The editor of Canadian Mennonite magazine says that he was puzzled, saddened and disheartened to get a letter from the Canada Revenue Agency warning that his publication was being too political and could lose its charitable status as a result. “I took it personally,” writes editor Richard Benner in the magazine’s November 12 edition.
The letter from a CRA bureaucrat was dated July 23 and it said: “It has come to our attention that recent issues of the organization’s monthly periodical entitled Canadian Mennonite, have contained editorials and/or articles that appear to promote opposition to a political party, or to candidates for public office.” The letter went on to say that, “Registered charities that engage in partisan political activities jeopardize their charitable status and can be subject to revocation.”
Canadian Mennonite is registered as a charity so it can receive funds from Mennonite Church Canada and area churches. It can provide tax receipts to donors.
Benner told CBC News that after receiving the letter he called the CRA and asked for examples of what the agency considered to be offending articles. They cited two editorials and four articles.
One of the editorials, written prior to the May 2011 federal election, suggested that readers vote based on the Mennonite beliefs of pacifism, social justice and environmentalism. The editorial also offered some critical comments about two Conservative MPs, including Public Safety Minister Vic Toews. In another editorial following the election, Benner wrote about “a militaristic Conservative majority government” in Canada.”
The offending articles cited by the CRA were published in the magazine’s Young Voices section and included a story on the church’s concerns about the federal omnibus crime bill. Another dwelt on how the death of NDP leader Jack Layton inspired some young Mennonites to get involved in politics. A third talked about Mennonite youth urging the federal government to spend less money on war by (symbolically) sending paper airplanes to Ottawa.
Benner writes that his magazine deals with political issues only infrequently and he denies that any of the magazine’s writing, is partisan. “Yes, we have specifically called the government to account on some of its policies and practices in what we perceive is excessive spending on military weapons, on its immigration and public safety and prison matters. These are areas of primary concern to our young people . . . but they are not partisan, per se.”
Benner writes: “It grates on every journalistic bone in my body to have to be ‘reminded’ by the government that I have crossed the line in what I consider a professional and religious duty.” He continues, “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. “
Benner adds that the CRA letter represents a “chill” on free speech. “Rather than feeling the freedom to represent my church in its witness, I now feel constrained to couch my voice in non-critical terms for fear of losing charitable status that favours us with certain financial advantages …”
David Suzuki hounded
There is a context here that goes well beyond magazines and newspapers to include development organizations, and in particular environmental organizations that are in any way critical of the government and its policies.
In April 2012, renowned environmentalist David Suzuki stepped aside from the foundation that he had created in 1990. Suzuki cited frequent attacks on him by opponents in the Conservative universe and subsequent threats to the group’s charitable status as the reason why he left the foundation bearing his name.
In an open letter at the time Suzuki wrote: “I am keenly aware that some governments, industries and special interest groups are working hard to silence us. They use threats to the Foundation’s charitable status in attempts to mute its powerful voice on issues that matter deeply to you and many other Canadians.”
Suzuki had been under relentless criticism by the Sun Media newspapers and television network — which in some quarters is called Fox News North. Right wing pundit Ezra Levant and others involved with the network insisted that the Suzuki Foundation’s charitable status should be revoked because Suzuki was too political.
Suzuki also said that his foundation had been audited three times prior to 2012. “It’s very demoralizing,” he said in a media interview. “The last time we were audited I think it cost over $100,000 of our money to do that, so it’s a very expensive, punitive thing that can be done.”
The campaign to vilify Suzuki and to undercut his foundation followed unprecedented attacks by Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver and Conservative Senators upon environmental groups questioning or opposing government supported energy mega projects.
CIDA chops funding
There is also speculation that a number of development organizations lost their funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) because they were critical of either the hasty pace of development in the oil sands or of the practices of Canadian mining companies abroad. One of the organizations to lose CIDA funding was the Mennonite Central Committee. Another was the Catholic international development group Development and Peace, which saw its CIDA funding reduced drastically.
The leaders these organizations chose to remain quiet about their treatment at the hands of CIDA. Likely they made no comment because they feared reprisals down the road if they went public. Like Mr. Benner at the Canadian Mennonite, they have found their contacts with the government and its agencies to be unsettling.
This a government with a notoriously thin skin and a pronounced authoritarian streak, prepared to use all of the state levers at its disposal to punish those perceived as enemies — but then governments come and they go.
