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Is Big Brother Threatening Our Charities?

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Last week, Canadian Mennonite magazine revealed that it had been threatened by the government. A Canada Revenue audit team the magazine that it could lose its charitable status because of what it published.

CRA found some 2011 articles to be in violation of the Income Tax Act s149.1 (6.1 & 6.2), which forbids "the direct or indirect support of, or opposition to, any political party or candidate for public office." The offences? According to Mennonite Canada, criticizing two MPs for distancing themselves from their Mennonite heritage, an editorial warning against increasing militarism, and a feature about Jack Layton inspiring youth participation in politics.

All big no-nos, says CRA. Stop it or lose charitable status.

Charitable status takes a lot of work to obtain. It permits an organization to issue tax-deductible receipts for donations, which draws in big donors. Having it revoked would, in all likelihood, means the end of that organization.

This is no minor threat to Canadian Mennonite.

Nor is it a minor threat to the rest of us.

Consider what the magazine did: it was critical of two MPs; it discussed pacifism; and it echoed the national media regarding Layton's impact. Any big sins in there? Any gross misconduct? Anything worth stamping down so hard on a church publication?

It is hard to, unless one looks at it from a "Prince-John-how-dare-they" standpoint. Then you might see SPOKE-OUT-AGAINST-THE-GOVERNMENT! CRUSH THEM!

Is that what is happening? Tightening enforcement of these regulations was part of the 2012 Budget . Just a month after the budget passed, Canadian Mennonite got their warning letter, over articles published a year prior. Is the Income Tax Act being used to stifle criticism? It takes a pretty loose interpretation of the Act to interpret an article about Layton encouraging youth participation as political endorsement, especially since that topic was all over the media at the time.

The Income Tax Act charity rules were designed to prevent political groups from masquerading as charities; particularly to prevent political parties from using charities to further their cause. Like Grant Humes' campaign in Durham, ON, with durham4vets.org -- an apparent charity which is likely a front for a Liberal candidate. That would not get charitable status. That is what the rules were designed to prevent.

They were never intended to be used as a weapon against discourse.

Stories of like this about environmental groups being threatened by a PMO official began to emerge earlier this year, especially those opposed to the BC pipeline. They led to David Suzuki stepping down from his own foundation. Now religious institutions are being threatened. Look at the facts: a magazine that published 24 issues in 2011 was threatened over four articles. That's a big threat over a little content.

Who may be next?

Let's look at some possibilities.

Since it's the month of Remembrance, the Legion is a good place to start. It operates the Poppy Fund, among other fundraisers. It is also the biggest association of veterans, during a time when veterans are being very vocal against the government. Has the Legion been threatened? Will it be?

Would the Canadian Cancer Society lose its status for being against asbestos? Might First Nations Child And Family Caring Society Of Canada have charitable status yanked for defending aboriginal children? What about the Red Cross or Médecins Sans Frontières? What if they talk about foreign policy and Syria or Sudan? Not too long ago, Amnesty International was in a well-publicized spat with Jason Kenney. Could that land them on the chopping block?

What about Children's Wish Foundation? CWF has a variety of fundraising initiative across Canada, many of which involve celebrities. Would CWF cease to be a charity if they host a musician who is against cuts to arts funding? Will a dying child's wish be denied because a participant spoke out against government?

Where does this end?

Where is this taking Canada? Will we be a nation without dissent, without criticism, without discourse? A nation where even the most well-meaning and well-respected charities must keep silent on everything or risk the wrath of government?