Complex income tax system costing Canadians: study

It's crunch time for procrastinators across the country, thanks to this Thursday's deadline for filing personal income taxes. But with more than 120 different federal tax credits to claim, experts say it's now become so complicated, you're probably missing out on hundreds of dollars owed to you.

With over 120 federal credits available, few Canadians get everything without professional help

With over 120 federal credits available, few Canadians get everything without professional help 2:15

It's crunch time for procrastinators across the country.

The deadline for filing personal income taxes is Thursday.

While the task has never been a particularly easy one, with more than 120 different federal tax credits to apply for, experts say it's become so complicated that people are probably missing out on hundreds of dollars owed to them.

Charles Lammam of the Fraser Institute has looked into the issue and reckons Canadians are spending a combined $6 billion a year in compliance costs going after all of these various credits.

"The compliance costs associated with the personal income tax system is in part, the time we spend poring over computer programs, gathering the receipts, making sure we're eligible for the various tax credits," he told the CBC in a recent interview. "But it's also the direct cost we pay on accountants and lawyers and buying the computer software in the first place."

His solution: scrap the the whole thing and pare the system down to just two income brackets.

Not-quite-flat tax

"In exchange for doing away with an assortment of tax credits in the tax code that benefit particular Canadians over others and keep rates higher than they otherwise would be," Lammam suggests, "our proposal was to eliminate $20 billion worth of credits, and in exchange, reduce tax rates for virtually all Canadians."

In the Fraser Institute model, the current four income brackets would be compressed to just two: 15 per cent for income below the 2015 level of $138,586, and 29 percent for income above that.

Murray Mikulak has been a chartered accountant for nearly 40 years. He laughs as he admits it's been a long time since he filled out a tax form with pencil and paper.

"I don't know how we would do it today without the tax software," he says from his office in Calgary.

Last overhaul in 1987

The last major overhaul of the tax system was in 1987.

Since then, Mikulak has watched as credits have been added year after year.

From children in arts programs, to volunteer firefighters, to last week's home accessibility credit for seniors — it seems, at times, there's a break for almost everyone.

"As much as I think we in the profession are frustrated with all of these social programs being administered through the tax system, I don't know the government has another cost-effective option," Mikulak argues.

Economists v. politicians

While the economics of the plan are debatable, the politics are not.

Bruce Anderson of Abacus Data says targeted tax cuts might be complex, but are easy for average Canadians to see.

"When you talk with people about changes in kind of broad tax rates, it's easy for them to wonder if they are really better off, he says."

For example, with the government's push to help families with young children, it introduced the family tax cut (which is actually yet another non-refundable tax credit) as well as boosting and expanding the universal child care benefit.

Economists argue a far more efficient method of getting money to the same families would have been to boost the existing basic child exemption.

Political strategists, however, would be quick to point out that every Canadian family with young children receiving a cheque in the mail or an automatic deposit into their bank account is a far more visible and voter friendly way of doing it in an election year.


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