Canada’s Taxpayers’ Ombudsperson felt obligated to go public over an impasse between his office and the Canada Revenue Agency as he investigates complaints that the CRA is unfairly targeting Muslim charities, he said in an interview Monday.
Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier asked Ombudsperson François Boileau to look into the complaints last year, specifically in relation to the activities of the agency’s Review and Analysis Division, or RAD, which works closely with Canadian national-security agencies.
The watchdog was also asked to review the CRA’s efforts to make its employees aware of unconscious bias and how that could perpetuate discriminatory behaviour toward charities run by racialized communities.
Mr. Boileau is aiming to submit a report to the Revenue Minister by March, 2023, but says it will be incomplete because the CRA is declining to hand over key documents.
“We don’t have access, so we don’t have the tools to do our job,” said Mr. Boileau, expanding on concerns he recently expressed to a Senate committee investigating the issue of Islamophobia.
The government’s request for a review was a high-profile political pledge made as part of a July, 2021, National Summit on Islamophobia attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Mr. Boileau said the fact that the government’s request came on the eve of the 2021 federal election campaign delayed the start of his review. He then spent several months hearing from Muslim organizations and attempted to negotiate access to the CRA files his office would need.
He notes that the powers of his office are limited. It does not have access to independent legal advice, meaning it relies on the same lawyers who are advising the CRA.
“It’s an independent office, but it’s not,” he said. “Administratively, we’re part of the CRA … but we’re outside the CRA when it comes to dealing with cases that we receive as complaints.”
Mr. Boileau said he knew at the beginning that the CRA could impose various privacy or national-security policies to refuse access, but thought the agency would find a way in light of the fact that the investigation was requested by the minister and the Prime Minister.
The Ombudsperson said he recently met with Ms. Lebouthillier to inform the minister of the issues he was having with the CRA. He then raised these issues in a Nov. 21 appearance before the Senate human-rights committee.
“It’s an impasse,” he said, adding that his report is likely to be more of a “he said, she said” summary of the issues.
“I don’t have the tools to verify or to validate whether or not there’s truth to one party or the other,” he said.
After Mr. Boileau’s update to the Senate committee, the National Council of Canadian Muslims issued an open letter to the Prime Minister, calling on the government to intervene to ensure an effective process is in place.
The letter states that while the organization was “heartened” by Mr. Trudeau’s 2021 commitment at the Islamophobia summit, Mr. Boileau’s comments demonstrate that the promised review is “inherently flawed.”
Ms. Lebouthillier’s office provided a brief statement to The Globe saying racism and systemic discrimination have no place in Canada.
”The minister - like all Canadians - expects the Taxpayer Ombudsperson and the Canada Revenue Agency to co-operate fully with each other in this study,” said a spokesperson for the minister.
A CRA spokesperson said in a statement to The Globe and Mail that the agency is supporting the Ombudsperson’s work “to the fullest extent possible.”
Sharmila Khare, director-general of the CRA’s charities directorate, told the Senate human-rights committee last week that the agency is having conversations with the Ombudsperson but is required to protect confidential information.
“I do not believe there is structural bias targeting Muslim-led charities within the Canada Revenue Agency,” she said. “I would say, as part of the leadership team and leading a directorate of 300 employees, we take issues such as anti-racism very seriously.”
The political focus on Muslim charities was driven in part by a June, 2021, report by the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group. It found that Muslim charities are overrepresented in the percentage of charities revoked by the agency’s Review and Analysis Division.
Tim McSorley, who authored the 2021 monitoring group report, said in an interview Monday that he appreciates Mr. Boileau’s dedication to the review but that the roadblocks he is facing are somewhat expected given the limitations of the office.
“We also don’t understand why we haven’t heard publicly from the government about the concerns that the Ombudsperson has expressed,” he said. “We think there needs to be a public statement and action.”