OTTAWA – Vivian Ketchum applied for federal emergency support during the first wave of the pandemic, when she was forced into self-isolation after close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
Already cash-strapped 57-year-old Ms Ketchum, who survived federal boarding schools, found that taking time off from her low-paying job at a telephone survey company completely ruined her life. She believed that the Canadian Emergency Response Advantage (CERB) could be her lifeline.
But Ms Ketchum is one of 441,599 recipients of federal support who, at the end of 2020, received a letter from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) questioning CERB eligibility and warning them that they may have to repay some of the pandemic benefits received.
However, figures compiled by The Canadian Press on the destination of these notices from the CRA indicate that a disproportionate number were sent to the ZIP codes of Indigenous communities, particularly in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Two regions in northern Manitoba, with more than half of the average number of CERB recipients, in each benefit pay period, stand out who received a notice from the CRA. The local representative notes that there are also high poverty rates in this area.
CRA data shows that the median personal income in the R0B zip code is just over $11,900, while the national median is just over $51,000. However, nearly 5,000 characters landed in this area.
DUP Member of Parliament Nikki Ashton, who represents the district in Ottawa, says her main office has received calls from residents concerned about having to compensate CERB.
“This whole issue has caused a lot of anxiety and anxiety in people in our communities,” Ashton said. But it really shows the lack of, let’s say, justice on the part of the federal government, which is putting out significant resources to come and hunt people down in one of the poorest regions in Canada.
According to data obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, areas with large numbers of CERB recipients, such as Greater Toronto, showed smaller proportions of “BOW” opinions.
The agency said that no one was forced to pay any portion of benefits received, that no deadline had been set for payment and that “no recovery or collection efforts were made with respect to any group, including Indigenous people.”
But this may change soon. Work is progressing at CRA this year to verify the eligibility of CERB recipients, as the government has always promised, and efforts will continue over the next few years. Thousands of other messages were also sent to the beneficiaries of this now-defunct programme.
Just under 8.9 million Canadians benefited from this $500-a-week emergency benefit that the federal government quickly put in place at the start of the pandemic, when millions of workers saw their incomes fall or disappear.
Eligibility rules were eventually set to require a person to earn at least $5,000 in the 12 months before applying — criteria that became easy to check once tax returns came in, like what the government later found out.
Part of the problem with letters to Indigenous communities is that there are lower tax filing rates. The CRA website encourages Indigenous recipients to file their 2019 and 2020 tax returns as a way to prove their eligibility, even though deadlines have long passed.
The agency also noted that some claimants have tax-exempt income because it is earned on a reserve, under a certain section of Indian law.
Ms. Ketchum had difficulty understanding the location of the CRA and the waivers, if any. She asked for help from the tax preparers, but was told that she would have to pay the money back.
According to a study by Statistics Canada, indigenous workers who met the income requirements for CERB were also more likely than non-nationals to receive this benefit.
The acceptance rate was 41.5% for First Nations workers, 40.3% for Inuit and 36.2% for Métis, while it was 33.9% for non-Indigenous workers.
Indigenous peoples were more likely to receive CERB because they held relatively more low-wage jobs, positions that have been hit hardest during the pandemic.
Mrs. Ketchum shakes her head at her position. She usually relies on tax refunds to help pay her bills, but to survive the pandemic, she sold her own apartment instead and took out $4,000 in risky payday loans. She says she struggled to pay for groceries and could not afford the required dental work.
“The ARC took my teeth, my rent, and my food.”
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