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Editorial: Two-tier service

Canada Revenue Agency’s national headquarters in Ottawa. — CP file photo
Canada Revenue Agency’s national headquarters in Ottawa. — CP file photo

The Canadian Revenue Agency says it doesn’t play favourites — at least that there isn’t a different standard of treatment for wealthy Canadians and ordinary Canadians when it comes to paying taxes.

But you’d be forgiven for doubting that.

Anecdotally at least, the hunt for wealthy tax cheats seems to move at glacial speed, while ordinary citizens feel the weight of the CRA’s powers much more quickly.

Here’s a thought: doesn’t having a crumbling system of public services for Canadians — as outlined by the federal auditor general in a report last week — disproportionately hurt Canadians at the lower end of the income spectrum?

After all, the issues identified by the auditor general include the fact that more than half of the 53 million calls the CRA receives in a year end with a busy signal or a recorded message saying no help is available. In 30 per cent of the cases tested by the AG, CRA staff actually gave inaccurate information.

Who is more likely to be calling the CRA? Ordinary Canadians with questions and concerns about the tax system and their own issues with it, or Canadians wealthy enough to have accounting firms actively involved in finding their clients offshore tax havens?

It seems unlikely that any of the one per cent are personally waiting on their phones for answers.

Face it, there’s a big difference between trying to get by after your benefits are arbitrarily suspended or money is seized from your bank account, and waiting to see if your top-flight accounting firm can negotiate a deal with CRA to allow you to pay the years of taxes you owe while waiving interest or penalty payments.

Talking to the CBC about cases where single mothers are being audited and told they must prove that they are separated (and in some cases, even prove how many children they have) NDP MP Charlie Angus said, “They can’t find the billions that are being hid offshore, and yet they’ll go after single moms and deny their kids basic benefits at Christmas time?”

A CRA spokesperson told the CBC that the agency doesn’t target ordinary Canadians while ignoring the bigger fish: “The agency is focusing its efforts on cracking down on complex individual and corporate cases … The minister of national revenue is wholeheartedly committed to ensuring that Canadians receive the credits to which they are entitled.” The agency has also started sampling high-value addresses by postal code to try and spot tax cheats, something it argues demonstrates fairness.

That may all be the case — but functionally, there’s little difference between actively deciding to treat people unfairly and withholding the tools and information that would let taxpayers understand and work within the rules.

We should all pay our fair share — and, at the same time, we should all be treated fairly.

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