A Toronto-area charity has been added to the federal government's list of criminal terrorist groups, years after its work in the Palestinian territories led to the revocation of its charitable status and just one week before it was to go to court in a bid to clear its name.
The RCMP raided properties in Ontario and Quebec associated with the International Relief Fund for the Afflicted and Needy, or IRFAN-Canada, this week. Police and public safety officials allege that IRFAN-Canada transferred approximately $14.6-million to various organizations associated with Hamas between 2005 and 2009. The findings mirror those of a 2011 Canada Revenue Agency audit.
Public Safety Minister Steve Blaney announced in a statement that he had placed the group on a banned list of terrorist entities, which includes the likes of al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. "By listing IRFAN-Canada, we are sending the strong message that Canada will not tolerate terrorist activities. IRFAN-Canada has knowingly financed Hamas," Mr. Blaney said.
The list allows federal authorities to more easily seize listed groups' assets and funds. Experts say this is the first wholly Canada-based charity to be placed on the list, and that designation is almost impossible to reverse.
"The Criminal Code does say you can ask the minister to remove your name – and good luck, " said Steven Slimovitch, a Montreal lawyer who years ago represented an alleged Canadian chapter of a global Tamil Tigers front.
The government revoked the charity's tax-exempt status in 2011, alleging millions of dollars collected in Canada went to entities controlled by Hamas.
Starved of its ability to issue tax receipts to donors, IRFAN-Canada effectively stopped operating. It had hoped to reverse its fate next week, during a scheduled Federal Court of Appeal hearing on May 6, when it would argue for its charitable status to be restored.
But now "it's difficult to know whether our appeal has been rendered completely moot by what happened," said Yavar Hameed, a lawyer for the charity.
In an interview, he pointed out the charity has never been accused of links to any acts of violence.
In new court filings, IRFAN-Canada provides a supportive affidavit from a former head of the Canada Revenue Agency's charities-analysis division. "My assessment was that IRFAN had been insufficiently attentive … but had not deliberately sought out Hamas-connected partners," read the affidavit from Judy Torrance. (Involved in an earlier audit, she retired in 2006, before the probe that led the charity to be stripped of its status.) Mr. Hameed said the charity is effectively defunct. "The office exists but there's no paid staff."
On Monday, IRFAN-Canada's Mississauga office had a notice from the Mounties affixed to it. "Any property or asset belonging to IRFAN is now frozen," it said.
The RCMP says it has also raided a Montreal residence associated with the group.
Canada Revenue filings allege IRFAN-Canada made $13-million of "gifts in kind" transfers, which the government says went to Hamas-tied organizations, but which IRFAN-Canada says involved mostly medical equipment given to legitimate Lebanese-based groups.
Some experts say the case shows that Ottawa is prepared to crack down on charities that don't operate with sufficient rigour.
"It should be clear that this is not saying you can't operate abroad," said Mark Blumberg, a Toronto lawyer, who pointed out that more than 50 Canadian charities are now operating in Gaza. The issue, he said, is that charities need to closely account for where they direct funding.
"You need to know how the funds are going to be spent," he said.
A decade ago, the charity sued then-MP Stockwell Day – later the Conservative public safety minister – after he publicly alleged the group was tied to Hamas. The matter was settled out of court.
Upon being elected in 2006, the Conservative government announced that Canada would be the first state to suspend aid to the Hamas government that had then been newly elected to preside over the Gaza Strip.