Dec 13, 2022

A few months ago, I wrote in the Citizen about “biased” audits conducted by the Review and Analysis Division (RAD) of the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), a division responsible for the agency’s counter-terrorist financing mandate. I noted how multiple independent investigations of CRA’s practices support the concerns expressed by Muslim charities in Canada over the past few years.

In 2020, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group and the University of Toronto Institute of Islamic Studies released separate reports revealing anti-Muslim prejudice in the selection, execution and outcomes of CRA audits. Responding to these troubling findings, some Muslim groups called for a moratorium on the audits, and insisted on a complete review of the systematic Islamophobia allegations by the National Security Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA), an independent expert review body for all national security and intelligence activities. It is worth noting that much of this is tied to the Department of Finance’s 2015 National Risk Assessment (NRA) framework, which instructs national security agencies to view Muslim-like groups, and racialized communities in general, as the highest risk of terrorism financing — very clearly creating a fertile ground for targeting Muslim-led charities.

Despite being aware of this problematic framework and acknowledging systemic racism in the CRA during the 2021 National Summit on Islamophobia, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau selected the Taxpayer’s Ombudsperson to conduct an investigation into the allegations. It’s no secret that the Ombudsperson has limited access to information, no legislative power over the CRA, and lacks security clearance. Yet the government took this approach.

Now it’s December 2022, and where are we with this issue? On the one hand, Muslim charities have been alleging systemic discrimination and disproportionate audits, while on the other hand, the CRA is denying and shifting blame.

Recently, Taxpayer’s Ombudsperson François Boileau testified before the Senate’s Standing Committee on Human Rights, providing a window into what he has been hearing from some of the Muslim charities impacted by these audits. “Because let’s be clear, some of the participants told us that they felt they had been unfairly selected for audit purposes. Some indicated that they sometimes felt intimidated, and many described the process as tedious. However, we cannot verify these alleged facts without having access to complete taxpayer files,” he said.

He went on to candidly explain that he has reached an impasse because “the CRA indicated that, due to the constraints set out in the Income Tax Act, that it could not share certain parts of a charity’s file, even if we obtained the charity’s consent. In addition, it is the CRA’s current practice not to disclose certain information, particularly with regard to risk assessment when selecting a charity for audit purposes.”

At this point, it is reasonable to conclude that the Ombudsperson’s review has failed.

Most shocking, however, is the confirmation from Geoff Trueman, Associate Commissioner of the CRA, and Sharmila Khare, Director General of the Charities Directorate, before the same Senate committee, that the CRA’s counter-terrorism mandate is driven by the government of Canada’s NRA, and that it does, in fact, identify the highest threats of terrorism financing in particular racialized communities.

The data they provided in their testimony corroborates the percentages reported by the civil liberties monitoring group. Since its inception, the CRA’s counter-terrorism division, RAD, has audited 39 charities and revoked the status of 14, 12 of which were Muslim-led organizations. Statistics like this should be cause for concern.

Now the CRA is pointing the blame at the government’s NRA framework, since officials were simply following its direction. Worse, the CRA chooses to ignore the NRA’s impacts on the Muslim community and suggests that systematic targeting of Muslim-led charities is in the national interest.

So, why isn’t Trudeau keeping his promise to combat systemic Islamophobia? Was the National Summit Against Islamophobia in June 2021 simply a symbolic event to relieve some of the pressure on the government following the shocking Islamophobic killing of four members of the Afzal family in London, Ont.? Is the appointment of a Special Representative for Combatting Islamophobia another symbolic promise to alleviate some of the same pressure? Most importantly, why did Trudeau reject calls from the Muslim community for an NSIRA review and instead order a review by the Ombudsperson, which, according to Boileau, is going nowhere?

It is high time for the federal government of Canada to address the Islamophobia that permeates federal agencies. While symbolic gestures carry weight, they are meaningless unless they are followed by serious reform. To continue their charitable efforts, Muslim charities demand transparency and accountability. They deserve no less.

Monia Mazigh is an Ottawa academic, author and human rights activist.

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