politics

The Canada Revenue Agency’s political inquisitions

Published by CBC News on April 16th, 2015

If a democratic system thrives on participation from a civil society free to express itself without state intervention, then Canadian democracy could use some help these days.

Citizens who band together into groups that push politicians to engage a problem should, in theory, be a vital aspect of democratic decision-making. Yet the Harper administration, in its infinite political wisdom, has devoted millions of taxpayer dollars via Canada Revenue Agency, formerly Revenue Canada, to, in effect, target groups that are critical of federal policies.

The CRA launched a series of 60 audits in 2012, and, tellingly, the targeted organizations all seem to espouse views that don’t fit so well with the Harper agenda.

Canadian NGOs with charitable status can devote up to 10 per cent of their resources to political activities, or risk losing their status as a charity under the law. Since 2012, $13 million has been earmarked by the Harper administration to audit organizations that, in the eyes of the CRA, may have devoted too much to political activities.

These ‘political-activity audits’ have primarily targeted environmental groups, human rights organizations, and labour-backed think tanks like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Meanwhile, more conservative-minded groups like the Manning Foundation or the Fraser Institute have not faced such aggression from the CRA. Many of them have also, like their leftist counterparts, participated in ‘political activities.’

“Right-wing” groups don’t get same attention

Though a CRA spokesperson will come out once in a while to proclaim that the executive branch has no influence over which groups the agency targets, right-wing civil society organizations have yet to receive much attention from the tax agency. Rather, the latest charity to be targeted in a significant way is the United Steelworkers’ Humanity Fund, a labour-backed organization that has supported food banks and disaster relief initiatives for over 30 years.

It has donated about two per cent of its annual revenue to the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA), an umbrella organization that advocates for more accountability in the Canadian mining sector, among other things.

This support for the CNCA, an organization that hasn’t shied away from its political purposes, is apparently what the CRA is zeroing in on. The fund has often butted heads with the Harper administration over labour issues, and wants more oversight of Canadian mining practices abroad, which, according to its president Ken Neumann, is primarily why the CRA began auditing the group’s finances last year.

Such audits can certainly disrupt an organization’s day-to-day operations significantly, but this kind of trouble isn’t the main reason why these intrusions are bad for Canadian democracy in the long run. Targeted organizations that are forced to go through the lengthy auditing process can, whether the government intends it or not, become examples of what not to say or do in the Harper era.

Groups practice self-censorship

One can hardly blame other charities if they decide to interpret the current inquisitorial atmosphere as being politically motivated. This means that if they want to keep their charitable status, practicing a degree of self-censorship may end up being totally rational. This is an anti-democratic development almost by definition, and it hardly matters whether a particular agenda is behind it all, though the available evidence suggests that Revenue Canada’s choices aren’t exactly politically neutral.

Earlier this year, Dying with Dignity Canada lost its charitable status after being audited for about three years. It’s a non-profit that advocates for terminally ill patients to have a choice when it comes to euthanasia – not exactly a ‘pro-life’ stance according to contemporary political standards.

The CRA says that it made a mistake back in 1982 and 2011 when it confirmed charitable status for Dying with Dignity. It remains a mystery as to how more conservatively minded charities have managed to follow the rules so well as to not even attract the attention of the agency, which has certainly found a new kind of zeal for revoking charitable status.

Equally mysterious is why there hasn’t been more uproar when it comes to the government’s auditing targets. The list of charities being investigated and audited by the CRA looks increasingly like Stephen Harper’s enemy list. The numbers are so lopsided as to be almost comical, yet no significant amount of public scrutiny coalesced to call for a re-evaluation of the agency’s methods.

Photo: the Canada Revenue Agency headquarters in Ottawa./CC

[http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/the-canada-revenue-agency-s-political-inquisitions-1.3036361]

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muslims, politics, war on terror

Racism in Stephen Harper’s Canada

Published by Jacobin on December 18th, 2014

Politicians seeking reelection have long adapted their stances to fit the political climate and tailored their rhetoric to galvanize their base. In the post-9/11 climate, shot through with hysteria and xenophobia, fear has been the choice propeller for rightists. And aside from that of George W. Bush, no governing administration has more adeptly harnessed fear for its own ends than Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Simultaneously pushing austerity, Harper has used economic uncertainty to make that fear even more potent.

Just a few months ago, Harper’s chances of reelection in next October’s general election looked slim. Currently in his second term, Harper’s Conservative Party has shoved the country’s domestic and foreign policy far to the right. Polling in September showed the party’s support at 31 percent, eclipsed by the seemingly resurgent Liberals.

