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On July 23, 2012, the Canadian Mennonite received a warning letter from Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) concerning “partisan political activities” that could lead to a revocation of its charitable status. In November 2012, It was made public that four of its articles and two editorials were cited by the CRA as the basis for this “reminder” letter.
On July 23, 2012, the Canadian Mennonite received a warning letter from the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA) concerning “partisan political activities” supposedly undertaken by the Canadian Mennonite that could lead to sanctions and eventually to the removal of its charitable status.
The Canadian Mennonite relies on its charitable status to receive funding from Mennonite Church Canada and other local churches, and to provide tax receipts to donors.
The letter took editor and publisher Dick Brenner by surprise.
Mr. Brenner quickly made a phone call to the CRA asking for clarification as to why the warning was issued.
Articles too political
He was informed that four articles and two editorials published by the Canadian Mennonite motivated the warning letter. The articles were all published under the Young Voices section.
The four articles pointed to by the CRA included ‘Planes for Peace,’ an article about youth sending paper planes to Parliament Hill to “deliver a message to Harper: spend less on war”; ‘Jack Layton inspires young people to vote for change’; ‘Political issues for a young electorate’, which describes a young activist’s support for the NDP; and ‘MCC calls on feds to seriously rethink bill C-10’, that challenged the federal omnibus crime bill by claiming it was focused on punishment rather than “healing.”
The editorials were written by Dick Brenner in the spring of 2011. The first one was entitled ‘Vote your core belief,’ which urged its readers to vote for a politician dedicated to “peacemaking, compassion for the poor and care for creation” and the second, ‘A Political Lament’ which expressed the author’s sadness at “the take-over by a militaristic Conservative majority government in Monday’s elections in Canada.”
Reacting to the CRA warning letter, Dick Brenner commented on the CBC “I didn't see this as political advocacy because we were speaking out of our core beliefs.” He also mentioned that in the future he will have to be “very careful,” that “that restricts me as a journalist and religious commentator,” and that this is “a chill on free speech.”
The Canadian Mennonite chose not to publicize the warning until November 12, 2012 when they published an article and an editorial called "'Political reminder’ disturbing." The editorial author, Dick Brenner stated, “I take seriously my duty to represent our core beliefs in a prophetic and redemptive manner that sometimes challenges the ‘powers’ (government) in the area of militarism and injustices that affect the poor, the ‘stranger’ (immigrant), indigenous peoples and protecting our economy over the environment.”
Climate of scrutiny for Canadian charities
Under the Income Tax Act, charitable organizations are “prohibited from engaging in partisan political activities,” but are allowed to devote no more than 10 per cent of resources to advocacy and political activities. What is off the table for charities is “partisan” activity, defined as “direct or indirect support of, or opposition to, any political party or candidate for public office.”
In March 2012, despite deep cuts to several public programs, the 2012 federal Budget allocated an extra $8 million to the CRA to increase the agency’s ability to audit charities that might devote more than 10 per cent of its budget to advocacy-related or “political” activities, a move that has sent a chill across Canadian civil society.
PEN Canada, an organization that fights censorship and promotes freedom of expression, has spoken out about the Canadian Mennonite case, claiming that today’s laws bracketing the activities of charitable organizations are too restrictive.
“Democratic governments should never get into the business of deciding which political activities a given charity can pursue,” stated Philip Slayton, Chair of PEN Canada's National Affairs Committee.
Other groups such as Tides Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation and Environmental Defence have received warnings regarding the “political” activities they undertake, and Physicians for Global Survival had its charitable status revoked in the summer of 2012.
- July 23, 2012: The Canadian Mennonite receives letter of warning from CRA pointing to “partisan political activities” that might lead to a revocation of its charitable status.
- November 12, 2012: The Canadian Mennonite goes public with its account and reactions to receiving the letter of warning from the CRA.
- November 19, 2012: PEN Canada makes a statement expressing concerning over the issue of what constitutes “partisan” activity and voices concern that it is being used to curb dissent.
Role or Position
The Canadian Mennonite is a charitable organization with the mandate to “educate, inspire, inform, and foster dialogue on issues facing Mennonite Church Canada” across the country. It produces a periodical entitled the ‘Canadian Mennonite Magazine’ and creates an online space for articles, blogs and events.
Implications and Consequences
- Free Speech: The Canadian Mennonite has been subject to direct censorship in what is a public policy issue but not a partisan or political one. It further violates the organization’s freedom of religion and related expressive activities.
- Democracy: An extra $8 million granted in the 2012 federal budget for increased scrutiny from the CRA is being directed at monitoring the activities of progressive charities. Increases in the surveillance of charities accompanied with the threat of losing charitable status creates an increasingly hostile environment for advocacy and dissent. The fear of overstepping limitations and having charitable status revoked for ideological reasons reduces the ability of civil society organizations to participate in the lively public debate that is at the core of democracy.
Date published: 20 December 2012