council for International Cooperation, Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, National Council for Women and the Law, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, Match International and Kairos are but a few of the 79 recorded agencies who have faced serious funding cuts, many of which have subsequently been forced to close, or to rely wholly on volunteers operating out of their own homes. One of the more recent casualties of these cuts was the respected North-South Institute which was forced to close its doors in September.

 It matters because it is a direct attack on the fundamental role of civil society in a democratic country.

And if funding cuts weren’t enough, Harper’s government has used a particularly sneaky way to go about demolishing decades-long good work. For years civil society groups have registered as ‘charities’ in order that their donors could receive a tax rebate on their donations. The rules for what a ‘charity’ can and cannot do are arcane. If you are curious, you can puzzle it out yourself here.

At the core of the Income Tax Act is the stipulation that ‘charities’ may not spend more than 10 per cent (of their funds or of their effort is not clear) on ‘advocacy’. In practice this rule has been interpreted fairly generously by both the ‘charitable’ NGOs and—to be fair—by the tax authorities. Not anymore.

The Harper government has chosen to persecute and harass via the back door — by interpreting the Act in the narrowest way possible and by putting its attack dogs on the job. Enter the taxmen (and women) to do Harper’s dirty work for him.

As blogger Kaity Cooper puts it, “The supposedly non-political Canada Revenue Agency (‘CRA’) has used special funds provided by the government to investigate organizations with tax-free charitable status to ensure they are not devoting more than the legal limit of 10 per cent of their resources to advocacy activities.”

Sounds like just protecting the ‘taxpayer’? Tightening up sloppy practices? Not if you look at who is targeted in this new regime. Yep, it’s the Suzuki Foundation, the Canadian Council for Policy Alternatives, even a small bird-watching group in Kitchener-Waterloo which dared to challenge cabinet ministers about the damage that government chemicals could do to bee colonies.

Right wing-think tanks such as the Fraser Institute stay in the clear despite the obvious ‘political’ nature of their support for Harper ideology and policies. The Broadbent Institute checked it out and found that the annual filings from 10 avowedly right-wing ‘charities’ had registered no political activities at all — a lie easily exposed by a quick trip to their web sites.

Why do tax audits matter?

Not just because NGOs targeted by these tax attacks risk losing their charitable status and thus the extra funds they get from donors, but because a formal audit imposed by the CRA would cripple most small, and even medium sized NGOs. It matters because of the climate of fear this process sows throughout the NGO sector, and because that fear silences what should be said about government policies and actions. It matters because it divides us; NGOs fear to speak out on behalf of each other lest they are attacked themselves. It matters because it is a direct attack on the fundamental role of civil society in a democratic country.

Speaking truth freely to power is one of the fundamental duties of civil society. If we let Harper snare us into giving up the freedom of our voice and limit our activities to the narrow range of what Harper’s taxmen count as ‘charity’, we are giving up more than the money our donors may lose.
As Martin Niemoller wrote of another repressive regime:

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one 
left to speak up for me.

We must resist Harper’s efforts to crush all dissent. We must support each other and speak out for what is right and just.

Marilyn Porter has combined academic and political and social activism for many years. She is currently Professor Emerita at Memorial University and Co-Chair of the Social Justice Co-operative Newfoundland and Labrador.

This article is part of an ongoing series produced by members of the Social Justice Cooperative Newfoundland and Labrador in collaboration with The Independent.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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