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Let's say you were a member of an environmental charity in the 1980s, working to bring an end to the acid rain harming Canada's lakes. That work would include policy research, public education, and pushing for political change – speaking loudly, in short. The important lobbying those groups did brought about the historic Canada-U.S. Air Quality Agreement in 1991.

Now, 30 years later, you're a member of an environmental charity working on one of the dozens of causes that threaten our collective future – climate change or species preservation or the effects of oil and gas retrieval. Every decision you make is fraught, and every word you speak is guarded, because you're afraid of attracting the attention of the Canada Revenue Agency, and its threat of an audit. You are allowed to use 10 per cent of your charity's annual resources for "political" purposes, but the rules around what constitutes political purposes are so vague, and the enforcement of them so arbitrary – to put it politely – that you don't say anything for fear of bringing on the wrath of the tax man. The tax man has the power to shut down your charity. If this were 30 years ago, the acid rain would continue to fall.

If you look at the 52 groups that have been targeted for audits since the Harper government's 2012 crackdown on political activity by charities, it's not hard to see what joins them: advocacy of causes that the Conservative government thinks are, by its own admission, "radical." I don't actually know the full list, because it's not been revealed, but last year the CBC revealed the names of seven environmental charities, including the David Suzuki Foundation and Tides Canada. The free-speech group PEN Canada and human-rights advocates Amnesty International were also targeted. Some 400 academics signed a letter denouncing the audit into the political activities of the progressive think tank Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The CRA swears up and down that there is no political motivation to the audits, but how is the public to know? The agency doesn't reveal who is the target of its audits, nor how they're prepared. Charities live in fear of catching the eye of Sauron.

"Among environmental groups right now there's a broad reluctance to speak out," says Calvin Sandborn, director of the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Centre. "It's kind of like in Nixon's America where you didn't want to be the enemy that he'd sic the IRS on."

The law students working with Prof. Sandborn recently released a report on the troubling legal underpinnings of the current audit system, and its need for reform. (Mr. Harper's government may not have been the first to target charities, but it was certainly one of the more vehement, setting aside $13.4-million for audits shortly after adding "environmentalists" to the roster of threats Canada faces.)

Canada's charities are hobbled in a bunch of ways, the report found. The CRA's rules around what constitutes "political activity" are murky and confusing; there is little transparency about how those rules are applied; charities subject to audit often have to spend precious resources putting together documents for auditors and providing legal training for staff; and most important, many charities are self-censoring for fear of breaching the 10 per cent rule and facing shutdown by the CRA.

Although the report does not come to any conclusions about whether the current spate of audits are politically motivated, it does find the threat alone has a sinister chilling effect: "The important thing is that the audits themselves – and the mere perception that they may be targeted – are clearly silencing charities that have much to offer society."

Other countries around the world don't hobble the political advocacy of their charities the way Canada does. In some countries, like the Netherlands, lobbying by charities is encouraged. In others, like England, the body that oversees charities is an independent entity at arm's length from government (in Canada, the CRA falls under the remit of the Minister of Revenue.) In the U.S., charities that spend too much on political activities (already set at a far more generous level than here) are taxed rather than shut down.

There are many ways to silence a political enemy, as any wily government knows. You don't have to shut them down to shut them up. It begins by thinking of them as "enemies" in the first place, and not say, as fellow citizens with a right to speak out.

"In the past," says Prof. Sandborn, "governments worked with charities to improve societies. It's a problem when that stops happening."

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