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When audits work like a weapon, they’re a weapon

I’ve been active in various charities for a lot of years, in a variety of capacities from street-level volunteer to board president. Some of those charities do what some people would call “political activity.”

If you advocate for the poor and disabled, or seek changes to government policy, that’s “political activity.” The base level of democracy is to raise issues and present a case on questions upon which you and I vote. Who better to present a case, than the non-profits who work in the areas concerned?

We happen to live in an era when governments don’t like that. An effective way to get the advocacy arm of a charity to “shut the hell up” is to starve them of resources.

If you’re the federal government, you do that by tasking an arms-length agency, like the Canada Revenue Agency, to find a way to have your federal charitable licence number revoked. No licence number, no ability to issue tax-deductible charitable receipts to donors, no fundraising — no advocacy.

Here’s a short list of some of the “political activity” I’ve been involved with, through the work of local non-profits:

— Improvements to the province’s Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped program, to increase supports to a liveable level, and to make it possible for adults with disabilities to risk trying to work part-time, without losing their benefits;

— The creation of the Alberta Brain Injury Network, one of the nation’s most cost-efficient provincial programs doing case management for people who survived horrific trauma, and were then more or less left to fend for themselves;

— And yes, that brain-eating monster of municipal programs anywhere: bike lanes.

— mention these only to illustrate my innate suspicion of the federal government’s motives in tasking the CRA with millions of dollars in special funding to audit charities the government just happens to loathe; environmental groups arguing against pipelines, human rights groups and charities that receive funding from labour unions.

It is hugely expensive for non-profits to comply with audits. Can you imagine launching a public appeal for donations, so that the money raised can be paid to six-figure accountants, rather than the people your board members and staff have dedicated themselves to help?

Federal and provincial rules need to be followed, so that donors can be assured the agencies they support are on the up-and-up. That is self-evident.

But the costs for this are very high. I once served on a board that eventually lost United Way support; I simply could not stomach fundraising the equivalent of return tickets to a villa in Provence just to comply with their regulations on reporting, never mind providing a community service.

It was such a dispiriting experience, I doubt I will ever volunteer for membership on a fundraising board, ever again.

The federal government’s audits take this to a whole new level. Their resources have no limit, and even though the charities currently undergoing audits are large enough on their own, this isn’t seeking a just outcome. This is intimidation.

Shut the hell up. Or else.

Revenue minister Kerry-Lyne Findlay says the CRA is arms-length from government. They do the government’s work, but they do it without interference from government officers.

Except the CRA audits can be launched on the basis of complaints against the non-profits involved.

Who launched a flurry of complaints against the environmental groups? A group called Ethical Oil. Who was a founder of Ethical Oil? Alykhan Velshi, currently an aide to prime minister Stephen Harper.

Gareth Kirby is a journalist who is now a grad student at Royal Roads University in Victoria. He wrote his master’s thesis after interviewing 16 agencies who could potentially come under a CRA audit for “political activity.”

They cited a definite chill in their work, not just because the revoking of their charitable licence could shut them down, but because the cost of legitimately surviving the audit is so high, it would consume them.

Whether innocent or guilty, the audit could be ruinous.

In my own small way, I’ve seen how this works.

An audit — or just the threat of one — keeps non-profits honest. But when the audits act like a weapon against agencies the government doesn’t like, they are indeed a weapon.

Arms-length or not, this is the effect. Shut the hell up.

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