Taxed to the limit

Pam Frampton
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Somewhere in the bowels of a bunker-like building in Ottawa, secret classes are held. They are so secret, students are given numbers, not names, to protect their identity; to keep them safe from harm lest their off-putting activities become known in the world beyond this grey, concrete, nondescript slab of a building.

It is not easy to get accepted for these clandestine classes. One must have certain skills to begin with, and pass a rigorous admissions test. The main criterion: a keen ability to render the English language meaningless. To turn ordinary words into gobbledygook. To confound communication. To addle even those who are not easily addled. To take perfectly harmless phrases and string them into inscrutable sentences. To perfect the art of impenetrable writing.

Who are these would-be wizards of dark art, toiling away under unforgiving fluorescent lights, fingers tap-tap-tapping their torturous text on well-worn keyboards at their instructor’s bidding?

Politicians in training, you suggest? A good guess, to be sure.

Crafters of military briefing notes? Academics writing treatises for the faculty of education? You could be forgiven for thinking so.

But no, the scribes I have described are those singularly devious disciples responsible for devising income tax forms.

“The hardest thing to understand in the world is the income tax,” Albert Einstein reportedly  said.

And who could argue with Einstein?

Seriously, I’ve spent my whole career working with language — writing and editing and proofreading, and I’ve faced my share of unyielding text. But is there anything more confusing than a tax form? I am convinced they are purposefully devised to baffle and bewilder.

This time of year, I’m filled with dread at having to try to decipher what it is the Canada Revenue Agency wants from me; at the thought of having to confront pages and pages of labyrinthine language. Like this little gem — you just know someone smiled a deliciously evil smile and laughed maniacally when they put this one together:

RRSP contributions you are deducting for 2013 (this amount cannot exceed the lesser of the amount on line 9, excluding transfers, and your RRSP deduction limit for 2013, shown at amount (A) of “Your 2013 RRSP Deduction Limit Statement” on your latest notice of assessment, notice of reassessment, or T1028, Your RRSP Information for 2013)

I don’t mind doing the math. That part is vaguely satisfying, given that I know how to add, subtract, divide and multiply. No, it’s the wording I can’t stand — it’s like some sort of linguistic “Through the Looking Glass,” where up is down and right is left and, at the end of it, you feel like your brain has been plucked from your skull, placed inside a snow globe and vigorously shaken.

There’s got to be an easier way to part people from their money. I don’t grumble about paying taxes — they pay for vital services — but I’ll gripe to whoever will listen about filling out tax forms.

“They might as well be sent out in Klingon,” I griped, most recently, to a trust compliance officer with Canada Revenue Agency here in St. John’s.

I’m being humorous here — or at least trying my damnedest — but the gist of my argument is quite serious. Tax language and tax forms are so perplexing, they can make even the most innocent among us feel like criminals. And it’s not just the forms, it’s any correspondence with CRA — it’s written in such confrontational, guilty-until-proven-innocent overtones that it makes you feel like you’ve tried to pull a fast one when all you did was make a mistake on a form.

A letter I received this week contained the hated phrases “A review of your personal income tax return …” and “we propose to reassess.” But this, by far, was the best line. Talk about trying to make you feel like you’ve done something fraudulent:

“We will delay this action until March 22, 2014, to give you time to provide us with any other information or an explanation that you consider relevant.”

Action? What action? It sounded like I was about to be sued or charged with some crime. I could just picture myself, bound to a chair under a dangling bare lightbulb, jolted with electric shocks until I confessed my misdeeds.

Which were, as it turned out, writing an amount on one line of the income tax form that should have been placed on another line — a misstep, by the way, which changed the end result not one iota. (The trust compliance officer explained it to me when I called him up. Yes, I actually got a live, friendly person on the phone.)

Here’s some advice, Canada Revenue Agency: simplify tax returns so that ordinary folks can get through them with all their hair intact. Craft correspondence to law-abiding taxpayers in a straightforward, businesslike manner — not like you’re delivering directives in a police state.

And maybe spend just a little more time being dogged and doing due diligence with the one per cent. 

Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email Twitter: pam_frampton

Organizations: Canada Revenue Agency

Geographic location: Looking Glass, Klingon

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Recent comments

  • Ed Power
    March 15, 2014 - 08:40

    I made similar comments in a letter to the Revenue Minister twenty years ago, when the government of the day was musing about simplifying and streamlining the tax system. I suggested that rather than stacking a review panel with politicians, tax lawyers, accountants, business people and other professionals - all with a vested interest in maintaining the convoluted system that currently exists - they instead give the job to a dozen university students from various disciplines as a Masters or PHD project. I still think it to be an exercise worthy of consideration. The mandate of these students would be to create a tax system that was revenue neutral (collects no more or less than the current one), distributes the tax burden equitably across the income spectrum, require citizens complete only one single page double-sided tax form and, most importantly, the entire new tax code fit into one standard two-inch three-ring binder. Mind you, the adoption of this new tax code would result in the loss of thousands of jobs in the Canada Revenue Agency, and the loss of tens of thousands more tax lawyers, tax accountants, tax consultants, tax advisors and the wholesale bankruptcy of tax preparation companies such as H & R Block that profit greatly from the current system but, as the old saw goes, you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. When one door closes another opens as they say. No doubt all these dispossessed former tax specialists will find good jobs in other fields - as technical support call centre agents, or writing assembly instruction booklets for Ikea furniture......

  • Joe
    March 15, 2014 - 07:19

    Then you have deductions for health clubs, dance lessons for the kids and super deductions for first time charitable contributors. Brought to you by Jason Kenny who was once with The Canadian Taxpayers Federation. Way to simplify the tax process. i don't think it will get any better soon.

    • Skeptical Cynic
      March 15, 2014 - 10:12

      Agreed. The Harperites cynical attempt to squeeze a few more votes from a struggling middle-class with their crumby targeted tax cuts has also resulted in aggravating the already confusing quagmire the average taxpayer has to deal with. Hopefully some day soon the Harperites and their confounded "economic action plans" will be no more.

  • Ken Collis
    March 15, 2014 - 07:15

    I feel your pain, Pam. I can suggest that you use an accountant because that is what I do. There is one problem with that. When I show up with my file folder full of receipts, doctors letters showing appointments, T4's, and the list goes on, I'm told to sign a letter stating that no matter what the accountant does, I am responsible for the accuracy of the file. I just trust that it's correct, but am I supposed to hire another accountant to check it out, I wonder?

  • Yo mama
    March 15, 2014 - 06:49

    While I agree with every word of the above, I think you can thank criminals and our failed justice system, if forms were all filled out honestly, they would be easy and no need for "reassessments" I claim a foreign tax credit, my 2011 taxes were just cleared up.