So true! We all have to couch our speech in fluffy nothings to avoid being further “punished”. The CCCB has created havoc with the CCODP fall action for similar reasons, I hunch. We no longer have the right and privilege, as a democratic country, to freedom of speech, to the rights inherent in the codes of this wonderful country. For shame!
Thanks Miriam. I found the editorial from Mr. Benner of Canadian Mennonite in response to CRA to be quite hopeful. He is disappointed and frustrated but he’s not giving up.
Thank you for shining light on this story.
While I think it is important that groups with charitable status not abuse that status to devote most of their energy towards political campaigns, I also feel that it is important for voices of conscience to have the opportunity to speak out. This type of harrassment is disturbing. It is interesting in this context, to read about Bishop von Galen, who inspired the anti-Nazi resistance group, die Weisse Rose: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clemens_August_Graf_von_Galen
I agree with you 100% Jan and I’m so glad that this story has been told. I think it deserves much wider public exposure.
I am genuinely disappointed with what Harper has done to Canada’s reputation in the world.
Are you aware of Ceasefire.ca?
Thanks for your comment Pauli. I was not aware of ceasefire.ca. I will look for it. Would you care to tell me and others (in this space) what you find useful about it?
Ceasefire.ca is a site where people of conscience in Canada can go to work together toward creating awareness regarding the militarist oriented decisions being made by this current Conservative government. The purchase of F-35 stealth fighters and massive military spending is of prime concern. Opposing the pro war lobby, Ceasefire’s goal is to make Canada a peace leader once again. Believing that disarmament is ultimately the path to peace, Ceasefire aims to make Canada a leader in the world for peace and social justice.
One fact above all needs to be understood about the Harper government. Our Prime Minister is, first and foremost, a bully and his followers emulate him with enthusiasm. Closely allied with this bullying is an obsession with secrecy and stifling dissent.
Many people will remember Harper’s government kicking Canadian churches out foreign development programs because of the churches’ respect for human rights over profit. The Conservative government worships at the altar of profit and is vicious in its attacks on any church that dares to question its conduct. In short, for ‘Harper Conservatives’, churches that take the gospel seriously are ‘the enemy’.
The latest Tory assault on democratic rights combines an attempt to stifle free speech with an assault on another faith community. Today it is Mennonites who are being told not to proclaim the gospel, but to get on board with the celebration of warfare and profiteering or suffer the consequences.
This attempt to kill two birds (freedom of religion and freedom of speech) with one shot (financial punishment) is quite consistent with other Tory actions, including voter suppression and other electoral misconduct, that reveal a deep contempt for democracy on the Conservative benches in Parliament. Conservatives in Ottawa talk about the need for democracy in other countries while strangling it at home.
A great many of our grandparents and great grandparents came to Canada seeking religious freedom. Thousands of Canadians went overseas in World War I and World War II to defend democratic freedoms and human rights. Today we have the revolting spectacle of Conservatives trying to prop up their popularity by celebrating war while, at the same time, doing everything they can to cripple the religious and democratic freedoms so many of Canadian veterans have fought and died for.
This week I have been watching programs about both World Wars on television and wondering how many veterans are weeping in their graves. Thousands and thousands of Canadians from every part of Canada died to protect and preserve the religious, democratic, and other human rights we so cherish.
Today those rights are being cast aside and trampled under foot by politicians who seem to have more of an affinity for the evil governments our veterans fought to defeat than for our own democracy. All that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good people to look the other way. All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for people to decide profit or power or greed is more important than human rights.
I wonder how many dead veterans would say they gave their lives to create a country where making a profit takes priority over human life. One hopes Canadians will use their ballot in the next election to do more than send a bunch of bullies to Ottawa who, it seems, would feel right at home with book burnings and torchlight parades.
I’m trying to recall anything else like this happening in Canada in recent history–say, the last 60 years–and I can’t. Mostly, I am dismayed and frightened by the apparent inability of the Harper brain trust to recognize the autocratic direction this is taking us.
