'Absolute fear and panic': CERB clawbacks affecting quality of life for N.W.T. seniors
'I knew I'd have to pay tax on [CERB] … but I never thought about how it would affect my pension'
George Lessard says he felt "absolute fear and panic" when he found out his federal benefits were being clawed back.
In July, Lessard got a letter from the federal government stating that he's no longer eligible for the guaranteed income supplement (GIS), which is an additional payment for low-income seniors, because of his CERB-induced income boost.
"Wow, I didn't know that. Nobody told me that. What can I do?" he said. "I knew I'd have to pay tax on [CERB] … but I never thought about how it would affect my pension."
Lessard decided to apply for the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) when the pandemic began because he said he qualified for it.
The 69-year-old self-proclaimed independent media artist, who lived in Yellowknife at the time, received $14,000 in CERB payments to supplement his income, which mostly came from Old Age Security (OAS), the guaranteed income supplement (GIS) and occasional contract work and royalties.
$40 left after paying rent
The change meant Lessard now gets only $697.91 a month from the OAS pension, drastically affecting how he can make ends meet.
"I had about $40 left after I paid my rent," he said.
Lessard's experience is one shared by many seniors across the country.
Whether seniors are eligible for the federal GIS depends on marital status and income: single or widowed seniors who make below $18,984 are eligible, and eligibility varies for couples based on whether they have an OAS pension or not.
Last month, members of the federal Conservative Party told the Canadian Press they've been "flooded with calls" from those over 65 who saw the same dip in government support.
'You can't live on $1,000 a month in the N.W.T.'
Suzette Montreuil, executive director of the NWT Seniors' Society, has heard a handful of cases like Lessard's in the last few weeks, but says there are many more going through the same thing in silence.
She said she knows of one senior who is living on a monthly income of $1,000 after facing the same cuts.
"You can't live on $1,000 a month in the N.W.T.," Montreuil said. "How do you pay rent? How do you buy groceries? It's really [about] the senior's ability to stay here and afford the basic necessities of life."
The cost of living in the Northwest Territories is already high, with electricity being one of the biggest costs. The N.W.T. has the highest average residential electricity rate in the country, something that shows up on household bills and factors into higher prices for almost every good and service.
So a cut of any kind to a senior's income, Montreuil said, will be "more significant" for people in the N.W.T. than in the provinces.
Lessard, who moved to Lethbridge, Alta., in January, said he wouldn't be able to live with the adjustment in the N.W.T.
'Unclear and incorrect' information from Ottawa
In an email, a spokesperson from Employment and Social Development Canada, the federal department that looks after GIS payments, said GIS benefits "are calculated on the basis of the previous year's income."
"Any change in income in a given year will result in an adjustment of GIS benefits in the following payment period," the spokesperson wrote, adding that CERB benefits are considered taxable income."
However, the spokesperson went on to write that in limited circumstances, such as a loss in pension income, a senior may request that their GIS benefits be calculated based on their estimated current year's income instead of their previous year's income.
The spokesperson said this is known as the "option" provision and can take up to 12 months or more to process.
"Requests are processed on a case‑by‑case basis, and in many cases will not result in a reinstatement or adjustment to the client's payment amount," wrote the spokesperson.
A note published in the May 12 edition of the Canadian Gazette, the official publication for federal government decisions, acknowledges that information about the CERB benefit on the government's website, and provided by call agents, was "unclear and incorrect."
In reality, the Canadian government launched two benefits under the same umbrella: CERB for those who lost their jobs during the pandemic and the EI-ERB, an emergency support for those with an insurable income of at least $5,000 in 2019.
The government said many interpreted the income requirement as gross income, not net self-employment income — meaning they thought they were eligible for the program when they were not.
The order stated that anyone who misunderstood the criteria "will have their debt remitted." It should affect roughly 30,000 people across the country.
N.W.T. seniors benefit continues
A spokesperson for the N.W.T.'s Department of Education, Culture and Employment said they have also received a few calls from seniors reporting lower Old Age Security and GIS payments after taking CERB — but say they have no involvement with these federal income programs.
The territory does offer a Senior citizen supplement benefit, which consists of monthly payments of $196 that are delivered by the federal government to seniors that receive GIS and Old Age Security.
These payments are still continuing, the statement says, and have not been affected by CERB.
The N.W.T. is asking any seniors who find themselves affected by these payment reductions to contact Service Canada and to consider applying for income assistance to help meet their basic needs.
Montreuil gives seniors the same advice. There are also NGOs that she puts seniors in touch with that offer some short-term relief.
But, she said there's limited things she can do.
"It's much beyond my level of influence or authority," she said. "We've certainly expressed our concern … but I don't have a short term fix for this."
'Nobody knows anything about this'
After several phone calls to Service Canada, Lessard is waiting for the federal government and the government of Alberta to review his eligibility for GIS (Alberta is now responsible for delivering the payment from Ottawa, according to Lessard).
He's dipping into his savings in order to pay for groceries and other essentials until his case is reviewed.
Lessard said he wanted to share his story so other seniors know that this might be happening to them, too.
"That's what scares me … there may be a number of people that are just sliding by because nobody knows anything about this," he said.
With files from the Canadian Press