07/05/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 07/05/2016 05:59 EDT

Canada Without Poverty Charity Challenges Harper Govt. Audits At UN In Geneva

The head of a small Ottawa-based charity is in Geneva this week to complain to a United Nations committee about the Canada Revenue Agency's program of political-activity audits.

The head of a small Ottawa-based charity is in Geneva this week to complain to a United Nations committee about the Canada Revenue Agency's program of political-activity audits.

Harriett McLachlan, president of Canada Without Poverty, is pleading her case before the UN Human Rights Committee, arguing that a special audit program launched by the tax agency in 2012 violates Canada's international commitments on human rights.

McLachlan says a rule limiting to 10 per cent the resources a charity can devote to political activities effectively silences groups like hers that want to hold the Canadian government accountable.

"If we want to write a petition, or be part of some kind of gathering, a protest, there's a fear there that we are stepping over the bounds," she said in an interview with CBC News.

"There's a potential of a gag being put over my mouth."

Canada under scrutiny

Canada Without Poverty is among 60 charities being hit with political-activity investigations under a $13.4-million special program by the Canada Revenue Agency. The group has been under continuous audit for three years.

The UN Human Rights Committee each year reviews the human-rights records of a handful of the 168 countries that have signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights. Canada's turn comes up this week.

A panel of 18 independent experts will listen to Canadian groups, such as Kairos and Amnesty International Canada, raising issues of human-rights abuses in Canada, including murdered and missing indigenous women, and the residential school abuse of indigenous children.

Such groups will have their say Monday and Tuesday, and Canadian officials will appear before the panel the same week to answer questions and present the government's views. The panel will then announce its findings on July 23.

Canada Without Poverty's revenues last year were a modest $318,000, and it reported that just eight per cent of resources went to political activities. The group is primarily an advocacy organization, rather than one engaging in more traditional anti-poverty activities such as soup kitchens and food banks.

McLachlan, a Montreal social worker with 35 years' personal experience of poverty, says the group does not press for new legislation, insisting only that Canada live up to its international commitments.

"There should be space for people to hold the government accountable on these issues, human-rights issues," she said. "Poverty should not exist in a wealthy country like Canada."

The Canadian Union of Public Employees provided special funding for McLachlan and another member of the group to travel to Geneva for the hearings.

Net has broadened

The Canada Revenue Agency's political-activity audits initially targeted environmental charities in 2012-13 that were vocal critics of the government's energy and pipelines policies. The net has since broadened to include poverty, international aid and human-rights groups.

Critics say the audits have created an "advocacy chill," as some charities under scrutiny self-censor to avoid jeopardizing their charitable status, which can be revoked if the rules are broken. There have also been allegations that the government has selectively targeted opponents to its policies, and that the definition of political activity is unclear and malleable.

Revenue Minister Kerry-Lynne Findlay says the Canada Revenue Agency operates at arm's length from government, with no political direction, and makes its own decisions about whom to audit. The agency also says its definitions of political activity are clear and consistent.

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