But in October, two acts of political violence disrupted the status quo. First a man ran over two soldiers in Quebec, killing one; a few days later, another shot up Parliament Hill, slaying an additional soldier along the way. Just like that, the fear of “homegrown terrorism” and “radicalization” were revived in Canada, and it was time for Harper to do what he does best: exploit the moment. The prime minister immediately announced that his party, still possessing a parliamentary majority, would propose new security laws to expand the powers of Canadian spying and law enforcement agencies.

Unlike the Australian government of Tony Abbott, which, however reactionary, actually reached out to the Muslim community after this week’s Sydney café siege, Harper made no such gesture until much later. Isolating one’s opponents, of course, is a common political strategy. But with Harper’s Tories, it’s a modus operandi that hardly bothers veiling its racism. Often coming out of a conservative Christian tradition, many in the Conservative Party didn’t get to where they are today by being nice to Muslims.

The Conservatives have gone after many Muslim and Arab groups that have publicly challenged the party’s hawkish foreign policy stances. These crackdowns have laid the groundwork for further repression and histrionics when the Tories need a boost in the polls.

The Harper’s administration’s new “anti-terror” legislation is coming even after the passage of laws that its own watchdogs deemed excessive.These laws will degrade civil liberties and further antagonize targeted groups. One example is Bill C-44, which expands the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service’s ability to spy on Canadians abroad, thus extending the agency’s largely domestic mandate. Informants and sources who provide secret information to the agency will also enjoy better protection of their identity under the new bill, making it harder for the accused to face their accusers.

What’s more, it’s patently apparent that Tories are hardly concerned with ensuring domestic tranquility. Right after two prominent Muslim groups unveiled a handbook on political violence that they put together with the help of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Mounties decided to pull its support for the project, citing “rhetoric” that they found troubling. (The prime minister’s office had some influence over this decision as one of the co-producers of the handbook, and the National Council on Canadian Muslims (NCCM), is suing the office for defamation.)

The Harper administration has always been very good at playing into the so-called “jihadi­-narrative,” which likes to frame a civilizational showdown between Islam and a Western world hellbent on destroying Muslims’ way of life. The latest video from “Islamic State” member John McGuire, who was a university student from Ottawa, is a good indication of this nearly cyclical dynamic. His rhetoric clearly builds on the assumption that the Harper government, in conjunction with the US and other allies, have violently antagonized Muslims around the world.

But Harper’s cabinet isn’t just good at exploiting fears of homegrown terrorism within Canadian borders. It’s also gone out of its way to show how vigilant the Tories are at policing those borders. One development is the tabling of the hilariously named “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act” by Citizenship Canada’s Chris Alexander, who’s helping his party play the “foreign barbarian” card.

The law bans polygamy, child marriages, and honor killings, as if the Canadian criminal code doesn’t already ban all of these practices. Alexander has said specifically that the target of his law are immigrants — who, as it turns out, don’t have an established tradition of polygamy like the Mormons of Bountiful, British Columbia. The bill is so obviously pandering to bigoted fears that it’s hard to tell if the government is even trying anymore.

If there’s any doubts about whether Harper’s party is really as racist as it seems, their recent handling of the country’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis provides more than enough confirmation. After dragging its heels, Harper’s reply to the United Nations’ appeal to resettle ten thousand refugees in the next two years has been to cherry-pick “persecuted religious minorities” (Christians, Yazidis, etc.) before considering Sunni Muslims, who’ve borne the brunt of their country’s civil war. Of no concern to the Harper administration are the recommendations of the UN High Commission for Refugees about who’s most in need of help. It’s content to go ahead and determine that for itself.

These developments and strategies have been talked about in the Canadian media in an isolated fashion, as if each event has unfolded outside of a historical, economic, and political reality. The truth is that they’re each part of a larger scheme, one that has animated a good portion of Canadian politics for the past decade or so. It is a strategy to galvanize a political base (in a time of austerity and economic uncertainty) through fear, thereby dividing the citizenry along racial and religious lines to create the kind of political playing field most advantageous to the Tories.

Canada is experiencing around seven percent unemployment and wage stagnation, with high joblessness projected in the future. Focusing on immigration and homegrown terrorism is a short cut to jolting their political base into outrage and action. It’s an old story, and should effect an equally collective response from groups who’re most afflicted by it. Though some organizations like NCCM have pushed back, many minority communities in Canada are still building their own capacities, and are too politically nascent to respond in an effective way.

Fear is a powerful tool. It’s why the Bush cabinet (namely John Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld) pressured former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge to raise the “terror alert levels” before the 2004 US elections. Unfortunately, the Canadian polity is susceptible to the same kinds of manipulations. The onus is now on the broader Canadian left to organize a concerted antiracist response, or state repression will only expand.

Photo: Stephen Harper/CC

[https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/12/racism-in-stephen-harpers-canada/]

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