Ontario birdwatcher group targeted for being too political?

Dangerous political types? Bird watching image by vastateparksstaff

Dangerous political types? Bird watching image by vastateparksstaff, Creative Commons

Remember the scandal in the U.S. over IRS scrutiny of non-profits with possible ties to Tea Party-type movements?

Well, Canada has its own version of that, according to some environmental organizations who feel they have been targeted for hostile inspection by Revenue Canada.

The latest such example comes in the form of  the Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists. A birdwatching club, if you will, though they care about other wildlife too. Here’s the group’s mission statement:

TO acquire and disseminate knowledge of natural history.
TO protect and preserve wildlife.
TO purchase and hold appropriate parcels of land for the advancement of conservation.

TO support public interest in nature and its preservation by supporting the enactment of wise legislation and by other means as falls within the scope of the Corporation.

That may not sound very political or dangerous. But some would say that environmentalism has become politically fraught in Canada, because so many environmentalists oppose stances taken by the current conservative government.

As reported by the CBC:

The Canada Revenue Agency launched a special program of so-called political activity audits after Budget 2012 provided $8 million for the project, later topped up to $13.4 million.

The rules say a charity can devote no more than 10 per cent of its resources to political activities, and none to partisan activities, but critics say the guidelines are fuzzy or can be Byzantine in their complexity.

A special squad of 15 auditors has so far targeted some 52 charities, many of them critical of Conservative government policies. Environment groups were hard hit in the first round in 2012-13, but the net has since widened to snare social justice and poverty groups, among others.

So far, no group has been deregistered, but the audits have been expensive and disruptive for charities, many of which operate on a shoestring.

According to media reports, earlier this year the Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists got a letter from tax auditors that found no violations but sternly cautioned against exceeding limits on political activity.

The club has chosen to refrain from public comment. But at least one member has not. Writing in The Record.com, Roger Suffling concluded the audit was linked to the group’s concern about neonicotinoids, insecticides implicated in bee and butterfly decline:

Last winter, the directors of our naturalists’ club — the Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists — voiced concern to then federal Agriculture Minister, Gerry Ritz, about the impact of these new insecticides, whose use the European Union has suspended. We added footnotes and references: We wanted our little club to be taken seriously. And we were.

Federal Minister for the Environment, Leona Aglukkaq, replied on March 14. We had our response, and we weren’t happy with it, but that is how democracy works, right?

Wrong. On almost the same day, we received a March 11 audit from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). Thus I take no comfort in the late finance minister Jim Flaherty’s statement that “we don’t choose who is audited by the CRA. That’s up to the CRA”

Though the detailed, five-page letter determined that our club was in compliance, the auditor concluded ominously: “We trust that (the club) will take appropriate action … including refraining from undertaking any partisan activities. This letter does not preclude any future audits.” (My emphasis).

Though he speaks for himself, Suffling is an adjunct professor at the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo. Here is his “take away” from the whole experience:

The local naturalists club was silenced when its views became known to government and it was silenced for voicing public concern, not for breaking the rules. How many other inconvenient charities are there out there?

I suppose this issue is two-fold. The first question would be: Is there societal agreement that non-profit groups should limit political activity? If so, then how should that be policed?

Because Tea Party organizations and bird watchers can probably agree on this: upholding rules is one thing. Selective harassment is another.

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9 Comments on “Ontario birdwatcher group targeted for being too political?”

  1. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    It should be noted that the IRS audited liberal groups as well as conservative groups. But the loophole is that political speech can be simply labelled education and it is fine.

    We here in the USA have been even tougher on liberal groups. Remember ELF? They burned down a lift shack or something on a mountain in Colorado with no humans except themselves anywhere near them and that earned the label of Terrorist Organization!!! (Add foreboding music).

    It is kind of laughable that a bunch of people who are probably mostly peaceniks, vegetarians, and spend most of their time worrying about how to rescue furry, feathered, and finned creatures would be classified as terrorist. But maybe Canada can do the same thing with those bird and insect lovers.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    I think the real problem is that not for profits have become a growth industry. If it keeps up, people will start demanding that all organizations pay taxes on income (donations) including churches, all 501-C’s and even churches.

  3. pirateedwardlow says:

    I am pretty sure when it all came down, the IRS was targeting all political groups, not just Tea Party… and since this article isn’t about that, why drag them in… I see KHL also noted this

  4. I have no idea why the scrutiny of not-for-profits was a “scandal.” ALL not-for-profits, including churches, should be analyzed to see if they are following the laws which grant them the PRIVILEGE not having to pay taxes based on certain contingencies.

  5. Mervel says:

    So should they audit your card group? How about a group that gets together once and a while to watch birds? I find the targeting of groups that are not in business to make a profit; in general to be very problematic, particularly when they are small grassroots groups. The tax law exists to tax a business or a corporation, the only checking that should be done is to ensure that you are not a business or a corporation. To me this type of thing shows the true invasion of personal liberty that the power of government can breach without checks on that power.

    At its core a not for profit is just a group of people who decided to get together on a regular basis, sometimes for a particular cause sometimes just for fun. It could be just social. The idea that the government has to “monitor” these groups is a real problem.

  6. Mervel says:

    The issue is consistency and neutrality. But lets face it NO government is truly consistent or neutral, all governments are political in nature, which is why we have a court system and why we have checks and balances. A federal government with a Conservative bent has the power and will harass groups it disagrees with or can cause its agenda trouble, and vice versa.

  7. Michael Greer says:

    Except when it’s NOT visa-versa. Conservative groups are on the defensive because the outdated ideas are beginning to fray, and like a trapped rat, they will turn vicious. That sort of all or nothing anger, fuelled by so much old money and old power is a frightening thing….which is of course the plan. It’s called terrorism. It’s not being waged against the non-profit folks so much as against the political left and their new ideas.

  8. Mervel says:

    Sure it is, when conservatives are in power they will try to find ways to harass groups they don’t like, when liberals are in power they do the same, its politics. However that is why we have rules in place to protect us from the power of government.

    To me the bigger deal are for-profit entities, which are operating as a not for profit. Senator Grassly from Iowa has been looking into some of this particularly in health care where you have these very large institutions, making billions of dollars through private and public insurances, who are not doing much if any charity care, and are paying their CEO’s millions per year; and claiming to be a not for profit. They are a for profit entity, they simply distribute their profits in the form of bloated salaries. I would have to say there are also some so called religious “ministries” that are doing the same, they are for all practical purposes businesses; they are selling books, they are selling any number of things and they are paying market CEO salaries. Those are the kind of things I want looked at, not what the non for profit is doing which to me is none of the governments business.

  9. Walker says:

    The whole idea that political action by non-profits is banned is pretty ridiculous. The NRA is a tax-exempt nonprofit; does anyone really think that they avoid political action?

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