Canada Calling – Canadian Muslims Concerned About New Charity Law
By Faisal Kutty – Canadian Muslims and Arabs have joined a campaign to fight the Liberal government’s attempt to pass the Charities Registration (Security Information) Act (Bill C-16). Community leaders say the bill will allow the federal government the right to deny or revoke the charitable status of any Canadian non-governmental organization (NGO) or philanthropic group without due process.
Under the bill, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Canada’s spy agency, would have sweeping powers to strip charitable status from groups suspected of supporting terrorism overseas based on evidence presented to the solicitor general and/or the minister of national revenue.
Canada’s Income Tax Act grants registered charities the right to issue tax-deductible receipts for donations. CSIS would be authorized to present evidence secretly to a federal court judge, who would weigh whether there was a reasonable probability that the group raised funds for militants. The government would not have to reveal its sources.
Solicitor General Lawrence MacAulay says that “the new act provides a fair and open process to prevent abuse of Canada’s charities.” Immigrant groups, civil libertarians and lawyers, however, differ with MacAulay’s assessment of the new law.
Nine Canadian NGOs, including the Canadian Islamic Congress, sent a letter to MacAulay voicing their concerns. “In our view, the proposed new legislation would not only be ineffective,” the groups wrote, “[but] it threatens the ability of Canada’s 80,000 charities to raise the money needed to fund health research and patient support, provide social and community services, support cultural activities, provide education and literacy programs, and assist in international development and relief efforts.”
While sympathizing with the stated goal of Bill C-16, which is to protect the integrity of the charitable system in Canada, Riad Saloojee, newly appointed executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (Canada chapter) says, “It will make a fair and transparent trial impossible and will have an adverse effect on legitimate charities.”
There is a fear that Ottawa will use emotionally charged and ill-defined terms such as “terrorism” and “national security” to curb civil rights. “Due to widespread North American cultural stereotyping, that often equates Muslim with ‘terrorist,’ their charitable organizations in this country could be disproportionately targeted for investigation,” warned Dr. Mohamed Elmasry, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress. “There is a very real danger that innocent Canadians and worthwhile philanthropic, educational, or developmental groups could be irreparably damaged in the investigation and reporting process.”
The bill also raises fears of guilt by association, resulting in the targeting of those who support unpopular causes. “ We must be vigilant to ensure that no individual or group is subjected to guilt-by-association prejudices that would compromise their freedom to support genuine, legitimate humanitarian causes, no matter how unpopular,” says Dr. Ali Hindy, chairman of Salah-ul-Deen Mosque of Toronto.
“Agencies like CSIS rely heavily on foreign services,” added Dr. Elmasry, a professor of computer engineering at the University of Waterloo. “Any foreign government could thus fabricate intelligence reports about its own political opponents, saying this or that Canadian charitable organization is giving support to what it believes are terrorist interests.”
In fact, former CSIS and government officials have confirmed that the service cooperates with and exchanges intelligence with foreign agencies.
Not unlike the “secret evidence” cases in the United States that have permitted the detaining of individuals without being charged, “national security” is a trump card essentially allowing the government to ignore certain fundamental rights guaranteed by the Canadian Constitution and international human rights covenants. The practice already is used to deport refugees, but Bill C-16 would extend its use to charities.
Groups challenging the bill say they have nothing against going after those who exploit the country’s charities laws to fund terrorist groups. Their fear is that the legitimate civil and political rights of affected communities may be trampled on. Many in the Muslim community, in fact, were shocked when not a single Muslim group was invited to participate in a consultation process regarding the proposed legislation. A number of national Muslim advocacy groups who were expecting to hear from the solicitor general’s office did not. Finally, after a barrage of e-mails, faxes and phone messages from various Muslim groups, the Canadian Islamic Congress was issued an invitation just two days before the meeting took place.
The substance of the legislation is not new. A few years ago, in fact, the government abandoned an attempt to introduce similar legislation when a number of cabinet ministers opposed the move as too draconian. At the time, there was a showdown in Parliament, with a group of parliamentarians led by then-Revenue Minister Herb Dhaliwal openly disagreeing with then-Solicitor General Andy Scott when he first proposed the new process. Dhaliwal, a Sikh, who wisely saw the potential for abuse, told reporters that he had not seen any evidence of charities raising funds for terrorists overseas. The idea was shelved at the time.
Why the new push?
The legislation was revived after the December 1999 arrest of Ahmed Ressam at Port Angeles, Washington as he tried to cross from Canada to the U.S. with a carload of explosives. From that day onward, Washington has increased pressure on Canada to tighten its laws.
It seems that the U. S. campaign to ferret out “terrorists” has moved with a vengeance into Canada. In early 1999, a U.S. judiciary subcommittee holding a hearing on the alleged increase in drugs and terror crossing the U.S.-Canadian border heard that lax visa and asylum laws and its proximity to the United States has made Canada a haven for terrorists. Another congressional hearing in February 2000 wisely saw the potential for abuse, pointing fingers at Canada for being too lenient with terrorists and their sympathizers.
