What gives with charity crackdown?

CalgarySun.com – opinion/columnists
First Posted: Saturday, September 24, 2011.   By Warren Kinsella, Qmi Agency

It’s not very charitable, you might say. Not at all.

The way in which the federal government deals with charities, that is. And if you believe in the work that charities do — or if you even cling to the notion that freedom of speech should be applicable to non-governmental organizations, too — then you should be concerned about what is quietly going on behind bureaucratic curtains up in Ottawa these days.

Federal bean-counters define a charity as a corporation or a trust that carries on, what else, “charitable purposes” — meaning, an enterprise set up “for the benefit of the public,” or a “sufficient segment” of the public.

The leading case on charities goes back to the 19th century. There, no less than the House of Lords ruled a legitimate charity could be involved in the relief of poverty, or advancement of education or religion, or “other purposes beneficial to the community in a way the law regards as charitable.”

If that all sounds to you that a faceless bureaucrat (or a vengeful politician) can bend the word “charity” to fit whatever subjective criteria they’d like, you’d be right. The rules governing charities in Canada have always been pretty loosey-goosey. And therein lies the problem.

Politicians, of every stripe, have always groused about charities that seemed to be much more preoccupied with politicking than “charitable purposes.” But they rarely did anything about it.

The Harper government, however, is different. The Harper regime hasn’t been shy to go after charities it disapproves of. Therefore, in recent years, nameless bureaucrats at Canada Revenue Agency have been dispatched across the country to rough up charities —  such as those preoccupied with the environment or animal welfare or birth control or international issues — and to threaten them with loss of their charitable status. Because they’re too “political.”

For months, experts have been warning that revenue apparatchiks are now operating without any regard for the rule of law. They’ve become arbitrary and discriminatory, say the experts, and democracy — and the society charities serve — is going to suffer for it.

Canadian environmental icon David Suzuki knows all about this. Months ago, Suzuki left the charitable foundation that bears his name. He’s a private citizen, free to be as political as he wants. But when Suzuki recently showed up in the media, offering an endorsement of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s environmental record — Suzuki said “any party would be foolish to talk about abandoning it” — Tory apparatchiks were apoplectic.

(And full disclosure: I support McGuinty’s campaign.)

QMI Agency heard from two Conservative party-allied groups — one Wind Concerns Ontario, the other the Canadian Taxpayers Federation — who brayed and shrieked that the foundation was getting involved in politics, and should be punished. This, despite the fact the foundation had absolutely nothing to do with Suzuki’s comments. Zero, zippo, zilch.

This despite the fact Wind Concerns has been actively campaigning for Conservatives in the Ontario election. The taxpayers federation has been a recruiting ground for Tory candidates for years and even shows up at election events to stump for Conservative causes.

The facts, apparently, didn’t matter much. The threats had the desired effect. To ensure the foundation’s good works weren’t jeopardized, an Ontario Liberal commercial containing Suzuki’s supportive remarks was taken down. The environmentalist’s endorsement was valuable — but not so valuable anyone would want to destroy his life’s work.

Revenue Canada has decreed it disapproves of advocacy about “controversial social issues.” Fine. But who decides what is “controversial” and what isn’t? What issue, when you think of it, isn’t “controversial” in some way, to some person, somewhere?

Crack down on those who rip off donors and who use bogus charities to line their pockets.

Send ’em to jail. Everyone favours that.

But to use the power of government to silence those you disapprove of? That isn’t just uncharitable.

It’s unconstitutional.

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