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Hutterites deserve fair treatment from the taxman: Senator Tannas
OPINION
Hutterites deserve fair treatment from the taxman: Senator Tannas
April 5, 2018
image Scott Tannas
Scott Tannas
C - (Alberta)

What makes Canada such a great country runs deeper than the prosperity we enjoy. It’s the way this country, since its earliest years, learned to accommodate diverse ways of life so that all might live as they so desire in peace. 

This Canadian tradition of tolerance stems from struggles for religious freedom led by Christian reformist movements in Germany centuries ago. How ironic that the Canadian government has now turned its back on descendants of these very people.

I’m talking about the Hutterite community — 40,000 of whom live in rural colonies throughout the Canadian prairies, mostly as farmers. Hutterites are farmers who belong to a religious community of Anabaptists, adherents to 16th-century Reformation theology. When the first Hutterites came to Canada from Russia in the late 19th century after centuries of religious persecution in Eastern Europe, they settled in what’s now Alberta and Saskatchewan. Today, members of the religious community, still farm the land and they own their property communally.

In the 1960s, Hutterites struck a deal with the Canadian government allowing them to pay taxes communally, so long as the sum equals what they would otherwise have paid individually. This arrangement was officially incorporated into the Income Tax Act in 1977.

Seems like a fair deal, right?

But out of nowhere, in 2014, the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) decided to start taxing Hutterites differently. They have been restricted from claiming certain tax benefits all other farmers have access to, giving them a serious disadvantage in their business ventures. Some estimates say Hutterites have paid tens of millions more in taxes than they should have paid.

No Canadian deserves preferential treatment before the law. But in this case, Hutterites are being forced to pay more, simply because of their religious beliefs. The CRA, always looking for new streams of tax revenue, has decided to pick on the little guy because they think no one else will care.

This strikes at the core of what has made Canada great.

That’s why the Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce held a special hearing with representatives of the Hutterite Brethren, the CRA and the Department of Finance last week. We wanted to get to the bottom of this and give the bureaucrats a chance to explain their reasoning.

Unfortunately, neither the CRA nor the Department of Finance chose to take responsibility for this fiasco. According to them, they’re just following orders. They refused to acknowledge the chasm between rules and reality. They seemed to give no signal that this will become a priority of theirs any time soon. No surprise, none of them has ever been to a Hutterite colony either.

In short, I do not find their excuses justifiable. These bureaucrats are responsible for creating fair policy – for this injustice, they should be ashamed.

The CRA needs to listen and fix this. And if not, then the section of the Income Tax Act which deals with Hutterites must be modernized as to ensure fairness.

The federal government, which recently released another budget, has in that legislation the perfect opportunity to deal with this problem. But if they won’t address it in their budget, senators should consider amending the budget bill when it comes to the Red Chamber.

Growing up in Alberta, Hutterites were my neighbours. They’re a kind, hard-working, close-knit, pacifist people who, for religious reasons, choose to keep to themselves. They have, however, been there for the rest of the community in times of need. They are, for instance, among the most frequent blood donors in the country.

But they’re also hardly the gregarious type. For them to have participated in this nationally-televised hearing has demanded great courage and for that I commend them.

By taking a stand, they’ve reminded us that an injustice to one is an injustice to all.

Scott Tannas is a senator representing Alberta. He is deputy chair of the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples and a member of the Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce.