Lindsay Tedds is an Assistant Professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria
At this time of year, as many of us are struggling to fill out our tax forms and meet our personal tax obligations in a timely fashion, it is hard not to throw select curse words in the direction of the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). This is particularly true for those of us with more complicated returns, who have to navigate through the obtuse language in CRAs Income tax Information Circulars (ICs), Interpretation Bulletins (ITs), and Technical Information Bulletins.
While CRA may seem to be the classic villain at tax time, CRA can actually be better portrayed as Yin Yang. The Yin side is aptly demonstrated by CRAs assessor role, wherein it keeps hidden the information it knows about your tax obligations and forces you to show your cards first. Of course, if you are wrong, CRA is quick to hand out penalties and fines with little concern about the intent behind the errors. This is the role we are most familiar with.
The Yang side is less known to most taxpayers. CRA actually does have several initiatives to help tax filers meet their tax obligations and to increase information available to tax filers.
One such initiative is the Community Volunteer Income Tax Program ( CVITP). The CVITP was introduced in 1971 and has since grown to more than 16,000 volunteers associated with nearly 3,000 community partners. The CVITP connects the CRA with community organizations to help targeted taxpayers meet their tax obligations. The community organization co-ordinates clinics staffed with volunteers who help individuals with simple tax returns complete and file their returns and apply for related tax benefits. In exchange, the CRA trains and provides tax software to the volunteers.
The exact eligibility criteria for the program are not determined by CRA but rather by the community organization that is offering the assistance. For example, the International and Exchange Student Services (IESS) at the University of Victoria offers clinics to international students to help them fill out their income tax returns. Other community programs serve seniors, people with disabilities, aboriginal peoples, new immigrants, or those whose income does not exceed a threshold amount (suggested by CRA to be $25,000 for single taxpayers, $30,000 for single parents, and $35,000 for a couple). These clinics typically run between February and April of each year, though some run year round. For information on a CVITP clinic near you, consult CRAs CVITP website.
Another initiative is CRAs My Account. Launched in 2003, this online service provides access to your tax and benefit information. Since its launch, the amount of information available through My Account has increased and it now includes your tax information slips, your NETFILE access code, your carry forwards, and information on your TSFA and RRSP contribution limits and repayment obligations.
This service is a necessary and welcome move towards a more open and transparent tax system. Unfortunately, the tax slips information is limited (for example, my information was limited to the T4 issued by the University of Victoria and missed my plethora of T5s and T3s, among others). In addition, the registration process is quite tedious and tax filers who are not currently registered for My Account will be unlikely to complete the registration process in time for this year's tax deadline of April 30. But once registered, you will have access for future year's tax seasons.
Other initiatives include the Learning About Taxes and Teaching Taxes programs. Learning About Taxes is an online, self-directed learning unit that provides introductory information about Canada's tax system and teaches you how to prepare a simple income tax and benefit return. Teaching Taxes provides learning material for educators wanting to teach their students about Canada's tax system. It also provides information about preparing a basic income tax and benefit return. Both programs are free to register and to use. The Teaching Taxes program provides free copies of the Student Workbook. I have used both of these resources in my university-level classes with units on taxes.
While these initiatives do no eliminate the burden of meeting our tax obligations, they do ease the load. If schools were to adopt the Teaching Taxes program into the core curriculum, we could start to make headway in reducing the burden on future tax filers by providing information and skills to understand and successfully navigate the tax system.