A federal government agency has warned Canadian Mennonite about publishing material that could rally its readers to oppose specific politicians and political parties. A letter to the magazine from Canada Revenue says: “It has come to our attention that recent issues . . . have contained editorials and/or articles that appear to promote opposition to a political party, or to candidates for public office.”
The letter from Paul E. Fournier, office audit officer, reminded the magazine of “the limitations imposed on registered charities regarding partisan activities,” citing subsections under the Income Tax Act and its Regulations that speak to rules around “political advocacy.”
“Under the Act, charities are allowed to engage in some political activities, but are prohibited from engaging in partisan political activities.”
Although the registered letter was delivered July 23, the decision to report its contents to Canadian Mennonite readers was delayed until the matter was discussed at the semi-annual meeting of the magazine board’s executive on Oct. 13.
No specific editorials or articles were cited in the letter, and Dick Benner, Canadian Mennonite editor and publisher, said he phoned Fournier and asked for specific citations. Four days later, in a second conversation with Benner, Fournier cited two editorials and four articles appearing in the Young Voices section of the paper:
An editorial by Benner called readers to “Vote your Core Beliefs” (April 18, 2011). “While we won’t endorse candidates of the five political parties in the upcoming election, or tell you how to vote, we do ask you as Mennonite voters to both examine the political views and voting records of candidates regarding our deeply held core beliefs in peace-making, compassion for the poor and care for creation before placing your ballot in the ballot box.”
In another editorial, titled “A Political Lament” (May 16, 2011), Benner wrote that he was “intrigued and saddened by two political events of the past ten days in two North American countries—the take-out of Osama bin Laden by the U.S. military and the take-over by a militaristic Conservative majority government in Monday’s election in Canada.”
The Young Voices articles cited were entitled “Political Issues for a young electorate,” (Oct. 3, 2011) by Aaron Epp, “Jack Layton inspires young people to vote for change,” (Sept. 19, 2011) by Rachel Bergen, “Planes for Peace,” (Aug. 1, 2011) by Emily Loewen, and “MCC calls on feds to seriously rethink Bill C-10,” (Nov. 14, 2011) by Rachel Bergen.
The section of the Income Tax Act to which Fournier refers says, in part, that a registered charity “devotes substantially all of its resources to charitable purposes,” but that it can “devote part of its resources to political activities—up to 10 per cent,” but that these activities are “ancillary and incidental to its charitable purposes” and “do not include direct or indirect support of or opposition to any political party or candidate for public office.”
Benner said he explained to Fournier that the cited editorials and articles were not partisan in nature and were not advocating specifics, but rather were done “as statements of the Mennonite core belief” in non-violence and objection to war as a solution for political conflict—core beliefs that are deeply held by our people over our 500-year history.”
But, in a written response to the “reminder,” Benner reassured the CRA audit officer that “it is our intent to obey the law and to operate within the guidelines set forth in these documents despite some differences we may have in their interpretation.”
Revenue Canada has a relationship with Canadian Mennonite because the agency governs the charitable status that lets individual donors to Canadian Mennonite get tax credit for their financial gifts. It is also important in maintaining such status with its publishing partners, namely the area churches and Mennonite Church Canada, which funds 44 per cent of the magazine’s budget through an Every Home Plan that subsidizes subscriptions.
The editor consulted the executive committee of the 12-member board of Canadian Mennonite which, after discussing the issue in a meeting in Winnipeg in October, moved to “support the editor’s desire to make our readers aware of the CRA auditor’s recent reminder letter about the law regarding political advocacy and how that letter has affected the publication.”
Benner has also been consulting others in what he calls a “leadership circle,” including representatives of Mennonite Church Canada, Mennonite Central Committee (Ottawa and Winnipeg) and legal representatives knowledgeable of the CRA tax laws.
Carl DeGurse is vice-chair of the Board of Directors of Canadian Mennonite.