POLITICS

Dying With Dignity Canada Stripped Of Charitable Tax Status

01/20/2015 11:20 EST | Updated 03/22/2015 05:59 EDT
OTTAWA - Canada's registered charities are not permitted to exercise moral pressure or promote "an attitude of mind" that might influence legislation, the federal taxman has ruled in stripping Dying with Dignity Canada of its charitable tax status.

The organization, a registered charity since 1982, was informed this month by the Canada Revenue Agency that it never should have received favourable tax treatment in the first place and that its status was being annulled, effective mid-February.

Wanda Morris, Dying With Dignity's CEO, refused to speculate on whether a change in political climate is responsible for her group's sudden tax chill.

"For the next 30 days we are still a charity and as a charity we can't comment on political parties or individuals. So I really can't speculate," Morris said Tuesday.

"It's certainly puzzling. Thirty years of filing our T-3010s every year, audited 10 years ago, and now we're getting a different result."

The group advocates for choice and dignity at the end of life, including providing information about patient rights, advance planning, and education on the case for physician-assisted death.

The Canada Revenue Agency decision comes as the Supreme Court of Canada is poised to rule this year on assisted suicide, having heard arguments last October. The Conservative government is on record opposing any change to Criminal Code prohibitions against assisted suicide and euthanasia.

The Harper government announced a crackdown on registered charities in its 2012 budget, providing an extra $13 million over several years to the tax agency to audit groups that may be engaged in what the government deemed excessive political advocacy.

An audit blitz has targeted environmental groups that oppose the Conservative government's energy policies as well as groups advocating for foreign aid, human rights and poverty reduction.

The CRA even warned off the Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists, a bird-watching group, after they sent a letter to two cabinet ministers complaining about government-approved chemicals and their effects on bee health.

Rebecca Rogers, a spokeswoman for Revenue Minister Kerry-Lynne Findlay, said confidentiality rules prevented her from commenting on Dying With Dignity's case.

"However, audits done by the Canada Revenue Agency are done at arm's length, without any political interference," Rogers said in an email.

"The laws governing charities in Canada are long-standing and charities must respect those laws."

NDP revenue critic Murray Rankin doesn't buy the government line.

"We need to remember that if those groups are in sync with the Conservatives — I'm thinking of the Fraser Institute and the like — they seem to be fine," said Rankin.

"If they are left-leaning or human rights or environmental or anti-poverty — and now this group Dying With Dignity — whose values aren't aligned with the Conservatives, those are the ones that appear to be most vulnerable."

Dying with Dignity was subjected to an exhaustive audit last January that included everything from financial information to a breakdown of staff positions, copies of all published or broadcast statements (including their recipients) and schedules of speaking engagements.

In a 21-page letter dated Jan. 16, 2015, the CRA let the axe fall.

"While we have determined that the organization's services for the sick consisted mostly of charitable activities, our audit did not identify any activities advancing education in the charitable sense," stated the tax collector.

The CRA letter says "it is our position the organization's primary focus remains on advocating for alternatives to preserving human life and selectively informing the public in support of its political purpose to expand choice in dying...."

Charitable groups, says the letter, must not "engage in pressure tactics on governments such as swaying public opinion, promoting an attitude of mind, creating a climate of public opinion or exercising moral pressure" when the goal is to drive or prevent legislative change.

Morris said her group has spoken at length with its major stakeholders and believes Dying With Dignity Canada can survive the loss of its charitable tax status.

"There's a lot of people that support us," she said.

"In fact, one of our challenges has been to let people know that we're here. So I guess you could say the silver lining on this is a lot more people are going to know about us as a result of this story."

Quebec recently became the first jurisdiction in Canada to allow assisted suicide, although the legislation faces a court challenge.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association is pursuing a separate B.C. appeal in the Supreme Court that could ultimately result in dying but mentally competent Canadians being granted the right to receive medical assistance to hasten death.

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