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Right-Wing Charities Escaping CRA Audits: New Report from Broadbent Institute

A new report from the Broadbent Institute raises fresh questions about whether Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) audits are being used as a politicized tool to pressure critics of the federal government. 

The report, Stephen Harper’s CRA: Selective audits, “political” activity, and right-leaning charities, says several right-leaning charities are reporting zero “political” activity while engaging in work that appears to meet the CRA’s definition.

“We know charities that have been critical of policies of the Harper government are being audited by the Canada Revenue Agency. With mounting evidence suggesting bias in auditing decisions, we need to find out what’s going on here,” said Rick Smith, executive director of Broadbent Institute, a non-partisan organization founded by former NDP Leader Ed Broadbent.

Fifty-two charities are being targeted in a $13.4 million audit program launched by the federal government in 2012 to determine whether any are violating a rule that limits spending on political activities to 10 per cent of resources. Those charities include Environmental Defence, the David Suzuki Foundation, Canada Without Poverty, Ecology Action Centre and Equiterre.

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The Broadbent report examined publicly available CRA tax filings of 10 charities and cross-referenced these with their publicly available work. In each case, the charities had reported that they had conducted no political activity between 2011 and 2013.

The Broadbent Institute’s review, which includes the Fraser Institute, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and Focus on the Family, provides examples of activity for each of the charities that appear to meet the CRA’s definition of “political.”

For example, on Oct. 22, 2012, the Fraser Institute released a report calling for the B.C. government to lift its moratorium on offshore oil and gas exploration, which appears to fall under the CRA’s guideline on what constitutes political activity, which states an activity is political if “the intention of the activity is to incite, or organize to put pressure on, an elected representative or public official to retain, oppose, or change the law, policy, or decision of any level of government in Canada or a foreign country.”

The report raises fresh questions about the CRA’s selection process for determining which charities are targeted for political-activity audits.

Other groups scrutinized in the Broadbent report are: Macdonald-Laurier Institute, C.D. Howe Institute, the Montreal Economic Institute, Canadian Constitution Foundation, Energy Probe Research Foundation, Frontier Centre for Public Policy and Institute for Canadian Values.

It’s unknown whether any of these groups are currently under audit.

The Broadbent Institute is calling for the establishment of an independent inquiry to examine CRA processes to ensure transparency and fairness in its decision-making criteria around political-activity audits and interpretations of “political” activity, and to ensure such processes are not subject to political pressures or interference. 

“Political activity is a critical part of many charities’ work. Progressive or conservative, blunting the ability of civil society to advocate and to engage in debate and, occasionally, dissent should concern us all,” Smith said.

Photo: Obert Madondo via Flickr

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When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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