Photo by: Stephen Andrews on Unsplash
Religious institutions are generally tax exempt in Canada for numerous reasons, all of which should justify exempting the federal post office. The reason that Canada Post doesn’t pay taxes is no doubt ideological.
When Paul Martin was prime minister in the ‘90s, his budget cuts sounded the death knell of Canada’s social safety net which had already been attacked under the Mulroney administration, increasingly offsetting debt management onto the lower end of the income distribution scale through fiscal restraint. As the welfare state was chipped away in the ‘70s and ‘80s in the United States and in the ‘90s in Canada, social services that were once covered by extensive federal and provincial programs were displaced to charities, churches and the privacy of the home. This is how religious institutions have largely been able to avoid property taxes in Canada, the United States and elsewhere—they have become de facto social security institutions.
For example, in Ontario the Assessment Act is a piece of legislation that evaluates the taxes required of properties. The act creates a plethora of tax exemptions for philanthropic land that benefits the public good, which means most churches are tax exempt. This was in some sense an ingenious move by Reagan-era politicians who castigated the immorality of the ‘60s generation, who had gone to college for cheap rates and who gained independence from the nuclear family due to redistributive wealth policies at a much earlier age, allowing them to be more politically vocal and experiment with new arrangements of kinship and sexual relationships. With neoliberal cuts to education among other things, options for low income individuals, especially of Black and Latino/a background, to go to college with little collateral needed — using Pell Grants in the United States for example — and therefore gain upward mobility despite their starting circumstances were pulled out from under them.
Low income individuals had to rely on places like the church for soup kitchens or food vouchers, and this doubled down the importance of religious morality and instruction, epitomized in Bill Clinton’s welfare reform of 1996 which delegated the former responsibilities of welfare programs like TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) onto third party entities like faith-based organizations. As poorness was framed as a moral failing, the church was the appropriate place for the needy to not only gain a meal or shelter, but for the implicit accusation of a lack of morality.
Likewise, the phrasing of legislation that justifies religious tax exemptions in Canada is patently ideological because if the reason religious institutions are tax exempt is because they offer public goods, the federal post office should be tax exempt too. Most Canada Post products are subject to the goods and services tax (GST) as well as provincial sales taxes (PST, QST, HST). However, the post office provides an irreplaceable public good.
A private postal service has no incentive to extend their services to Nunavut because the costs to move mail to and from the cold underpopulated towns of Nunavut outweigh the revenues to be made. The only way a private postal system would do so is by raising prices tremendously. That’s why the post office is public in the first place, because it’s an essential service for those without an Internet connection for doing things like taxes or getting important government documentation like a driver’s license.
While Canada Post, like religious institutions, does not pay property taxes, churches are often considered to be small charities; therefore they also don’t pay those goods and services taxes. This exemption should be extended to Canada Post for the same reasons religious properties are protected.
First, the post office is a completely unique public good that the free market can’t be given complete control of as explained above. Second, it is essential for upward mobility in society for many low income individuals who require important government documentation to get employment, receive benefits and so on. It’s like a charity but better in so many ways because it provides a direct means for upward mobility as in the case of someone who needs a travel visa or an updated driver’s license to start driving for an Uber or Lyft.
The distinction in tax exemptions between Canada Post and the church should tell Canadians everything they need to know about what neoliberal politicians deem to be the public good: Christian idealism and personal responsibility over the no-strings-attached benefits of cheap or free material goods. The implications of religious moral instruction being needed over welfare initiatives is more acutely observed in the Charitable Choice laws of the Clinton administration in the United States that gave federal money to faith-based organizations to do social services.
The lessons to be drawn from this dichotomy are clear: So long as religious institutions are tax exempt, Canadians should demand the post office to be as well.