CBC News has obtained documents that reveal Service Canada investigators were instructed to carry out exhaustive examinations of 1,200 randomly selected EI claimants, who were collecting regular benefits, or benefits relating to maternity or parental leave, compassionate care, sickness and work sharing.
Investigators with the Integrity Services Branch were provided with a 23-page manual, dated October 2012, outlining investigative techniques intended to be used in a pilot project starting in November and winding up at the end of March.
The document makes it clear the Service Canada employees are to leave no stone unturned in their inquiries, even in the absence of evidence that selected EI recipients had done anything wrong. The document suggests investigators check addresses, bank accounts, medical documents and even the physical appearance of claimants.
The pilot project involves controversial home visits in which agents knock on the door of an EI claimant's home and ask for an interview on the spot, or deliver a letter to schedule a mandatory face-to-face meeting.
The documents, obtained exclusively by CBC News, reveal Service Canada agents do much more than visit private residences.
Investigators are told to seek out the claimants' former employer, and to select a sample of five prospective employers the EI recipient says he or she sought out for work opportunities. A check is to be made that the claimant really did make a job request, and employers are to be asked whether the claimant said the job was not suitable and if so, what reasons were given.
One section says the address a former employer lists for the EI recipient is to be verified, and if there is "indication of (a) manipulated residential address, the integrity investigator may ... obtain from the financial institution a record of all deposits, locations and withdrawals."
On Friday, Kellie Leitch, parliamentary secretary for human resources, told host Hannah Thibedeau of CBC News Network's Power & Politics that EI investigators do not have the power to access bank records, but EI claimants can be asked to sign confidential waivers to allow their banks to release their financial records.
Leitch said that the kinds of questions to be asked by investigators have been used before, particularly in a project in 2010 that looked into possible Old Age Security and CPP fraud in British Columbia, Alberta and the Northwest Territories.
"We have a lot of excellent Canadians who are taxpayers who are playing by the rules and they deserve the opportunity to know that this system is intact," Leitch said.
Photos verified, names checked on utility bills
Another section suggests a claimant's photo should be verified, or their name checked on utility bills or lease agreements that presumably must be handed over. An employer can be asked to describe the "physical characteristics" of the person who worked for them to see whether the description matches the EI claimant.
In some cases, the investigative techniques seem to delve into the far corners EI claimants' lives.
For claimants who are collecting maternity benefits that are part of the EI system, investigators are told to verify:
- The child's identity and parentage.
- In some cases, "the maternal relationship to the claimant."
- Proof of the child's birth, a date that can be compared to the "maternity window."
One instruction to do with the interview of the maternity benefits claimant seems designed just to provide helpful information. "Share information, gently, on ability to claim maternity benefits in cases where child is lost after 19 weeks."
This section seems to refer to the fact that a woman who has been working and paying into EI is entitled to some maternity leave if she gives birth to a baby who dies after 19 weeks or more of pregnancy.
"The Conservatives are sending inspectors into peoples' homes, asking women whether they are in fact pregnant; asking to see peoples' bank accounts; quizzing them, pushing them, asking them questions," Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair said Friday, speaking at an event in Sherbrooke, Que.
Mulcair said that in a lot of regions in Canada, people rely on EI between seasons and between jobs, and the investigators are embarrassing them.
"They're breaching fundamental rules of decency and democracy by going into peoples' homes, asking highly personal questions," Mulcair said. "It's a scandal. The Conservatives should be ashamed of themselves."
Rodger Cuzner, the Liberal Party's human resources critic, said, "Obviously validation and being accountable is imperative but I think this goes far beyond that. I think it goes from, as I said before, it goes from investigation to intimidation."
'I can imagine these people hiking up their sweaters and showing the scars.' — Rodger Cuzner, Liberal MP
Asked about the questions suggested for those collecting maternity benefits, Cuzner said, "It's playing out like a bad episode of Jerry Springer. I can imagine these people hiking up their sweaters and showing the scars."
NDP Opposition House Leader Nathan Cullen said Friday, "It seems somewhat hypocritical that they treat people who've lost their jobs as criminals, yet people in the Senate who may be committing fraud, they take a pinkie-swear and say that's good enough. That they're going door to door in a witch hunt manner after people on employment insurance, who sign a declaration every week and have to report every week what they're doing — meanwhile, senators are milking Canadians for tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars."
NDP leader questions legality
Service Canada says the Employment Insurance Stewardship Pilot project is designed to find out more about "error, abuse and possible fraud."
As an introduction to the project, one document begins, "Service Canada is responsible to pay over 6M people $80B in social benefits each year. Integrity Services Branch has a responsibility to ensure the right people are receiving the right amount at the right time and for the right purpose."
Nowhere in the document is there any mention of a dollar amount that the investigators are expected to realize in the discovery of overpayments. Minister of Human Resources Diane Finley, who is responsible for Service Canada, has repeatedly denied that employees have to meet quotas in uncovering fraud or errors in EI claims.
However, in a statement, Finley said, "Service Canada was able to stop almost a half billion dollars in ineligible payments last year, but the employment insurance program still lost hundreds of millions due to fraud."
A spokesperson for Finley confirmed that the department sought advice about the legality of some of the investigative techniques or "tools" to be used by EI investigators.