Canadians have returned 830,000 pandemic benefit payments
All reimbursements were voluntary — but CRA has received 20,000 tips on suspected cheats
Canadians have made more than 830,000 repayments of COVID-19 emergency aid benefits to which they were not entitled — a statistic some say reflects mass confusion over fast-tracked federal programs.
The figures provided to CBC News by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) include repayments from recipients of the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) and Canada emergency student benefit (CESB).
CRA said all of the repayments were voluntary.
"There are various reasons why voluntary repayments have been made: if applicants applied in error for a CERB payment from both Service Canada and the CRA for the same period, if an applicant later realized that they were not eligible for the benefit, or if an applicant returned to work earlier than expected," said CRA spokesperson Christopher Doody in an email.
Conservative MP and national revenue critic Philip Lawrence said he blames the high number of repayments on the federal government failing to explain the benefit programs to Canadians.
"During the pandemic, the Liberals continuously sent mixed messages to Canadians who were applying for emergency benefits. This caused confusion for many Canadians who were unclear if they were eligible for the benefits or not," Lawrence said.
"It was important for the Trudeau government to get the communication of these benefits right. Unfortunately, they failed to do so and left Canadians behind."
CRA said it could not cite a dollar sum for the repayments because the money is retained in a general account, along with other unrelated payments.
Rushed programs led to confusion
Toronto-based labour lawyer Lluc Cerda called the number of repayments "huge" — and also blamed a lack of clarity on the federal government's part when it launched these benefits in the chaotic early days of the pandemic.
He said people often couldn't get through to busy CRA or Service Canada call centre agents — and when they did reach an agent, they were sometimes given contradictory information.
"I think with the way the plan was rushed into place — and I mean, the times called for it — there's definitely a lot of confusion, and I think that's a large part of why people are paying it back," Cerda said.
Widespread uncertainty also may have led some people to apply for benefits, then "park" the money until tax time against the possibility that it would have to be repaid, he said. Cerda added that the uncertainty may have deterred some people who were actually eligible for benefits like CERB from even applying.
20,000 tips on suspected abuse
CRA also told CBC News it has received more than 20,000 confidential tips about suspected cheating related to COVID-19 emergency aid programs.
All anonymous tips are reviewed for evidence of fraud.
In June, the Liberal government proposed legislation that would have imposed fines or even jail time on people who deliberately lied on CERB applications. It backtracked after a public and political outcry.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau justified the move as a way to ensure integrity of the program, saying the government would crack down on the small minority of "deliberate fraudsters" but was not looking to penalize anyone who collected money unintentionally.
"We're not looking to punish people who made honest mistakes," he said.
At the time, the government was under pressure from the Conservatives to bring in stronger controls to weed out fraudulent claims and maintain an incentive for people to return to work where possible.
CRA said it will take steps to verify that claimants were eligible to receive payments. The agency keeps records showing who received the benefits and for how long; those records will be cross-checked with tax slips from employers and other relevant information to validate eligibility at tax filing time.
In cases where recipients are found to be ineligible, they will be contacted to make repayment arrangements, CRA said.