News / Canada

One year and $5 million later, Harper's charity crackdown nets just one bad egg

An $8-million pot of money included in last year's federal budget to crack down on charities suspected of engaging in "excessive" political activities has so far resulted in only one having its charitable status revoked, out of nearly 900 that were audited.

Under the Canadian tax code, registered charities are permitted to devote a maximum of 10 per cent of their total resources to non-partisan political activities, defined as any type of call to political action.

The agency has already spent $5 million to educate charities and increase transparency and compliance around those limitations, and expects to spend the remaining $3 million in the coming year.

Environmental charities were widely reported to be the primary target of ramped up compliance measures after Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said environmental and other "radical groups" were trying to undermine the national economy by blocking pipeline and other fossil fuel projects.

But Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) spokesman Philippe Brideau said after roughly 880 audits in the last year, the only charity whose status was revoked for exceeding limits on political activity was Physicians for Global Survival, a group dedicated to the promotion of nuclear disarmament.

A CRA audit found the organization was using 26 per cent of its resources for political activities, including a letter-writing campaign urging Prime Minister Stephen Harper, party leaders and MPs to support an international treaty banning nuclear weapons.

Several high-profile B.C.-based charities, including the David Suzuki Foundation and ForestEthics, told Metro the CRA's attention actually inspired them to become more politically active, because they realized they were not spending anywhere near the 10 per cent threshold.

ForestEthics split into two organizations after the March 2012 budget announcement, with a non-charitable branch dedicated solely to advocacy, while David Suzuki stepped down from the board of his own foundation so that he could publically denounce Prime Minister Stephen Harper's policies.

"It wasn't because there was any feeling like we were over that 10 per cent, I think it was actually that we wanted to do more than 10 per cent," said Ben West, tar sands campaign director for the now one-year-old non-profit, ForestEthics Advocacy.

"I think a lot of groups there was this desire to not get bullied and instead to stand up and fight... but it wasn't a defensive move, it was an offensive move."

The CRA declined an interview request from Metro, and refused to divulge how many charities had received less serious reprimands for political activity, such as warning letters, compliance agreements, fines or suspension of tax receipting privileges.

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