Sarah Leamon: Federal budget expands grounds for sharing Canadians' tax returns with foreign governments

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      The federal government's 2018-19 budget has been released, and it contains a rather unexpected surprise.

      Attached to all the usual financial plan is a 78-page annex. While few people will ever read this document, it contains an unusual provision, which one wouldn't normally expect to see included in ordinary budget documents.

      This provision create a legal mechanism to share the confidential tax information of Canadians with more than three dozen foreign governments, including the U.S., Russia, and China.

      Under current law, our government's ability is limited in cooperating with international investigations by releasing tax information. However, it is still available in particular circumstances.

      The Canadian Revenue Agency can aid foreign governments in their investigation of crimes by sharing confidential tax information in response to a request—but this only applies to the crime of tax evasion. They cannot do so for other criminal activity, such as terrorism, money laundering, or drug dealing.

      This new provision hopes to remedy that.

      The annex states that the sharing of tax information in this new, broadened manner is necessary for effective international investigations into serious criminal offences, whether related to taxes or not.

      It says that the sharing of such information is consistent with our government's commitment to addressing global tax evasion and improving our overall tax system.

      The government believes this step is necessary in order to fight global crime, and to make our domestic tax structure more secure.

      Whether or not this is the case is sure to be a subject of much debate in the near future.

      But it all boils down to is this: soon, your previously private and confidential information—such as your name, address, and financial records—could be shared with international foreign governments without your consent.

      This raises concerns for many people, who fear that their basic rights and freedoms are being eroded. They are worried that their personal information will be improperly shared and accessed by government officials throughout the world.

      After all, there is no information about who, exactly, will be able to see the shared documents, how they will be stored, or how long records will be retained.

      And as concerns about cybercrime increase, Canadians are justifiably worried that their confidential, personal information may be misappropriated and misused as a result of these new changes.

      Finance Minister Bill Morneau recently defended the controversial portions of the annex, saying that this change is necessary. He says that we must share this information in order to properly fight serious crimes, terrorism networks, and drug cartels.

      Indisputably, the fight against global organized crime is a valiant and important effort.

      But it cannot come at the expense of our charter-protected rights and fundamental human freedoms. Too often, well-meaning citizens are eager to compromise their rights in the name of combatting terrorism. This creates a precarious balancing act.

      We must be cautious not to erode our privacy to such a degree that it becomes meaningless.

      Morneau says he understands this. He has assured Canadian citizens that their information will not shared at the expense of privacy and other fundamental rights.

      But while Morneau says that our government will respect our rights and freedoms, he has been unable to elaborate on the details as to how exactly officials plan on doing so.

      While that is concerning in and of itself, perhaps the most troubling aspect of this proposal is in form rather than content.

      We are left wondering why this controversial provision was so curiously buried in the fine print of a much larger document, which shares no direct, logical connection to it.

      It seems strange that it was included in the budget in the first place, rather than in a separate bill, on top of the fact that it was only detailed in the annex, which government officials know often goes unread and unnoticed by the general population.

      Perhaps our government simply did this in order to streamline the process and avoid the inevitable delays that come with passing new laws. Perhaps it wanted to avoid questions from the opposition, or the Senate, which has become increasingly skeptical of the Trudeau government with the impending legalization of marijuana.

      Or perhaps it simply wanted to sneak this change past those who would be affected by it—ordinary Canadian citizens.

      But whatever the reason, this should serve as a wake-up call to pay attention and start asking questions. Do not allow your rights to get buried by the fine print.