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Column: From the Hill -- CERB injustices

Richard Cannings, MP

In the middle of the pandemic’s second wave and with the holidays fast approaching, many Canadians are still struggling to figure out how they’ll get through these tough times. Last week we saw two examples of how the government’s priorities are hurting many low-income, self-employed Canadians while letting large corporations and wealthy shareholders off the hook.

One of my constituents, Carol, had a before-tax income in 2019 of just under $10,000. When the pandemic hit in early 2020 her business was heavily impacted.  She was encouraged by the government to apply for the CERB support, which was designed precisely for her type of income—self-employed Canadians who didn’t qualify for Employment Insurance.

She checked the requirements and saw that if she’d lost her income because of COVID and that her before-tax income in 2019 was more than $5000 she would qualify.  But recently she received a repayment demand for thousands of dollars because the government had decided that her CERB claim didn’t fit the criteria after all.  Apparently the $5000 RRSP she cashed in 2019 to buy a cooler for her business did not count as income, even though CRA happily taxed her on that income.  Once that RRSP income was subtracted from her taxable income, it left her a few dollars short of the $5000 threshold.

Carol is one of many thousands of lower-income Canadians who have been caught in an after-the-fact rule change that specified that the $5000 income threshold had to be net income, not gross income.  These people, many who can barely make ends meet, are being penalized just before Christmas with large repayment demands they simply cannot meet.

On the other side of the coin, many large corporations affected by the pandemic received wage subsidies of 75 percent to keep workers on the payroll.  That’s exactly what the wage subsidy supports were meant to do.  What those supports were not meant to do was to enrich the companies’ executives and shareholders with generous dividends.  Some countries, such as Spain and the Netherlands, made it illegal for companies that were receiving pandemic supports to issue dividends.  But, despite calls for exactly that, Canada declined to add those strings and many companies took advantage of the generosity of the Canadian taxpayer.

Imperial Oil was one of 68 such companies; it received $120 million in government wage subsidies while paying out $324 million in dividends.  A large trucking firm, TFI International, bought back $9 million of shares and paid out $45 million in increased dividends while receiving $63 million in wage subsidies.

Companies operating long term care homes were also given supports to make sure they provided proper care to their residents through the pandemic.  One of these, Extendicare, received $82 million and paid out $21 million in dividends while complaints about inadequate care kept coming in.

There is very clearly a double standard in the Liberals’ approach. They are demanding that people who struggled throughout the pandemic repay the money they received. Theyaren’t, however, holding accountable the big corporations that received financial support and then turned around and paid massive dividends to their shareholders. 

In April, the Liberals voted in favor of a motion that “those who have applied in good faith for and received benefits through CERB or other programs to support them through this crisis will not be unjustly penalized.” And yet, a few months later, they are demanding that people who barely made ends meet pay back funds that they had met the qualifications for when they applied.

The NDP will keep working hard to ensure families, workers, students, seniors and small businesses receive the help they’ve been promised.  If you’d like to get in touch, please email me at richard.cannings@parl.gc.ca