Canadians Must Oppose Discriminatory Legislation


This week in Ottawa, a Parliamentary Committee (the Finance Committee) is wrapping up hearings on a very important piece of legislation that challenges the principles of due process and fairness.

 The Charities Registration (Security Information) Act (Bill C-16), is being challenged by leading Muslim and Arab organizations, including the Canadian chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) and the Canadian Arab Federation. The CIC is so opposed to the legislation, that it hired an attorney to explore the possibility of mounting a constitutional challenge.

Activists representing CAIR have appeared in front of the Committee to present its brief and the CIC, the Muslim Lawyers Association, the Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association are expected to present their arguments this week.

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The bill is clearly dangerous in that it would allow the federal government the right to deny or revoke the charitable status of any Canadian non- governmental organization (NGO) or philanthropic group without due process.

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The bill is clearly dangerous in that it would allow the federal government the right to deny or revoke the charitable status of any Canadian non- governmental organization (NGO) or philanthropic group without due process.

Under the bill, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Canada's spy agency, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), would have sweeping powers to strip charitable status from groups suspected of supporting terrorism overseas, directly or indirectly, based on evidence presented to the Solicitor General and/or Minister of National Revenue.

Canada's Income Tax Act grants registered charities the right to issue tax-deductible receipts for donations.  CSIS would be authorized to present evidence secretly to a federal court judge, who would weigh whether there was a reasonable probability that the group raised funds for so-called terrorist groups.  Similar to the discriminatory Secret Evidence Act in the United States, the Canadian government would not have to reveal its sources.

Solicitor General Lawrence MacAulay says that "the new act provides a fair and open process to prevent abuse of Canada's charities," but immigrant groups, civil libertarians and lawyers differ with MacAulay's assessment of the new law. Nine Canadian NGOs, including the Canadian Islamic Congress, sent a letter voicing their concerns to MacAulay.  "In our view, the proposed new legislation would not only be ineffective," the groups wrote, "[but] it threatens the ability of Canada's 80,000 charities to raise the money needed to fund health research and patient support, provide social and community services, support cultural activities, provide education and literacy programs, and assist in international development and relief efforts."

While sympathizing with the stated goal of Bill C-16, which is to protect the integrity of the charitable system in Canada, CAIR executive director Riad Saloojee says "it will make a fair and transparent trial impossible and will have an adverse effect on legitimate charities."

There is a fear that the government will use emotionally charged and ill-defined terms such as "terrorism" and "national security" to curb civil rights.   

"Due to widespread North American cultural stereotyping, that often equates Muslim with 'terrorist,' their charitable organizations in this country could be disproportionately targeted for investigation," warned Dr. Mohamed Elmasry, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress. "There is a very real danger that innocent Canadians and worthwhile philanthropic, educational, or developmental groups could be irreparably damaged in the investigation and reporting process."

The Bill also raises fears of guilt by association which will result in the targeting of those who support unpopular causes.  

"We must be vigilant to ensure that no individual or group is subjected to guilt- by-association prejudices that would compromise their freedom to support genuine, legitimate humanitarian causes, no matter how unpopular," says Dr. Ali Hindy, chairman of Salah-ul-Deen Mosque of Toronto.

"Agencies like CSIS rely heavily on foreign services," said Elmasry. "Any foreign government could thus fabricate intelligence reports about its own political opponents, saying this or that Canadian charitable organization is giving support to what it believes are terrorist interests." 

In fact, former CSIS and government officials have confirmed that the service cooperates with and exchanges intelligence with foreign agencies.

Not unlike the secret evidence cases in the United States that have permitted the detaining of individuals without being charged, "national security" would allow the government to ignore certain fundamental rights guaranteed by the Canadian Constitution and international human rights covenants. The practice is already used to deport refugees, but Bill C-16 will extend its use to charities.

Groups challenging the bill say they have nothing against going after those who exploit the country's charities laws to fund terrorist groups, but they fear that the legitimate civil and political rights of effected communities may be compromised.  Many in the Muslim community showed deep concern over the fact that not one Muslim group was invited to participate in a consultation process regarding the proposed legislation.  

A number of national Muslim advocacy groups who were expecting to hear from the Solicitor General's Office did not.  But after a barrage of emails, faxes and phone messages from various Muslim groups, the Canadian Islamic Congress was invited just two days before the meeting.

It is time for all concerned Canadians to take up this issue.  Indeed, as noted lawyer Arthur Drache wrote in the Financial Post,  "once government has a precedent like this, it may well look around for other groups (or even individuals) to whom similar rules might apply. (After all, why should tax evaders have the benefit of the rule of law?)"

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Faisal Kutty is a Toronto-based lawyer and writer.  He is also a columnist for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (www.washington-report.org)  For more information about the legislation, please visit  www.cicnow.com and www.cair-net.org..


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