Canadian Charity Chill


By Jim Taylor

In retrospect, the writing appeared on the wall November 9, 2009. On that day, Bev Oda, then Canada’s Minister for International Cooperation, signed an order rejecting government funding for the ecumenical justice organization Kairos.

CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency, had in fact recommended the exact opposite — that Kairos receive increased funding. CIDA had worked with Kairos for 35 years. Almost 40 per cent of Kairos’ operating funds came from CIDA.

One would think that such a long-term relationship meant that Kairos was operating within CIDA’s goals, wouldn’t one?

Apparently not. Because someone inserted a handwritten “not” into the official recommendation: “That you…approve a contribution of $7,098,768 over four years for the above programs.”

The infamous “not” was not there when two senior departmental officials signed their approval on September 25. If it was there when Oda signed on November 9, then she overruled her own senior staff. If it wasn’t there when Oda signed, then some anonymous person took the liberty of deliberately reversing a departmental decision.

Regardless, the “not” stood. Oda did not restore funding. Jason Kenney, at the time minister for immigration, backed up his cabinet colleague by asserting that Kairos lost its funding because the government was dismantling its relationships with organizations that support banned terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah and “deny the Jewish people’s right to a homeland.”


Unfortunately, we couldn’t read the writing on the wall.

That term comes from the biblical book of Daniel, in which Babylonian king Belshazzar throws a drunken revel for a thousand nobles. At the height of the festivities, a disembodied hand writes on a wall: “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin”. None of the king’s courtiers could decrypt the meaning. But the Hebrew slave Daniel, summoned to the king’s presence, declared that the four words meant, “God has numbered the days of your rule; You have been weighed on the scales and you don’t weigh much; Even now, your empire is being divided up and handed over to the Medes and Persians.”

If Daniel’s handwritten message was a warning to the king, Oda’s was a message from the king, directed at dissenters.

As we’re realizing now, it was not just about Kairos. For two years now, the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) has been systematically auditing charitable organizations that dare criticize the king. Sorry — the prime minister.

Canadian Press revealed that 52 such organizations are being audited. They include Amnesty International, Oxfam, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Also the United Church of Canada, which administers funding for Kairos on behalf of a coalition of 11 Catholic and Protestant faith groups — the Anglican, Evangelical Lutheran, and Presbyterian Churches, the United Church itself, the Quakers, the Mennonite Central Committee, and several Roman Catholic bodies including the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The CRA doesn’t release its reasons for conducting an audit. But Erik Mathiesen, the United Church’s chief financial officer, noted that virtually all of the auditors’ questions related to political activity, focused on Kairos.

The larger meaning of “not” now seems clear: Don’t rock the ruler’s boat!

Charities now must declare whether they participated in political activities such as petitions, boycotts, or letter-writing campaigns.
Canada Revenue Agency did offer an explanation for one of its audits.

Oxfam’s routine application for non-profit status included this purpose: “To prevent and relieve poverty, vulnerability, and suffering by improving the conditions of individuals whose lives, livelihood, security or well-being are at risk.”

According to Canadian Press, CRA officials informed Oxfam that “preventing poverty” was not an acceptable goal. “Relieving poverty is charitable, but preventing it is not.”

The CRA’s Philippe Brideau e-mailed, “Purposes that relieve poverty are charitable because they provide relief only to eligible beneficiaries, those in need. However, the courts have not found the risk of poverty as being equivalent to actually being in need. Therefore…an organization cannot be registered with the explicit purpose of preventing poverty.”

I’m sure it’s only coincidence that Oxfam signed a joint letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, last year. And that Jason Kenney criticized Oxfam this year by for opposing Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

PEN Canada, a small charity that advocates freedom of speech, joined the ranks of the audited last week. In the past, PEN has objected to the government’s muzzling of scientists on the public payroll.

PEN’s total annual budget is less than $250,000. The CRA has budgeted $13 million to crack down on charities who cross an invisible line.
Charities have said the CRA campaign drains their cash and resources, creating a so-called “advocacy chill” as they self-censor to avoid aggravating auditors or attracting fresh audits.

Ottawa blogger James Russell commented wryly, “Charities are limited by law in what they can spend on overtly political activity. I am not aware of any limits on the CRA.”
Copyright © 2014 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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