The evidence is piling up: Ideology ruling over evidence; cult of personality (Harper as the Leader and uber-controller of the Party and the government); anti-intellectual bias–“elites” as enemies; the use of “enemies” language, enemies lists; elevating the military while advancing a more bellicose international policy; eliminating watchdog agencies; curbing free speech (reducing it to what the government wants to hear and say); constant stream of political messaging, even between elections, and tight control over all government announcements; gagging the public service, including government scientists. This is all very reminiscent of Big Brother telling us what to think, and consistent with the rise of dictatorships in other countries, including that bastion of democracy, Greece, a few decades ago.
As I said above, the worst part is that these people don’t see themselves as being in error while pursuing these strategies. They believe they are right and therefore everything they do is justifiable based on that belief. In philosophy we call this kind of reasoning tautological: We’re right because we’re right.
Canadians need one ability more than any other over the next few years, something they have consistently lacked at election time: A memory! We need to keep lists of all the abuses of democracy and then we need to keep reminding Canadians of this so they don’t wander into the polling booths next time and possibly put the final nail in the coffin of Canadian democracy.
“but then governments come and they go”
Are you sure this one is going to go? I’m not.
I would like to say “unbelievable”, but this is of a piece with the Harper Conservative government’s pattern, unfortunately. Don’t know the best way to mobilize, but we must resist this pattern. Thanks for bringing it to light.
I think you should know that Physicians for Global Survival, re-named Canadians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, have given up attempting to maintain charitable status after four of five years of relentless harassment by CRA.. The organization’s apparent sin was that through public education, encourage the Government of Canada to maintain its support for Nuclear Weapon Disarmament.
“This a government with a notoriously thin skin and a pronounced authoritarian streak, prepared to use all of the state levers at its disposal to punish those perceived as enemies. At this rate, that might soon be most of the population.”
Thank you Dennis for making me aware of this magazine which is doing its part to bring peace and justice. It helps me to know that there are so many of us are wanting a better world for all. The people are the enemy of the OUR governmet
This highlights the unmistakable pattern of intimidation and abuse by this government. Another recent abuse has been that of a small town reporter being fired for being “biased” i her reporting about the Federal government. See : http://www.ipolitics.ca/2012/11/16/canadas-long-midnight-of-indifference/
I have chosen to not be indifferent. I believe many many Canadians are also not indifferent, but simply do not know what to do in the face of such widespread abuses and intimidation. I really hope this story does not grow cold. It cannot grow cold. I believe our democracy needs our help on this one.
I am organizing a small planning meeting to see how many folks are interested in beginning an organized campaign to hold someone like James Bezan, and the CRA for that matter, accountable.
I would very much appreciate any ideas or input or comments anyone here have on the topic. Of course, if you are in Winnipeg next Wednesday, you are welcome to attend the meeting! (I will save you a seat. ? )
Wednesday Nov. 21, 2012 – 7 to 9 PM
Red River Community Centre 293 Murray Ave, Winnipeg
Thanks for your note Victor. I hope you get a good turnout in Winnipeg.
What should we do about the culture of political interference, bullying, and muzzling — of any kind of critical media, of any organization that dares to question its policies, of government scientists among many other groups — that is so prevalent among the Harper Conservatives?
Earlier this week, a number of very disturbing actions by the Harper Conservatives came to my attention:
One item is that the Conservative Party is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars (I think the figure was something like $700,000+) MONITORING ETHNIC NEWSPAPERS. Why are they monitoring these ethnic newspapers? What are they looking for? And how can they justify spending our money on what is surely a nefarious activity?
The other disturbing action concerns MP James Bezan of Selkirk-Interlake (Manitoba). He recently interfered with a Selkirk newspaper because he didn’t like the editorial slant of its reporter. She got fired. (see Vancouver Observer link)
“Manitoba reporter fired from her job for “biased” reporting on federal politics speaks out”
Here is a link to a brilliant article by one of my favourite journalists, Michael Harris. And yes, it talks about the terrible political interference of Conservative MP James Bezan (Selkirk-Interlake) that led to reporter Jill Winzoski of the Selkirk Record getting fired. Apparently, James Bezan (and many other Conservative MPs) doesn’t get the concept of “Freedom of the Press”.
A while back, artist Franke James was also targeted:
“Harper government targeted artist for her green conscience, internal documents reveal”
Thanks Sandy. I have read the excellent piece by Micheal Harris about the Manitoba journalists. In fact, it is possible that Harris lost his own job as a radio host as a result of critical comments he made about some people in the federal government.