Government figures suggest that First Nations are more likely to strike with CERB repayment letters

Vivian Ketchum requested emergency assistance during the first wave of the pandemic when she was forced to isolate after being a close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

As someone already in a financially precarious position, Ketchum found that taking time off from her low-paying job conducting telephone surveys completely devastated her situation.

The 57-year-old boarding school survivor thought the Canada Emergency Response Benefit could be her financial life raft.

“I thought the federal government would be merciful in awarding the CERB,” she said in a recent interview from her Winnipeg home. “But they are unforgiving and relentlessly want the money back.”

Ketchum was one of 441,599 aid recipients who received a letter from Canada Revenue Agency in late 2020 questioning their eligibility and warning them they may have to pay back some of the money.

Numerical analysis by The Canadian Press of where the letters went suggests a disproportionate number ended up in ZIP codes where First Nations live, including Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Two areas in northern Manitoba stand out from the data, with more than half the average number of CERB recipients receiving what the CRA called “educational letters” during each benefit payment period.

The front sorting areas—that is, the first three digits of a zip code—are home to two of the province’s largest indigenous communities. The local MP notes that there are also high poverty rates.

New Democrat Niki Ashton says her office has received calls from residents concerned about having to pay back the CERB. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Data from the CRA shows that the average personal income in the R0B ZIP code is just over $11,900, below the national average of just over $51,000. Almost 5,000 of the letters ended up in this area.

New Democrat Niki Ashton, who represents the region in the House of Commons, said her office has received calls from residents concerned about having to pay back the CERB.

“This whole issue has caused a lot of fear and concern for people in our communities,” Ashton said. “But it really speaks to the lack of… frankly, the lack of fairness in the federal government stretching significant resources and tracking down people in one of the poorest parts of Canada.”

According to the CRA, no one is forced to repay

Areas with large numbers of CERB recipients, including the Greater Toronto Area, showed a lower proportion of letters in the data received by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

The CRA said no one has been forced to repay the aid, no repayment deadlines have been set and “no recovery or collection efforts have been made in relation to any group, including Indigenous applicants”.

This could change soon. Work will continue this year to verify the eligibility of CERB recipients – something the government has always promised – and efforts will continue for years to come. Thousands of other letters were also sent to recipients of the now-defunct program.

Just under 8.9 million Canadians took advantage of the $500-a-week emergency aid that the government was quick to set up early in the pandemic as millions of workers saw their incomes cut.

The eligibility rules eventually settled so that recipients must have earned at least $5,000 in the 12 months prior to applying, which the government said was easier to verify once tax returns came in.

Part of the problem with letters going to Indigenous communities is that tax filing rates are lower among Indigenous families.

The CRA website encourages Indigenous beneficiaries to submit their 2019 and 2020 tax returns to prove their eligibility, even though the deadlines to do so are long past.

The agency suggested another issue could be that some claimants have tax-exempt income because it is earned in reserve under a certain section of Indian law.

Just under 8.9 million Canadians took advantage of the $500-a-week emergency aid that the government was quick to set up early in the pandemic as millions of workers saw their incomes cut. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

“If an individual had tax-exempt employment or self-employment income, it was possible that the CRA did not have the income information needed to confirm their eligibility for the CERB,” the agency said in response to questions from The Canadian Press.

The agency added that it has an email for specific questions about COVID-19 job restrictions and the impact on Indigenous income tax exemptions.

“CRA took my teeth, my rent, my food”: Ketchum

Ketchum said she struggled to understand the CRA website and what forbearance options, if any, existed. She asked an accountant for help, but was told she had to pay the money back.

Indigenous workers who met the salary requirements of the CERB were more likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to receive the CERB, according to a study by Statistics Canada.

The rate was 41.5 percent for First Nations workers, 40.3 percent for Inuit, and 36.2 percent for Metis. The corresponding percentage for non-Indigenous workers was 33.9 percent.

The reason they were more likely to get CERB had to do with their disproportionate number of low-wage jobs, which have been hit hardest during the pandemic, as lockdowns have been imposed and hours reduced — jobs that, despite the pandemic, are still not making an impact Peak figures have recovered to pre-pandemic levels.

Ketchum shakes his head at the situation. She relies on getting cash back during tax season to pay her bills, but instead sold her condo and took out risky $4,000 payday loans to survive the pandemic.

She said she could barely afford to eat and could not afford necessary dental work.

“CRA took my teeth, my rent, my food,” Ketchum said.

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