Thousands of Canadians who received federal COVID-19 emergency benefits they didn’t qualify for — including the $2,000-per-month Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) — are still on the verge of receiving the money back to the government.
In May, the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) sent more than 260,000 Canadians notices that they had received money they were not entitled to and that they had to pay back.
But as of September, only about 19,000 of those people — less than a tenth of the total — have made repayments to the CRA, according to documents filed in the House of Commons earlier this week. About $16 million has been repaid since May, but $1.2 billion is still outstanding, the documents say.
Ron Anicich, a sound engineer from Toronto, received one of the messages from the CRA warning him that he would have to repay his CERB benefit. He said he felt “confused, but mostly panicked” because he thought he was eligible for the money.
“I’m sure I’d be homeless if that wasn’t available to me at the time,” he said.
Programs like the CERB were attestation-based — applicants had to determine their own eligibility based on the criteria.
At the time, the government promised that those who applied to the programs in good faith and made a mistake regarding their eligibility would not be fined, but would still have to pay back. The CRA told TBEN there is no TBEN for people to pay back and it is committed to being flexible.
Anicich said he is not sure if he will be able to pay back the money soon.
“The crushing debt that I absolutely can’t pay and see no way out of this situation in my near future — it’s frankly depressing,” Anicich said. “It’s pretty rotten.”
Thousands repaid voluntarily
The CRA said in its filings that before the notices were sent, 341,000 Canadians had voluntarily repaid about $910 million in benefits for which they were ineligible.
NDP finance critic Daniel Blaikie said the federal government should take a closer look at the 260,000 Canadians who are still in debt, determine which of them are low-income earners, and grant forgiveness to those people.
“What we don’t know is how much of that debt can actually be recovered. Because if it’s people making less than $20,000 a year or $24,000 a year in today’s economy, they don’t have money left over to pay back the national debt ,” Blaikie said.
“Chasing them for that money and spending money to pay people to chase them isn’t going to pay off.”
Blaikie argued that the government should instead work to recover money from fraudsters who took advantage of the pandemic programs.
A spokesman for National Taxation Minister Diane Lebouthillier said all Canadians who have been wrongly paid pandemic benefits still have to repay the money, but insisted the government will be flexible with those who cannot repay it immediately.
“The Canada Revenue Agency will work with Canadians in an empathetic and flexible manner while ensuring that public funds reach those who qualify,” Lebouthillier press secretary Chris MacMillan said in an email.
Conservatives say more guardrails are needed
Conservative MP Kelly McCauley agreed that those who received benefits in error should still have to pay back the money, but accepted that it may take some time to recover all the money.
“I would like to see taxpayer money that has been wrongly paid out being recovered, whether that be tomorrow or in a month or in six months,” McCauley said, adding that it will likely be a “several-year process.” will be.
While he said he saw the urgent need to quickly roll out benefits like the CERB early in the pandemic, McCauley criticized the liberals for not using that experience to set up guardrails for other programs.
McCauley pointed to the $4 billion increase in the Canada Workers Benefit – a tax credit for low-income workers – in the recent Fall Economic Statement.
The additional funding is intended to cover advance payments to Canadians who qualified for the program last year.
But the parliamentary budget officer reported this week that by automatically applying the payments to all those who were eligible last year, the benefit will likely go to people who are no longer eligible this year because their annual income is above the program’s threshold. increased.
“The hefty cost of this … measure is largely due to the government’s policy decision not to recover these advances when recipients’ incomes rise and they become ineligible for benefits,” the PBO report said.
TBEN News reached out to Treasury Secretary Chrystia Freeland’s office for comment on the PBO report, but received no official response prior to publication.
McCauley said the government should have more guardrails to ensure only those who qualify receive the benefit.
“Instead of planning well and ensuring that those who deserve it and need it most get paid, it seems like an ongoing liberal plan of [throwing] so much money out the door without seeing who really qualifies,” McCauley said.