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Ongoing Audits of Canada’s Charities a Violation of Human Rights, United Nations Hears

Canada Without Poverty, an Ottawa-based charity, is arguing the sweeping audits of charities by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) are a violation of human rights before the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva this week.

Harriett McLachlan, president of Canada Without Poverty, told the CBC she will argue the contentious audits violate Canada’s international commitments.

The Canada Revenue Agency has targeted 60 Canadian charities in a $13.4 million audit program to determine if the groups are violating rules that limit their spending on political activities to 10 per cent of resources.

McLachlan told the CBC the political activity rules silence groups like Canada Without Poverty that advocate for increased government accountability. Charities in Canada are prevented from engaging in any partisan activity.

"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 told the CBC.

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

In March the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre released a report that called for broad reforms to Canada’s charitable law.

Rules around political activity, considered by the CRA to be any activity that seeks to change, opposed or retain laws or policies, have created an “intolerable state of uncertainty” for charities, the report states.

“This has created a confused and anxious charitable sector and detracts from them carrying out their important work,” Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the Environmental Law Centre, said.

The report recommends Canada modernize laws to both establish clearer political activity rules and to allow for more advocacy work for groups working to protect the public interest. Many European countries place no restrictions on the political activities of charities.

In early March, 18 prominent Canadian charities including Oxfam Canada, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, the David Suzuki Foundation and Equiterre, wrote a letter to Canada’s political parties asking them for platforms committed to enhancing freedom for charities wishing to engage in public policy matters.

The groups argued in their letter that “without years of organizing effort by Canadian charities, Canada would not have dealt with issues such as addressing acid rain, promoting safe driving, reducing smoking and banning toxic chemicals.”

Recently federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau announced his party platform will include new rules to protect charities from political intimidation.

The UN Human Rights Committee selects a number of countries for review each year and this is the first time the Harper government will face the panel of independent experts.

Kairos and Amnesty International Canada will join Canada Without Poverty, raising concerns around Canada’s troubling failure to address the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women as well as the country’s legacy of child abuse in indigenous residential schools.

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

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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