[author: William Innes]
On August 13 I came across this article in the Globe and Mail outlining how CRA treated prizes received by Canadian Olympic Medalists.
Gold medalists receive a $20,000 prize from the Canadian Olympic Committee, Silver medalists $15,000 and Bronze medalists $10,000. The CRA asserts that those amounts are taxable. The CRA’s position is based on what can only be described as a questionable interpretation of Income Tax Regulation 7700:
7700. For the purposes of subparagraph 56(1)(n)(i) of the Act, a prescribed prize is any prize that is recognized by the general public and that is awarded for meritorious achievement in the arts, the sciences or service to the public but does not include any amount that can reasonably be regarded as having been received as compensation for services rendered or to be rendered.
This regulation is directly related to the Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded in 1986 to Dr. John C. Polanyi of the University of Toronto. There was considerable public sentiment that Dr. Polanyi not be subject to income tax on this prize. As a result the Income Tax Act was amended to introduce the concept of a tax exempt “prescribed” prize. It is one of the most straightforward provisions in Canadian tax law. All that is required is:
recognition of the prize by the general public; and
that the prize is awarded for meritorious achievement in the arts, the sciences or service to the public (I am intentionally omitting the irrelevant language about compensation for services).
Surprisingly, the CRA has concluded that Canada’s Olympic medalists were not being awarded for “service to the public”:
I must clarify that the media reports you refer to dealt not with the value of the medals themselves but with the prize money the Canadian athletes who won medals at the Games. Paragraph 56(1)(n) of the Income Tax Act states that the total of all amounts received in the year as, or on account of a prize for achievement in a field of endeavour that the taxpayer ordinarily carries on should be included in the taxpayer’s income. This provision of the Act would not normally apply to your example of a lottery winner; however, paragraph 56(1)(n) is sufficiently broad as to apply to a prize awarded to an athlete for winning an Olympic medal.
I note that the Act provides an exception to this rule for a prescribed prize. For purposes of this exception, section 7700 of the Income Tax Regulations defines a “prescribed prize” as any prize that is recognized by the general public and that is awarded for meritorious achievement in the arts, the sciences, or in service to the public. Although winning an Olympic medal may be an internationally recognized achievement and could indirectly promote a sense of nationalism, such a prize is not awarded in recognition of service to the public and therefore would not be a prescribed prize and would not fall within the exception.
CRA Document 2008-0300071M4 “Olympic medals” (26 June 2009)
Since it first participated in the games of 1900, Canada has won 278 medals in the Summer Games (an average of 11 per Games) and 145 in the Winter Games (an average of 7 per Games). It is astonishing that the CRA and the Department of Finance would regard the taxation of these awards as material. To suggest that these young men and women who spend years of their lives training for the chance once every four years to put the Canadian flag and anthem on display for the entire world to see and hear are not engaged in service to the Canadian public is not only unsupportable in light of the text, context and purpose of the provision, but serves to undermine the federal government’s own financial support of amateur athletics and best and brightest of Canada’s Olympic athletes. It is hoped that the CRA sees the light sooner rather than later and changes its position accordingly.