Does the Income Tax Act comply with human rights obligations? We'll soon know.

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Photo: flickr/ U.S. Department of Agriculture

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It's not about politics, it's about rights.

Poverty is not going to be solved with more food banks or shelters. It is more than a short-game strategy and requires a long-term vision. It should not be swept up in political hype or ideology, or ignored because it is complex and misunderstood. To do so infringes on the rights of vulnerable people who find themselves excluded, marginalized, without adequate food, income or shelter, and on the fringes of a political system that appears to function without them.

The reality of poverty should be compelling enough to inspire action from a government who purports to represent the principles of democracy and support human rights globally, but instead poor people are struggling to be heard and charities who support them are being victimized. The government is using policy to punish the most vulnerable people in our society, and Canada Without Poverty (CWP) has been on the front lines of this fight.

In 2012 CWP received notice that we will be subject to a political audit. The justification for such an audit came from an arcane section of the Income Tax Act (ITA), which is now a weapon to stifle and silence charities and the people they represent. The ITA basically says that charities can only spend a small portion of their time and resources on non-partisan political activities -- the 10 per cent rule.

What is particularly concerning is that the definition of these political activities is sweeping: Human rights workshops? Too political. Mobilizing around a national anti poverty strategy? Too political. Working to implement UN recommendations to address homelessness in Canada? Too political. Critiquing a bill that discriminates against poor people? Too political. Changing someone's opinion about ending poverty? Too political.

The resounding result of the threat of an audit and this sweeping definition is nothing less than a deep chill on free speech, public discussion and debate regarding poverty related policy.

What's so threatening about a political audit is the next step: possible loss of charitable status, which would further silence organizations and the people they represent because most charities rely on donations to keep their doors open. For example, if CWP were found to be in violation of the Income Tax Act and fails the political activities audit, the organization would likely have to close its doors because it relies on charitable donations for its ongoing operations.

Think about it this way: by silencing those charities that demand more from our governments to address poverty, the government is effectively silencing the poor. This is an infringement of poor people's ability to form organizations to represent and amplify their voice. This is a violation of human rights: freedom of expression and freedom of association. Rights enshrined in our Charter.

Organizations often turn to the international community with human rights issues when there are no government accountability mechanisms back home or when the mechanisms that do exist are hard to access or fail to produce any results.

CWP reached out to the United Nations Human Rights Committee to put the government on the international hot seat to answer for its willingness to push the most marginalized further to the sidelines. And, the UN did just that.

A panel of independent human rights experts queried how the restrictions on political activities of charities under the Income Tax Act squared with Canada's obligations with respect to the right to free expression. The government failed to answer this question in an oral review so now has two weeks to explain to the Human Rights Committee and the people of Canada why the ITA and its application isn't a rights infringement.

Just before the close of the session, Sir Nigel Rodney, a human rights academic who briefly lived in Canada, and a Committee member since 2001, expressed disbelief at having to question Canada's record on free expression. Alarmed by what he had learned he suggested that the Canadian delegates go home and recommend to the government that a serious discussion about ending the unprecedented level of fear and intimidation is overdo. He concluded by uttering, "This is not the Canada that I once knew."

By the end of this month, the UN Human Rights Committee will release its assessment of whether Canada is complying with its international human rights obligations. In the meantime, charities wait in suspense for much needed breathing room to continue their work.

But there is hope that Rodney's comments may be the writing on the wall.

Megan Hooft is Deputy Director of Canada Without Poverty.

Photo: flickr/ U.S. Department of Agriculture

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