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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international affairs, muslims, politics, war on terror

Canada doesn’t need a US-style surveillance state

Published by Al Jazeera America on March 13th, 2015

Thanks to leaks by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, we now know that the modern U.S. security state makes Big Brother from George Orwell’s “1984” look quaint. Thanks to the Conservative administration of Stephen Harper, Canada is heading quickly in the same direction. Bill C-51, currently under debate in Parliament, represents the most sweeping threat to Canadian civil liberties yet.

The Tories have long emphasized the danger of domestic terrorism, but there is little evidence that Canada faces an imminent threat. And only six Muslims were involved in planning terrorism on U.S. soil in 2014, the fewest since 2008. The exact figures for Canada are unknown, but they are almost certainly even lower.

The government’s actual motivation appears to be political opportunism. Last fall, polls showed Harper and the Conservatives badly trailing Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party. Then in October, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a troubled Quebec Muslim man, killed a soldier at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. Later that month, Martin Rouleau killed a soldier in Quebec. Harper wasted no time in announcing that his administration would quickly pass laws to bolster public safety. Since then, his position in the polls has improved steadily.

C-51 is only the latest step in the expansion of Canada’s security state. In 2011 alone, federal agencies made more than 1 million requests to acquire private user data from Canadian telecommunication companies. The Snowden archive shows that Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE) has been spying on people in Canadathrough airport Wi-Fi. In December, Bill C-13 became law, allowing police easier access to private transmission data and tracking data. Though it is known popularly as the cyberbullying bill, only a negligible fraction of C-13 refers to the issue; the bulk of it has to do with lawful access. Another piece of legislation now making its way through the legislative process proposes that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) be allowed to operate beyond Canada’s borders.

Bill C-51 seeks to expand state power even further. It would criminalize online speech that “promotes” terrorism, lower the threshold for making preventive arrests and expand the CSIS from an intelligence-gathering entity into what the Globe and Mail calls a “secret police force.” The language around these newly proposed powers for CSIS is quite vague, centering on allowing the agency to “disrupt” operations it finds problematic. The bill also includes the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act, which would enable at least 17 government agencies to share information for an incredibly broad range of reasons, most of which have little to do with terrorism.

Current safeguards against invasion of privacy (which date to the 1983 Privacy Act) are no match for such a rapidly expanding surveillance state. Even critics in the government have recognized the need for more oversight. Four former prime ministers, in addition to numerous civil society groups, have warned against the passage of Bill C-51. Even former CSIS Chief Geoffrey O’Brian has voiced his concerns. But the Conservatives put an end to the first round of debate regarding the bill after only a few hours. With a majority in Parliament, they are poised to pass the act in the coming months.

The problem of terrorism deserves attention. But there is little evidence that drastic expansion of police and spying powers would make Canada more secure. After the Snowden leaks in 2013, a New America Foundation study found that bulk collection of metadata contributed to just four of the 225 post-9/11 terrorism cases that ended in arrest or conviction. The study concludes that the U.S. government’s claim that such surveillance is necessary is “overblown and even misleading.”

If given new powers, security forces will likely alienate Muslim communities by encroaching on their civil liberties. This would play into the hands of violent extremists who propagate the narrative that Canada and the rest of the West are obsessed with destroying Islam. It would also make work harder for law enforcement, which relies on cooperation with community members and leaders to identify terrorist threats. The Harper administration’s extreme anti-terrorism policies threaten both privacy and safety. Canada needs a robust public debate to challenge the unexamined ideology of the security state.

Photo: Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the Quebec Chamber of Commerce/CC

[http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/3/canada-doesnt-need-a-us-style-surveillance-state.html]

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muslims, politics, war on terror

Is Public Safety Canada for real?

Ian McLeod has a piece in the Ottawa Citizen on the recent testimony given by officials at Public Safety Canada to the Senate national security and defence committee, as the Tory government crafts its updated counter-terrorism strategy.

The assistant deputy minister Gary Robertson said that the government believes in local, community-based prevention, and that local leaders have to be taught how to spot certain attitudes and behaviours. I was actually first alerted to this article by someone working at the United Nations in New York, who ringed me up to get an opinion on these newest developments. (I hadn’t opened my laptop all morning.)

