Vivian Ketchum sought emergency help during the first wave of the pandemic when she was forced into self-isolation after coming into close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
As someone already in a financially precarious situation, Ketchum found that taking time off from her low-paying job to conduct telephone surveys had completely devastated her situation.
The 57-year-old residential school survivor thought the Canada Emergency Response Benefit could be her financial life raft.
“I thought the federal government was gracious in granting CERB,” she said in a recent interview from her Winnipeg apartment. “But they are ruthless and relentless in wanting that money back.”
Ketchum was one of 441,599 aid recipients who, at the end of 2020, received a letter from the Canada Revenue Agency questioning their eligibility and warning them that they may have to repay part of the ‘money.
Figures from The Canadian Press on the destination of the letters suggest a disproportionate number landed in First Nations postal codes, including Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Two regions in northern Manitoba stand out from the data, with more than half of the average number of CERB recipients in each benefit pay period receiving what the CRA called “educational letters.”
Forward sortation areas, or the first three digits of a postal code, are home to two of the largest Aboriginal communities in the province. The local MP notes that there are also high poverty rates.
CRA data shows that the average personal income in the R0B ZIP Code is just over $11,900, which is below the national average of just over $51,000. Nearly 5,000 letters landed in this area.
New Democrat Niki Ashton, who represents the region in the House of Commons, said her office has received calls from residents worried about having to reimburse CERB.
“This whole issue has caused a lot of anxiety and concern for people in our communities,” Ashton said. “But it really speaks to the lack of… frankly, the lack of fairness of the federal government stretching significant resources and hounding people in one of the poorest parts of Canada.”
CRA says no one is obligated to repay
Regions with large numbers of CERB recipients, including the Greater Toronto Area, showed smaller shares of letters in data obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
The CRA said no one has been forced to repay any of the aid, no repayment deadline has been set and “no recovery or collection efforts have been made in respect of of any group, including Indigenous candidates”.
That could soon change. Work is progressing this year to verify the eligibility of CERB beneficiaries – something the government has always promised would happen – with efforts that will continue over the next few years. Thousands of other letters were also sent to beneficiaries of the now defunct program.
Just under 8.9 million Canadians have used the $500-a-week emergency benefit that the government rolled out quickly at the start of the pandemic, as millions of workers saw their incomes cut.
Eligibility rules were eventually set to require recipients to have earned at least $5,000 in the 12 months before applying, which the government noted became easier to verify once tax returns arrived.
Part of the problem with letters sent to Indigenous communities is that tax filing rates are lower among Indigenous families.
The CRA website encourages Indigenous assistance recipients to file their 2019 and 2020 tax returns as a way to prove their eligibility, even though the deadlines for these have long passed.
The agency suggested another problem could be that some claimants have tax-exempt income because it is earned on a reservation under a specific section of the Indian Act.
“If an individual had tax-exempt employment or self-employment income, the CRA may not have the necessary income information on file to confirm their eligibility for the CERB,” the statement said. agency in response to questions from The Canadian Press.
The agency added that it has an email for specific questions about COVID-19 workplace restrictions and the impact on the Indigenous income tax exemption.
‘CRA took my teeth, my rent, my food’: Ketchum
Ketchum said she struggled to understand the CRA website and clemency options, if any. She sought help from a tax preparer, but was told she would have to repay the money.
According to a Statistics Canada study, Indigenous workers who met CERB income requirements were more likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to receive CERB.
Among First Nations workers, the rate was 41.5%, 40.3% among Inuit and 36.2% among Métis. The corresponding percentage for non-Aboriginal workers was 33.9%.
The reason they were more likely to receive CERB had to do with their disproportionate number of low-wage jobs that have been hardest hit during the pandemic as closures have been imposed and hours have been reduced – jobs which have still not rebounded to pre-pandemic levels despite the top tier numbers.
Ketchum shakes his head at the situation. She relies on paying the money back during tax season to help pay her bills, but instead sold her condominium and took out $4,000 in risky payday loans to survive the pandemic.
She said she could barely afford to eat and could not afford the necessary dental work.
“ARC took my teeth, my rent, my food,” Ketchum said.