Low-income, Indigenous families feel weight of child benefit reviews

Low-income and Indigenous families in Saskatoon say tax agency workers are tone-deaf when requiring proof of eligibility for the universal child-care benefit.

Status Indians asked to provide proof of Canadian citizenship

After Debbie Ironbow's daughter died in a house fire, she was granted custody of four grandchildren. They now live with her and a fifth grandchild in a low-income housing complex on Saskatoon's west side. The children range in age from six to 12. (CBC)

A growing number of low-income and Indigenous families in Saskatchewan must prove they are eligible to collect federal child-care benefits, according to the offices of two local MPs.

Staff at NDP MP Sheri Benson's office said child benefit reviews are now the number 1 reason constituents come to her Saskatoon office for help.

One caseworker said she's had to assist on 117 child benefit reviews over the past year. The majority of those took place over the past six months.

"We have definitely been seeing more cases bubble up in the last couple weeks," said Benson. "We have also had a few get resolved quickly in the last week, so we hope that's a good sign."

'It was gut-wrenching'

Debbie Ironbow's daughter died in a fire three years ago, leaving behind four children. Ironbow now cares for them and a six-year-old granddaughter in a low-income housing complex in Saskatoon.

She received a notice in April warning her their federal child benefits were being cut.
Ironbow says losing monthly benefit payments would mean her grandchildren would go hungry. (CBC)

"It was gut-wrenching," said Ironbow, who said losing those monthly benefit payments would mean her grandchildren would go hungry.

"There's no one who's going to breeze in and provide this for us."

Ironbow said she never received a hard copy or electronic copy of a letter the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) insisted it had sent her a month earlier.

We don't go to Disneyland. We live in poverty.- Debbie Ironbow

She said a CRA employee told her on the phone that the agency required proof of residence, proof the children were in school, and proof that she and all five children were Canadian citizens.

As a Cree woman, Ironbow said it was particularly insulting to be asked to prove her citizenship. She said the CRA already has her Indian status number on file, and getting rush copies of birth certificates for the children she cares for would have cost more than $400.

"Then she asked me if the kids had passports," said Ironbow. "We don't go to Disneyland. We live in poverty, and you should see that by those tax returns."

Providing documentation onerous: Benson

Benson said numerous families from northern Saskatchewan have brought similar concerns to the office of Georgina Jolibois, the NDP MP for Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River.

In an email, the CRA said Canada child benefit files are identified and selected for review based on impartial and non-discriminatory criteria, and do not target any specific communities or groups of people.

The CRA said $28 billion in benefits are paid to Canadians every year and it must periodically review recipients' eligibility.

"To do otherwise would undermine public confidence in CRA's ability to administer benefits correctly and ensure that the correct individuals are receiving the correct amounts," wrote CRA spokesperson Marie Tichborne. 

After receiving a notice of review, benefit recipients must often provide proof of children's birth. They must also collect documentation from sources such as doctors, schools and daycares to prove children are, in fact, in the benefit recipient's care.

If CRA officials do not receive that paperwork swiftly, or decide the documentation is insufficient, benefits are cut.

Over the past four years, the agency has steadily increased the number of child benefit reviews it conducts. Last year, benefits were cut in a third of those reviews, with recipients being ordered to repay the agency.

The agency would not say how many validation reviews took place in Saskatchewan, nor how many status Indian caregivers were the subjects of reviews.

'This is hurting people'

Ironbow, though, does not think the reviews are "random."

"As an Indigenous woman in Saskatoon, hearing from the same schools, the same places that other grandparents are being asked to provide this proof — this is hurting people."

I cannot imagine the hurt they are causing with these reviews.- Debbie Ironbow

Since 2014, Saskatoon Public Schools staff said they have written 1,758 letters for families trying to prove they are entitled to receive federal child benefits.

"I'm hearing things like, 'Oh you're not the first person; we've been doing a lot of these letters,'" said Ironbow, who spent several days driving around Saskatoon to collect the required documentation

"Why would you do this to people who are already struggling at the bottom; grandparents who are trying to stop their grandchildren from going into care?"

With the exception of foster care, Ironbow said Saskatchewan has few provincial grants or financial safety nets for children once federal child benefits are cut.

In an email, provincial officials said "emergency requisitions for child-related costs are not ideal, but can be of help while waiting for the federal benefit to be reinstated."

"If I can't feed the grandkids, they might end up in care," said Ironbow. "I cannot imagine the hurt they are causing with these reviews."

Ironbow said after she went to Benson for help, her grandchildren's benefits were reinstated.

Still, Ironbow said the federal government is paying lip service to the notion of truth and reconciliation with Indigenous people by cutting benefit payments.

In one third of last year's reviews, benefits were cut. (CBC)

About the Author

Jennifer Quesnel

CBC Saskatoon reporter

Since 2001, Jennifer Quesnel has reported on news and current affairs for both CBC Radio and CBC Television in Regina, Calgary, Quebec City and Saskatoon.