My first reaction was quite positive. Robertson’s point is a correct one. Partnering with local communities to neutralize the threat of radicalization should be a key aspect in a multifaceted counter-terrorism strategy. Policing/spying on mainstream communities won’t get us anywhere by itself, and is likely to alienate potential local allies. So in this sense, Robertson’s statement is encouraging.

What it all comes down to, though, is whether the (still-unveiled) strategy/legislation put forth by the Tories will reflect Robertson’s statement in a satisfactory way.

I wasn’t at the committee hearing, so I don’t know what else the panel had to say. If I were to guess, though, the upcoming legislation will probably include security-heavy provisions first and foremost, geared toward giving law enforcement and spying agencies more legal leeway. I’d be surprised if the fed-local partnership stuff is truly emphasized, but I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

I don’t come to such a conclusion without good reason: What’s not encouraging at all is the Prime Minister’s track record with the Muslim community.

Take for example the latest incident with the RCMP and the anti-terrorism handbook it helped to put together. The handbook, entitled “United Against Terrorism: A Collaborative Effort Towards a Secure, Inclusive and Just Canada,” is the brainchild of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and the Islamic Social Services Association (ISSA). The RCMP was listed as a contributor, and provided input throughout the writing of the handbook.

Then, about a day after the handbook was presented to the public (in Winnipeg, actually) in late September, the RCMP withdrew its support, citing disagreement with the book’s “adversarial tone.” This was a shocking thing to witness, especially given the flimsy excuse. The RCMP’s decision goes against even that of the Justice Minister of Manitoba, who has no problem with it, and in whose province the handbook was first unveiled.

The exact reasons for RCMP withdrawal, other than what can be derived from its highly unconvincing press release, is not known for sure. Nonetheless, it’d be surprising if there was no politicking involved at all, either on the Prime Minister’s end or that of his cabinet.

I-Politics columnist and investigative journalist Andrew Mitrovica says that it’s highly likely that the Prime Minister’s office confronted the RCMP and told them to withdraw. Why? Because NCCM is suing the PMO right now after Harper’s director of communications, Jason MacDondald (formerly a Chief of Staff and Director of Public Relations and Operations at CBC actually) said that the Muslim advocacy group is linked with Hamas. This is very Karl Rovian stuff, and NCCM (unlike much of the Muslim community these days) isn’t taking it sitting down. Thus the RCMP’s sudden change-of-heart.

Now, if the PMO has that kind of influence over the RCMP’s seemingly unproblematic sponsorship of an anti-radicalization handbook, then it’s hard to see why it won’t have a similar effect on Public Safety.

This is where the skepticism comes from and, if proven true, will not bode well for Canadians–especially the Muslim ones.

 

 

 

 

 

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middle east, muslims, obama, politics, war on terror

Jumping the Gun on Operation Samosa

Published on:
Dissident Voice, September 7th, 2010 (http://dissidentvoice.org/2010/09/jumping-the-gun-on-operation-samosa/#more-21573)

On August 26th, 2010, Hiva Mohammad Alizadeh (30), Misbahuddin Ahmed (26), and Khurram Syed Sher (28) were arrested (and detained) in the culminating point of the RCMP’s Operation Samosa investigation. All three are charged with conspiring to facilitate terrorist activities in Canada, as well as aiding terror abroad.

A fourth individual by the name of Awso Peshdary was also arrested (and re-arrested after posting bail) on unrelated domestic abuse charges, has since been released on bail. Peshdary’s connection to the alleged plot is not clear. Trials for the three suspects have not started yet, no formal evidence has been presented, and no convictions have been confirmed. Yet, it seems that the Canadian media has already freaked out.

The Toronto Star published an editorial one day after the arrests that warned Canadians not to be “complacent about perils close at hand.” It then went on to quote the Tarek Fateh-founded Muslim Canadian Congress on how the “perverse ‘doctrine of jihad [which simply means struggle]’” still appeals to some Muslims (technically, the simple act of fasting during Ramadan can be said to be jihad). Once again, before the public has even grasped the gist of the situation, alarm bells are going off about Islamic extremism.

