Politics·Analysis

The economy's on life support and Canadians need help now. What's the holdup?

As the COVID-19 caseload shows every sign of surging in Canada, the delivery of promised financial relief for people who've lost their jobs or closed their businesses remains maddeningly slow.

As Canadians wait anxiously for household financial aid, many wonder why banks aren't doing more

A shopper uses an escalator in a nearly deserted Eaton Centre in Toronto March 18, 2020. (Natasha Hermann/The Canadian Press)

As the COVID-19 caseload shows every sign of surging in Canada, the delivery of promised financial relief for people who've lost their jobs or closed their businesses remains maddeningly slow.

The federal government's emergency wage subsidy is at least three weeks away from being available. It could take even longer. The emergency response benefit for those who already have lost their jobs begins phased-in registration for the program on Monday.

Small businesses, which still have to pay rent and other bills, continue to wait for promised $40,000 interest-free loans as the Department of Finance continues to negotiate its delivery with the country's banks.

Waiting for the banks to step up

Finance Minister Bill Morneau said this week that his department has been working every day with the banks. He told members of the Commons finance committee that the "intense negotiations" are going well and that banks are "close to offering" the interest-free loans, perhaps as early as next week.

"We are going as fast as humanly possible," he told opposition MPs on the committee.

Watch: Finance Minister Bill Morneau on rapid development of economic program:

Finance Minister Bill Morneau says government programs that would normally take about 2 years to develop are being built in short order due to the COVID-19 crisis. 1:29

But the pace remains too slow for many, even as political leaders grapple with a bewildering array of new challenges on a daily basis.

Today alone, the prime minister was forced to respond to U.S. President Donald Trump's directive to Minnesota-based 3M to stop shipping N95 masks to Canada. Ontario released projections saying there could be 80,000 cases of COVID-19 in the province by the end of the month, and that the pandemic's effects could last as long as two years.

'Extreme sacrifices'

"These numbers are stark and they are sobering," said Premier Doug Ford as he announced more mandatory closures of workplaces, including construction projects.

"We have to make difficult choices and extreme sacrifices."

The sheer scale of the pandemic — the possibility that tens of thousands of Canadians could die, the prospect of self-isolation and business closures lasting for many months — simply adds to the stress felt by Canadians worried about their immediate future.

Pedestrians walk past a closed store on Ste. Catherine St., Monday, March 30, 2020 in Montreal. For a lot of Canadian businesses, temporary closures could become permanent. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business released a survey this week suggesting that up to a third of small businesses that have closed because of COVID-19 will never re-open. Another 23 per cent of the 9,000 members who responded to the CFIB survey indicated they would not make their April rent payments.

It's led many to question why Canadian banks aren't doing more to help.

'Business as usual'

Former Conservative leadership candidate Rick Peterson wrote an op-ed piece this week criticizing the banks for failing to be proactive and for continuing to charge high fees and credit card interest rates.

"It's basically business as usual," he wrote in The Edmonton Journal. "Sure, the banks have deferred payments for up to six months on mortgages and some loans — but the interest charges continue to accrue. Credit card payments have been deferred as well, but interest charges and transaction fees stay the same."

New Democrat MP Peter Julian issued his own public appeal to the banks earlier this week.

"All Canadians are making sacrifices to get our country through this crisis," he wrote in an open letter. "Financial institutions, particularly Canada's six big banks, can play their part by waiving interest fees and charges on bank loans, line of credits and mortgages for the next two payment cycles."

Government balks at using the Bank Act

New Democrats urged the Trudeau government to use its authority under the Bank Act to reduce interest rates, and to work with the provinces to freeze any rent increases and utility payments.

Government officials, who spoke on background, said banks are cooperating and using the hammer of the Bank Act would be counterproductive.

"We get that people want relief," said one official. "To be fair here, the banks are very aware that they are a critical piece of keeping the economy healthy."

The Canadian Bankers Association says it is working with both governments and customers to help them weather the pandemic.

Spokesman Mathieu Labrèche replied to written questions from CBC News on Friday to say nearly a half a million requests for mortgage deferrals were either completed or were in the process of being completed over the past two weeks — about 10 per cent off the mortgages held by the country's six largest banks.

Watch: Trudeau asked about Canada's talks with OPEC on reducing oil production:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to reporters on Friday 2:43

Over that same period, the banks have dealt with about 100,000 credit card deferral requests.

"Canada's banks assembled quickly and made a commitment to work with their customers to provide flexible solutions to help them manage through financial hardship," Labrèche wrote. "Many banks have programs in place to help ... make debt more manageable and structure the right solution, for example rolling in credit card debt into term products with lower interest rates."

Short-term relief, long-term burdens

But that relief is temporary. And for many people, the cost of servicing those debts will actually increase in the long run.

CIBC announced Friday that any clients with personal credit cards who want to skip a payment will receive a temporary lower rate of 10.99 per cent retroactive to March 15. But the accrued interest over the deferral period is going to be added to the cardholder's outstanding balance. "Once your payments resume," the bank acknowledges, "your minimum payment may be higher as a result of a higher outstanding balance."

A letter from TD Bank to one of its mortgage customers outlines the consequences of deferrals:

"It's important that by deferring mortgage payments you're not paying the mortgage principal, and interest will be capitalized, (that is, it will be added to the outstanding mortgage balance so your balance will increase)," the letter said. "We want to ensure you understand the impact."

It's a fair bet that Canadians do understand the impact. They also understand why it's up to the government to ensure the banks' interests don't run counter to those of their customers — the ones obeying the government directives to stay at home at great personal cost.

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