A small group of nature lovers in southern Ontario enjoy spending weekends watching birds and other wildlife, but lately they're the ones under watch — by the Canada Revenue Agency.
The Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists, a registered charity, is apparently at risk of breaking tax agency rules that limit so-called political or partisan activities.
Earlier this year, tax auditors sent a letter to the 300-member group, warning about political material on the group's website.
The stern missive says the group must take appropriate action as necessary "including refraining from undertaking any partisan activities," with the ominous warning that "this letter does not preclude any future audits."
A copy of the five-page March 11 letter, signed by Valerie Spiegelman of the charities directorate, was obtained by CBC News.
Officials in the naturalist group are declining comment about the cannon shot across the bow, apparently for fear of attracting more attention from the tax agency.
Member speaks out
But longtime member Roger Suffling is speaking up, saying the issue is about democratic freedom and not about arcane tax rules.
"Effectively, they've put a gag on us," he said in an interview, noting that the letter arrived just after the club had written directly to two federal cabinet ministers to complain about government-approved chemicals that damage bee colonies.
"You can piece together the timing," said Suffling, an adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo. "The two things are very concurrent."
Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq responded to the group’s complaint in a March 14 letter — or just days after the Canada Revenue Agency letter arrived — and Suffling is convinced the two events are linked. Aglukkaq's office denies there's any link, saying the agency operates independently.
Suffling said that if government is using the tax agency as a "pit bull to stifle dissent, then there's something very wrong."
The group, with annual revenues of just $16,000, has also had a guest speaker to talk about the oilsands, and has publicly defended the Endangered Species Act from being watered down.
Suffield said members of the group are older, small-c conservative, "not radical in the least sense."
Political activity audits
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.
Critics cite 'advocacy chill'
Critics say the program has led to "advocacy chill."
"What we've seen and what we've heard is this nervousness," said Bruce MacDonald, president and CEO of the charities lobby Imagine Canada, based in Toronto.
"Whether it is increased scrutiny, increased attention of the scrutiny, we're not entirely sure what's causing it. It does seem, though, to be top of mind for everybody right now."
Canada Revenue Agency officials say they do not target any one charitable sector, and are choosing groups impartially, without input from the minister's office.
The decision to launch an audit is also not based on any group’s position on the political spectrum, charities directorate chief Cathy Hawara has said.
The agency also has another tool in its arsenal beside audits. "Reminder letters” are issued to some groups to warn that Canada Revenue Agency analysts have been watching their political activities, and may launch full audits if things aren't rectified.
So far, 23 such letters have been issued, including to the Kitchener-Waterloo group, though the agency won't say exactly which groups are on the list, citing the confidentiality provisions of the Income Tax Act.
"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,” Suffling wrote on a recent blog.
"How many other inconvenient charities are there out there?”
The Canada Revenue Agency declined interviews. But spokesman Philippe Brideau sent an email indicating said the decision about whether to launch a full audit or to issue a reminder letter comes after an initial screening process based on internal files as well as publicly available material.
"Where the regular activities of a registered charity appear charitable and the political activities appear to have minor issues or to be increasing or changing, following an office review/monitoring, a reminder letter informing the charity about the rules for political activities may be sent,” he said.
Brideau declined comment about the Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists, citing confidentiality.
Posted March 1, 2014
February 5, 2014
Dear Respected Member of Parliament,
I am writing to you on behalf of the Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists (KWFN) and wish to state our concern about the use of neonicotinoids and their detrimental effect on wildlife. The KWFN is a non-profit association that promotes conservation and protection of significant natural areas and strives to educate its members on local natural history and conservation.
We have been witnessing a rise in concern over the widespread use of neonicotinoids on crop seeds, both locally and throughout the world. Their use has now been scientifically linked to the decline in economically vital pollinator bee populations but also other insects (Goulson, 2013) and even birds (Mineau & Palmer 2013). Even more critically, the mechanisms of how these neonicotinoids affect insects is being understood (DiPrisco et al 2013). Further, the persistence of these poisons in soil, and their solubility in water, combined with their cumulative and non-reversible effects on insects and other animals should be cause for extreme caution. Use is spreading to non-agricultural activities, such as ornamental flower production, and to retail pesticide formulations.
The European Union has been sufficiently convinced of the link as to impose a ban on neonics, despite the court actions of Syngenta, Bayer and BASF. As these companies produce, market and sell these insecticides, they have a strong profit interest in their promotion. However, to allow corporate interests to dominate over the health of wildlife, ecosystems, and ultimately ourselves is naïve and dangerous. We believe a precautionary policy of ‘Better Safe than Sorry’ is necessary in these circumstances.
The consequences of neonicotinoids go far beyond a reduced supply of honey at the local farmer’s market. Bees are critical pollinators for many agricultural crops, so their well-being is intricately linked to our own food supply. Even trace amounts of neonicotinoids impact these species. As for bird species that are higher in the food web, the potential damage to their populations makes an eerie comparison to DDT and its subsequent ban.
Please consider introducing or supporting regulations or legislation that suspends the use of neonicotinoids until we understand how to manage the risks posed by these products so that the health of our planet does not take a back seat to corporate interests.
K-W Field Naturalists
Following you will find four documents that relate to the concern raised in the above letter.
The following quote introduces the American Bird Conservancy report The Impact of the Nation's Most Widely Used Insecticicdes on Birds, March 2013.
"First introduced in the 1990s in response to widespread pest resistance as well as health objections to older pesticides, the neonicotinoid insecticides quickly sailed to the top slot in global pesticide markets. Now the most widely-used insecticides in the world, it is difficult to find pest control commodities that do not contain one or several of the neonicotinoid insecticides. California alone has registered nearly 300 neonicotinoid products.
Neonicotinoids’ toxicity to bees and other insects has brought them the most attention so far and has dominated recent concerns of regulatory institutions worldwide. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency’s registration review of the neonicotinoids is focused on the threat to insect pollinators."
Neonicotinoids implicated in insect-eating bird decline, Ontario Farmer, January 2014.
An overview of the environmenttal risks posed by neonicotinoid insecticides, Journal of Applied Ecology, 2013.
Immuno Suppression by neonictinoid insecticides at the root of global wildlife delclines, Journal of Environmental Immunology and Toxicology, September 2012.
KWFN Conservation Page.