According to some media reports, American authorities apparently have gone so far as to threaten to revoke the “most-favored-nation” trade status extended to Canada when bidding for American defense contracts (worth an estimated $5 billion a year).
In addition to U.S. pressure, some commentators have suggested that there is a need on the part of CSIS to justify its existence in the face of massive budget cuts and layoffs. The agency and its director have made a number of statements claiming that Canada is being overrun by terrorists. The agency loses no opportunity to claim that Canada is a haven for terrorists and that the biggest threat comes from “Islamic extremists.” According to its own statements it is presently investigating some 50 organizations and 350 individuals. With this many terrorists running around in Canada, of course, it would be irresponsible for the government to slash funding. CSIS instead must be given additional powers—as in Bill C-16.
Another reason for the push is prodding by individuals and organizations having a vested interest in portraying all Muslims and Arabs as threats. Interestingly, just before Arabs, Muslims and Islam became a big threat to Canada, the country was visited by Yehudit Barsky, senior Mideast research analyst for B’nai B’rith’s Anti-Defamation League, an extremely well-funded U.S.-based Jewish group that has been convicted of spying illegally on Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, and anti-apartheid and peace activists. She claimed that groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad not only operate in Canada but do so freely as social welfare and charity groups, mosques and clubs. “There are quite a few of these fronts,” she told a group of Jewish leaders at B’nai B’rith Canada headquarters in Toronto a few months before Andy Scott introduced the precursor to Bill C-16. “They can go about their business quietly.”
Those who think that this is simply a coincidence might want to think again. A week before the consultation with interest groups on Bill C-16, the Canadian Jewish Congress already had presented its six-point plan to fight terrorism in a private session with the Liberal Cabinet. The plan called on the government to properly support its security services and to pass expeditiously anti-terrorism legislation.
Muslims and Arabs don’t have a problem with cutting off funding for terrorists and their activities. Their concern is the potential for abuse of such rules and the unfair targeting which usually results from such measures.
“More than 40 percent of the world’s refugees, its needy and its desperately poor, live in Muslim countries,” noted Mumtaz Akhter, chairman of Human Concern International, an Ottawa-based international relief and development organization. Given the unfair targeting of Muslims and Arabs, many fear that if this law passes as is, the biggest losers will be those who can least afford to lose.
Canadian Islamic Congress to Honor Four Community Lights
Four prominent Canadian Muslims were honored at the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) annual conference held April 28 at the University of Waterloo. This year’s conference focused on the twin themes of Education and Marriage.
Sikandar Khan of Vancouver, Khadija Haffajee of Ottawa, Asma Warsi and Zafar Bangash, both of Toronto, were the award recipients at this year’s conference, Haffajee and Khan for their community service and Warsi and Bangash for promoting media excellence.
A business administration graduate and entrepreneur, Khan, 51, has served British Columbia’s Muslim community in leadership positions for more than 25 years. The father of three, he has been active with such organizations as the B.C. Muslim Sports Association, the B.C. Muslim Association and the Muslim Canadian Federation. The native of Fiji also has been active outside the Muslim community, including serving as a local Board of Education chairman from 1985 to 1993.
The second winner for community service, Khadija Haffajee, originally from South Africa, has called Ottawa home for more than 30 years. She is a dedicated community activist recognized for her commitment to and love for Islam and Muslims. An educator by background, Haffajee holds the honor of being the first woman elected to serve on the board of directors of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). She has lectured on Islam in many schools, churches, hospitals and universities, both nationally and internationally, and also has served as a member of the Ottawa Mayor’s Advisory Council on Religious Affairs.
Pakistan native Asma Warsi is editor of the Toronto Muslim community newspaper, The Ambition, which she founded in 1987 as a children’s magazine. The mother of four has turned The Ambition into a respected and leading news source for Canadian Muslims. In addition to keeping busy with the newspaper, Warsi also works with the Toronto District School Board as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher. “Most people identify with their jobs,” she says, “but I identify more with The Ambition. It is my baby.”
Co-winner of the media excellence award is Zafar Bangash, editor of Crescent International. With Bangash at the helm for the last 20 years, the publication has grown into a widely circulated international Muslim newsmagazine. It now is printed simultaneously in Canada, South Africa and Pakistan, with offices in England and Malaysia, and distribution facilities in Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Australia. Since 1998, the Pakistan native also has been director of the Toronto-based ICIT, the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought, a research organization specializing in the life of the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) and Islamic political thought.
The Waterloo-based Canadian Islamic Congress was founded in 1997 as a Muslim advocacy group working to empower the community in the political, educational, legal and social realms. It can be reached at 420 Erb Street West, Suite 424, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, N2L 6K6, tel. (519) 7461-CIC, fax (519) 746-2929, e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto-based lawyer and columnist for iViews.com.
Note: First Published: May – June 2001
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