© 1999  Karen Selick
Mean-Spirited, Not Public-Spirited
An edited version of this article first appeared in the April, 1999 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


Mean-Spirited, Not Public-Spirited

Some time ago, an elderly lady came to see me about making a will.  She had $20,000 in cash, she said, stashed away in a safety deposit box.  She didn’t intend to invest it because she didn’t want to pay income tax on the interest.

I pointed out that, bad as our tax rates are, they do not yet exceed 100 percent, so she would still be better off earning interest and keeping whatever the government left her.

"You miss my point," she said. "I just don’t want the government to have any extra money, even if it means I have less myself.  I can get by on my present income.  But every penny that goes into the government’s hands just makes life worse for all of us." 

This client was not alone in confessing such radical thoughts to me.   I’ve heard similar sentiments espoused recently by increasing numbers of people—perhaps because they’ve heard I share their viewpoint. 

The time has come to make ourselves known to two individuals who seem unaware that people like us exist.  One is George Harris, a Winnipeg man who claims to represent all the taxpayers of Canada.  The second is Mr. Justice Francis Muldoon of the Federal Court, who bought Mr. Harris’ story and granted him standing as nominal plaintiff on behalf of all Canadian taxpayers in a lawsuit against Revenue Canada.

The goal of the lawsuit is to force Revenue Canada to reverse two advance rulings it gave years ago and impose $700 million in tax on a family trust.  The trust moved approximately $2.2 billion in assets to the United States without triggering Canada’s infamous "departure tax".  Although the family involved is theoretically unidentified, it has been widely rumoured to be the Bronfmans, who control such major enterprises as Seagram’s, Universal Studios and Polygram Records. 

Well, at least Mr. Harris and Justice Muldoon got one thing right:  Revenue Canada is no friend of the Canadian people.   In a fiery judgment dotted with exclamation marks, Justice Muldoon characterized Revenue Canada as "mandarins" who have a "medieval, aristocratic cast of thinking" and treat taxpayers as "nobodies" and "serfs".

I agree entirely.  Taxation is degrading to its victims and corrupting to those who impose it.  What I don’t agree with is the attitude of victims who say, "If I’m going to be robbed and oppressed, I’m going to make damn sure everyone else is robbed and oppressed right along with me."

Winston Smith in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four  was a laudable figure so long as he fought Big Brother, but he was a shameful shell of a man after he had faced the cage of rats and screamed, "Do it to Julia!"

As far as I’m concerned, if by some fluke, mistake or pang of conscience, the pooh-bahs at Revenue Canada decide to let some other taxpayer off the hook, I want no part of dragging the fellow back and re-installing him on the dungeon wall.

So take note, you judges who will hear the appeal from Justice Muldoon’s ruling: George Harris does not represent all the taxpayers of Canada.  He doesn’t represent me.  I don’t want the Bronfmans, or cigarette smugglers, or construction contractors who give discounts for cash jobs, or anyone else to cough up more money to a state which I already consider to be far too powerful.

I am especially bothered by the possibility that putting extra money in the hands of the government might result in more of it trickling down to the Public Interest Law Centre, a branch of Manitoba legal aid, which funded most of Mr. Harris’ legal costs in this action.  What a sweet deal they’ve got going—you feed at the public trough, then spend your energies trying to direct an increasingly rich flow of slop into the trough.  I think they should change their name to the Conflict of Interest Law Centre. 

George Harris told reporters that the trust’s failure to pay $700 million cost every man, woman and child in Canada $25.  Baloney.  Anyone who thinks they will pay less because the Bronfmans are made to pay more is living in a fantasy world.  The state’s appetite for revenue is insatiable.  It is held in check only by the realization that if the goose is pushed too far, it will either stop laying golden eggs (like my elderly client who refuses to invest), lay its eggs underground (like the construction contractors who don’t give receipts), or fly off to a more hospitable nest (like the trust who fled to the U.S.). 

It is entirely possible that if the government had been less avaricious in the first place, the family trust would not have moved its $2.2 billion out of Canada.  The funds would still be here generating employment and prosperity.   My client’s money would be invested productively instead of stagnating in a safety deposit box.

This ruling fosters a spirit of internecine warfare--taxpayer against taxpayer, victim against victim, each trying to save his own neck by sacrificing someone else.  What productive person would want to remain in a place where the courts praise this behaviour as "public spirited"? 

Mean-spirited would be a more accurate description.

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June 20, 2000