Before the courts have issued their judgments, the discourse has already focused on the seemingly exclusive and hermeneutic relationship between terrorism and Islam. Terror is discussed like the drug that Islam can’t seem to kick, no matter how hard it tries to. Canadians are immediately warned about the “home-grown” version of the dangerous symbiosis of “Islamic terrorism”. Like the Toronto Star editorial, which largely skips over the fact that due process has yet to occur, most corporate media do not seem to want to ask the all-important “why” question.

Once asked about the causes of “Muslims rage” in a PBS interview, American Shaykh Hamza Yusuf replied with the term “humiliation.” He was referring to the protracted experience of Western colonialism and foreign occupation in the Muslim and Arab world. When bomb plots and terror cells are supposedly foiled by law enforcement in Canada, the story is typically given the front page, but always without this crucial context. Factors like “humiliation” and “occupation” are an afterthought, since factoring in these political elements would require an examination of Canadian foreign policy. It’s far easier to isolate the case, sensationalize its parameters, and point to how utterly irrational some Muslims are (and will continue to be, so “beware!”).

The images are similar enough: brown skin, bushy beards, and that glossy if sinister look in the suspects’ eyes. The suspected always look so out of step with “regular Canadians.” But soon after Khurram Sher’s arrest, a YouTube clip of him as a contestant on Canadian Idol aired around the world. It seemed absurd, but the video indirectly revealed a familiar and even humorous side of a “potential terrorist”. It made Sher appear, however faintly, as someone one could actually relate to–a “regular Canadian”.

Michelle Shephard (who has done some fine work on child soldier Omar Khadr) of the Toronto Star referred to this paradox as terrorism’s “theatre of the absurd” in her article “The Danger of Dismissing the Absurd.” But she did not utilize this superficial inconsistency to illustrate that “Islamic terrorists,” however horrific, are nonetheless human beings. Instead, Shepherd warns us against terrorism’s “theatre of the absurd.” In other words, it may seem inconsistent for someone as scary, bearded, and suspected like Sher to appear jokingly on Canadian Idol, but such an inconsistency doesn’t rule out the fact that Sher may be guilty. We shouldn’t simply laugh off this case, Shephard seems to be saying because terrorism is still a serious problem and we don’t know much about its nature.

True enough: terrorism is serious—but it’s not an impossible enigma. Nor is it particular to our era—9/11 is not the beginning of terrorism. Prominent academics and writers who study political Islam such as Vali Nasr, Robert Pape, and Reza Aslan (amoung countless others) have all recognized the factors of humiliation and foreign invasions/occupations as a primary cause for “radicalization.” In order to “defang” these frustrated elements (thus ending “homegrown terror”), it is essential to give them an outlet to channel their anger. It means giving Muslim youth a chance to act upon their frustrations through the mechanisms of civil society. Hamas and Hezbollah, for example, having now been incorporated into their respective national political processes, do not use the same “radical” rhetoric and tactics as often as they used to. The same process can work for those who live in the West.

Instead, articles like Shephard’s reference psychologists and political scientists from academia like Michael King (a PhD candidate from McGill) who claim that “there seems to be a personality characteristic that predisposes people to radicalize—and that is sensation-seeking [my emphases].” So is the problem at least partly genetic or physiological?

“The daily drudgery of working in dead-end, low-paying jobs helped create an intellectually stunted environment, continued King. “Internet jihad videos became more exciting and their causes more urgent.” Thus, personal occupation and social surroundings must also play a part in “radicalization” as well. This may very well be a perfectly legitimate point. However, how many men out there are working dead-end jobs in “intellectually stunted” environments, and why haven’t they all conspired to blow something up? Is it because they are not Muslim? Or is it because they are not subjected to the experiences of humiliation (via military occupation) that so many Middle Eastern Muslims endure and witness?

Maybe it’s time to stop beating around the bush by referring to the demented psychology or “intellectually stunted” environments that are apparently inherent to potential terrorists. Maybe, just maybe, frustration can arise out of a feeling of impotence while witnessing the chaos and death unleashed by a foreign invasion. Maybe a Muslim in the West, when watching their “brothers and sisters” in Afghanistan, Baghdad, or Gaza disintegrate in war and occupation, is allowed to feel some anger. Surely, this anger doesn’t justify violence, but it certainly is sufficient in explaining why some may consider it.

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