Pen Canada, Freedom of Expression Charity Supported by Margaret Atwood and Yann Martel, to Undergo Political Activity Audit

Pen Canada, a Canadian charity that fights for freedom of expression and represents more than 1,000 writers and supports is the latest group identified for a political-activities audit by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA).

The group has been a vocal opponent of some of the Harper government’s recent policies, including the muzzling of federal scientists and the alleged surveillance of Canadian citizens as revealed through the Edward Snowden leaks.

Follow revelations of mass state surveillance, Pen Canada advocated for an adoption of “International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance.”

The organization also spoke out against restrictive communications protocols, implemented by the Harper government, that prevent federal scientists from speaking with the media about their research. “The federal government’s restriction on media access to publicly funded scientists have become a serious infringement on the right to freedom of expression in Canada,” the group wrote on its website.

Federal auditors appeared at Pen Canada’s offices yesterday, asking to review internal documents, the Globe and Mail reports.

Philip Slayton, the group’s president, said they are fully cooperating with the audit, of which they were notified two or three months ago.

The audit places Pen Canada among the ranks of several other charities currently under audit. The list includes prominent charities such as the David Suzuki Foundation, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Canada Without Poverty, Environmental Defence, ForestEthics, Tides Canada and Amnesty International Canada.

So far Physicians for Global Survival, a group advocating against nuclear weapons, is the only Canadian charity to have its charitable status revoked for being deemed too political.

As DeSmog Canada recently reported, new research done by Gareth Kirkby, a former journalist and graduate student at Royal Roads University, suggests Canada’s charitable sector has come under threat from federal policies that hinder the ability of advocacy groups to carry out their mandate.

Kirkby’s research, which included the anonymous participation of 16 charities currently under audit, confirmed charities are self-censoring due to the threat of audits, which place a strain on the groups’ resources.

Even groups not currently under audit have augmented their messaging, Kirkby found, in anticipation or fear of a potential audit.

The result is a ‘chill effect,’ Kirkby stated.

Environmental charities advocating on issues related to the oil and gas industry, Kirkby discovered, “seem to be the most heavily targeted.”

In 2012, before the federal government announced $8 million dollars would be devoted to the investigation and audit of Canadian charities (DeSmog Canada subsequently discovered through Access to Information legislation the figure is actually well above $13 million), Prime Minister Stephen Harper was asked about environmental charities critical of government policy receiving federal funding.

He said, “If it’s the case that we’re spending on organizations that are doing things contrary to government policy, I think that is an inappropriate use of taxpayer’s money and we’ll look to eliminate it.”

The CRA maintains the audits are not politically motivated, despite ongoing criticism from many groups and individuals.

The Globe and Mail reports Pen Canada has held only one or two full-time positions in recent years and, according to its latest tax records, reported just $237,000 in expenses for the 2011-2012 fiscal year.

The group reported no political activities, although charities are allowed to spend 10 per cent of their resources on political activities under CRA rules. Partisan activities are off limits.

Slayton said Pen Canada has played by the rules although the CRA rules regarding political activities are unclear.

“They (the rules) are vaguely formulated,” he told the Globe and Mail. “There’s a lot of room for interpretation. We’ll see what the CRA thinks.”

He added the audit is a drain on the group’s resources. “This is taking up a lot of time,” he said, in reference to the preparatory work they had to do before the auditors arrived. The process is expected to take months and possibly over one year.

“I refuse to let it have a chilling effect on us,” Slayton said. “We are not going to have some kind of fear – about having our charitable status questioned by authorities – stop us speaking out on issues.”

“If it means you have to live in fear of the revenue authorities, and if it means that there are things you want to say, you feel you should say, but you feel you cannot say because of the rules, well then, what price [is] charitable registration?”

Image Credit: Margaret Atwood by Thompson Rivers University via Flickr.

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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