Despite successfully accessing much needed benefits, systemic issues persist.
An important aspect of financial empowerment work is ensuring people living on low income can access the benefits they are eligible for with ease. This can often be the “make or break” moment for many Canadians when they receive the much needed income. Small or large, the financial influx is often a relief for those who struggle financially. The value of accessing benefits cannot be understated and in the case of one EBO Financial Education Centre
client, that experience has had an incredibly profound impact on her and her family’s life!
Georgia*, is a protected person, who received permanent residency in 2017 after arriving in Canada as a refugee claimant in 2016. She has five children, one of whom was born in Canada (therefore Canadian) and the other four permanent residents like herself. The father, in the Middle East, has not yet been permitted to join them in Canada.
In 2018, EBO helped Georgia to file her 2016 and 2017 taxes to start the flow of Canada Child Benefits (CCB) she had applied for after achieving protected status. Until then, she had been unable to access the GST Credit and Trillium Benefit, despite becoming eligible upon her family’s arrival. The fact that a family of five was not told until two years after their arrival of these two benefits is a small failure of the system, but the fact that, because of the immigration status of the parents, a child in Canada does not receive the CCB (even a Canadian child) is more shocking. However, at the time, this was already a good news story as Georgia began receiving CCB payments for her five children not long after.
Georgia returned to EBO in early 2020 to file her 2018 taxes to reactivate her CCB payments. This time it was an emergency, however, as she needed to find alternate housing. Unfortunately, because her husband was a non-resident of Canada, it was not possible to electronically file her taxes. Instead, EBO prepared a paper return and mailed it to CRA. In February, she returned to EBO to inquire about her CCB. A budget counsellor called the CRA benefit line during her appointment and the agent told them that her 2018 taxes had been received, but that the benefit department still needed proof of her protected status to restart the CCB payments. She mailed a copy of the relevant immigration documentation to CRA the next day. That day, it felt like a good news story was again almost coming together, except that unbeknownst to her and the counsellor, the CRA agent had failed to advise her that her CCB application had been under review since November 2018.
Whether due to electronic, human error or lack of counsellor training, the system had failed her children again, as CCB payments could not restart until the review was completed.
Then, in March 2020, the COVID pandemic hit.
Georgia was unable to meet her EBO counsellor in person due to the shut down. Communication had always been difficult because of her limited English but became even harder over the phone. Although this language barrier was an amplifying factor in everything that happened, counsellors know that even Anglophone clients can be confused and overwhelmed by a CRA review letter. In her case, like many others, she received:
a review letter asking for documentation in late 2018
a second letter in early 2019 advising her that she failed the review
then multiple notices asking her to repay all amounts received since 2017.
One might wonder how, with all those letters and the CCB payment interruption, someone would choose to forgo $3,000 per month. While recognizing that the individual bears some responsibility in this situation, it is also clear that the system of alerting people via notification letters is potentially failing many vulnerable children. If sending a letter does not make somebody react, sending another one will most likely have the same result.
By spring 2020, Georgia and her children were staying at a homeless shelter when the counsellor found out that her CCB file was under review. Despite the pandemic restrictions, with guidance from the counsellor and help from a shelter worker, she managed to compile all the school and medical documents available to her by summer 2020. In early fall, the counsellor was finally able to talk to the CRA agent in charge of Georgia’s review and told him that she was in a shelter with her children. From this point, the review proceeded very quickly to a decision. By the end of October 2020, Georgia’s CCB eligibility was reinstated and all claims against her would be reversed.
Despite the ordeal she had come through, Georgia’s story did not end there.
After her eligibility was confirmed by mail in early November, it was a slow and difficult process to determine how much money she was owed and when she would receive the funds. There is still no explanation as to why she received more than $20,000 in December or when she will receive the remainder. When asked, the CRA Benefit Helpline agents did not have answers to simple questions such as: Who decides payments? Why can’t a manual payment be arranged when the client and her children are in a precarious situation? From a counsellor perspective, the waiting and uncertainty in the remediation process was almost as difficult as dealing with the review.
CRA and the CCB are federal in nature, but there are two good reasons to highlight this story.
The first is that it was determined that the first lump sum retroactive CCB payment, plus other GST and Trillium Benefits Georgia received in December pushed her household savings over the Ontario Works (OW) asset limit, causing her OW caseworker to close her OW file at the end of December. There was no consideration given to the fact that, had these benefits flowed monthly over the past few years, they would not have affected her OW eligibility. Today, the total retroactive CCB amount that she is still waiting for may appear substantial to an outsider, but Georgia has been left in a precarious situation with no stable monthly income, apart from her CCB payments, just as she is finally in a position to find stable housing.
Secondly, looking at this issue through the lens of OW’s new life stabilization objective, it begs the question, what could OW have done differently to help Georgia reactivate her CCB payments and, more importantly, to avoid losing her CCB payments in the first place. OW used to have workers dedicated to helping OW clients recover support payments from ex-spouses, but there is no one in the OW system whose job it is currently to ensure that every OW recipient is in receipt of all the federal benefits they are entitled to. Life stabilization and financial empowerment should start there.
Today, there is no question that Georgia made errors but that she is now in a good position to restart her life with her children expecting to receive more than $100,000 of retroactive Canada Child Benefit payments in 2021. A success story, no doubt, however for many doing this type of work, there are a plethora of lessons to be learned and improvements to the system to be made.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy
EBO Financial Education Centre
EBO Financial Education Centre (formerly Entraide budgétaire Ottawa) is a budget counselling community service that was founded on January 18, 1979 by community advocates who decided to pass on the knowledge they acquired in a course on budget counselling that was offered to Ottawa residents. Today, this community involvement is still reflected in the organization's day-to-day activities. To learn more about EBO Financial Education Centre, please visit www.centre-ebo.com