Has the chill on free speech begun to lift in Canada?

Under Stephen Harper, left-leaning charities were often intimidated into silence by the CRA, harming all Canadians. Justin Trudeau seems to want to reverse that trend.

In his mandate letter to Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave a laundry list of things he wants his new cabinet to accomplish. It’s worth a read, because it’s an intimidating list, and the sheer scope of the tasks Morneau has been handed is awesome. Considering how stressed I become when I have to take out the garbage and weed the garden on the same day, I’ve earned a new respect for how ungodly busy people at high levels of government are.

Buried near the bottom of this laundry list is a paragraph that is currently attracting lots of attention in certain circles:

In particular, I will expect you to…

…work with the Minister of National Revenue to allow charities to do their work on behalf of Canadians free from political harassment, and modernize the rules governing the charitable and non-for-profit sectors. This will include clarifying the rules governing “political activity,” with an understanding that charities make an important contribution to public debate and public policy. A new legislative framework to strengthen the sector will emerge from this process.

Well, this is very exciting news to those of us who have anything to do with the charitable sector. It’s exciting because under the Harper government, left-leaning charities–that is, charities who had an interest in the environment, helping poor people, protecting free speech, and other ridiculous commie pinko ideas–had found themselves suddenly under the microscope of the CRA, Canada’s version of the IRS. The government would decide that it wanted to conduct a political activity audit of the charity in question, because it had somehow learned that it may have exceeded its allotted percentage of “partisan political activity.” This term is very loosely defined–in fact, it doesn’t seem to have a definition at all, which means it means whatever the government wants it to mean.

These audits were not just financial. A political activity audit is essentially a scan for thoughtcrime. If the CRA felt that a charity’s activities were too overtly partisan–that is, if it had written too many articles or promoted too many ideas that were partisan in nature–it could yank charitable status. That would mean that the charity would probably cease to exist. Needless to say, no prominent right-leaning charities, such as the Fraser Institute or the C.D. Howe Institute, were audited that we know of, despite their blatantly partisan stances.

Sometimes it didn’t actually matter if the status was yanked or not. Dealing with an audit is very expensive, and it consumes a huge amount of time. Most small charities simply can’t deal with them. So, they tried to avoid them by staying quiet. This is known as a chilling effect. People shut up in order not to draw attention to themselves. It’s how repressive governments silence dissent… and in Canada, to some extent, it worked.

Sometimes these audits were conducted in purely asinine fashion. Two examples spring to mind.

One is that of the Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists, a dangerous group who pose a threat to governments everywhere. The Field Naturalists had the audacity to write to a couple of ministers, telling them of the bad effects that certain government-approved chemicals had on bee colonies. They promptly received a letter warning them to knock it off or be audited. The Field Naturalists, by the way, are bird watchers. Next to librarians, they are practically the archetype of harmlessness. But the letter had the intended effect. The Field Naturalists were so thoroughly chilled by this letter they wouldn’t even comment on it, nor would they respond to my emails urging them to speak up about what they were experiencing.

But the most egregious example has to be that of Oxfam Canada, whose stated purpose is “to prevent and relieve poverty, vulnerability and suffering by improving the conditions of individuals whose lives, livelihood, security or well-being are at risk.”

Horrible, right? I mean, why don’t they just start marrying their sisters and snorting heroin on playgrounds?

The CRA evidently thinks that relieving poverty is right up there with puppy-kicking and wealth redistribution. The CBC reported:

“Relieving poverty is charitable, but preventing it is not,” the group was warned [by the CRA].

“Preventing poverty could mean providing for a class of beneficiaries that are not poor.”

In other words, relieving poverty is a violation of the partisan political activity rule, and it had to stop.

It reminds me of a quote by Dom Helder Camara:

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

In the course of my volunteer work for PEN Canada, I wrote this long post about how the CRA almost certainly targeted Canadian Mennonite magazine for its criticisms of the Conservative Party of Canada in general, and then-Public Safety Minister Vic Toews in particular. I was so paranoid about being personally targeted by them in retaliation that I wouldn’t sign my name to the piece–a stance I regret now that I have seen how writers around the world, such as Raif Badawi or Dr. Abdul-Jalil al-Singace, are treated by far more repressive governments. There is a long list of other charities who were targeted as well, all of them apparently left-leaning, all of them forced to deal with the incredible pain in the ass that is a CRA audit.

And it happened to PEN Canada, too.

How did the CRA decide to target us? Well, we asked, but we still haven’t found out. This process in itself was very long, drawn-out, and ultimately fruitless. Tasleem Thawar at PEN Canada created a timeline of it, which is worth examining, if only to see how hard it is to pry information out of the government. What little information we received was redacted, ostensibly to protect the privacy of whoever complained about us to the CRA. Fair enough, I suppose. I’m all in favor of privacy. What I’m not in favor of is the CRA being misused as the personal army of a vengeful, petty, paranoid dictator, which is exactly what Stephen Harper was.

My very strong hope is that someday soon there will be a parliamentary inquiry into whether the CRA actually was used this way. There is boundless circumstantial evidence to suggest it; what is needed is someone brave enough to come forward and say, “Yes, we were instructed to target these charities by the PMO, because someone up there was angry at them for being opposed to tar sands development, or the war effort in Afghanistan, or… “

The ordinary Canadian may not have felt any obvious effects of the chill that took hold in this country, but I promise you, those effects are real, and they are far-reaching, and they are insidious. Sometimes the hardest changes to spot are the ones that mean something didn’t happen… after all, how can you see something that isn’t there? This article from desmog.ca does a very good job of explaining why charitable work is so incredibly important for our society, and not just because they hand out free turkeys at Christmas, either.

The reform to the political activity rule will be a long time coming. It’s part of a process, and because it involves bureaucracy, it will be slow. Until then, Canadians can at least breathe a sigh of relief that our new PM seems to show none of the tendencies that made the old one so despicable.