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Watchdog couldn't probe charity bias allegations 'deeply enough' due to lack of info

A sign outside the Canada Revenue Agency is seen Monday May 10, 2021 in Ottawa. The federal taxpayers' ombudsperson is recommending better unconscious bias training for employees of the Canada Revenue Agency's charities directorate. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — The federal taxpayers' ombudsperson is recommending better unconscious bias training for employees of the Canada Revenue Agency's charities directorate.

In a report Monday on the fairness of the audit process for registered charities, François Boileau said the training should be mandatory for all employees involved in the audit process, including decision-makers.

However, Boileau said that due to obstacles in accessing relevant information, he could not examine the issues "deeply enough" to assess the existence of bias in how the revenue agency applies its processes. 

Following her participation in a national summit in 2021 on Islamophobia, Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier asked Boileau to conduct a systemic review of the concerns of Muslim-led charities about their treatment by the revenue agency.

Lebouthillier asked the watchdog to pay particular attention to concerns about the selection of files for audit purposes by the Review and Analysis Division of the revenue agency's charities directorate.

A 2021 report by the Ottawa-based International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group said the division works with national security agencies to carry out these audits, with little accountability or independent review.

Boileau's report said it is clear that additional powers would have provided his office with more access to the information it needed to conduct a comprehensive examination in this case. 

For example, he said, the office could have been given additional powers under the Inquiries Act.

"While these powers may not have eliminated all of the constraints in this particular examination because of some of the limitations related to national security information, I am confident that there are solutions that will allow us to conduct future examinations more comprehensively," the report says.

The National Security and Intelligence Review Agency, which has access to sensitive and classified information, recently informed the revenue agency it would conduct a review of the Review and Analysis Division.

It will focus on the program's national security activities and decision-making relating to registered charities, to assess their reasonableness, necessity and compliance with the law.

Boileau said in an interview Monday that he has contacted the review agency to offer assistance. "We will be more than happy to collaborate."

In a statement, the civil liberties monitoring group said that nearly two years after the important issue of systemic bias in the revenue agency's counterterrorism activities was initially raised, Canadians still do not have answers, accountability or significant reforms.

Tim McSorley, the group's national co-ordinator, called for the government to place a moratorium on the Review and Analysis Division's operations until the intelligence review agency completes its examination and changes are made.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims also called for a moratorium, saying it remains unclear if the intelligence review agency will encounter the same barriers to access faced by the taxpayers' ombudsperson.

Lebouthillier said Monday that the revenue agency must enhance unconscious bias training for its officers and will work to implement more tailored training for auditors in the charities directorate.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 27, 2023.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

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