Dear Minister Qualtrough,
I was very concerned and disappointed to hear that individuals, many of whom live in Winnipeg Centre, have been sent “education letters” and may need to pay back the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). These letters, and the prospect of having to repay money that individuals do not have has put unnecessary stress on those already being forced deeper into poverty because of this current crisis.
The requirements for CERB eligibility have been unclear from the beginning, with contradictory messaging from Government ministers and changes made to the application page on the Canada Revenue Agency website after the application process had begun.
This government has a responsibility to ensure that low-income Canadians who claimed the CERB, including youth who have aged out of care during the pandemic, do not have to repay the benefit. Long term repayment plans, as suggested in the “education letters” and in our last HUMA committee meeting on December 10th are not realistic for individuals living in poverty and could have serious long-term consequences for their wellbeing.
There are many reasons individuals in my riding and across the country accessed the CERB; whether it was to cover the increased costs of basic needs, such as food, or even to get their kids technology, for example, so that they could participate in school remotely. The fact that they might be penalized for accessing a benefit that has helped them navigate a global pandemic is wholly unacceptable. Many are facing great uncertainty, precarity, and are at serious risk of homelessness.
Manitoba has the highest rate of child poverty among Canadian provinces, a whole 10% higher than the national average. The most recent Campaign 2000 report also found that child poverty rates in our province are on the rise, while the COVID-19 pandemic is deepening this crisis. Winnipeg Harvest, the largest food bank in Manitoba, saw a 30% increase in demand during March 2020, a plateau during the period the CERB and other supports were available, and a 13% increase following the transition from the CERB to EI and the CRB.
In our HUMA meeting on December 10th, you expressed your heartbreak for the individuals and families surviving this crisis. While I do not doubt your heartbreak, your government needs to take responsibility for this situation and provide an amnesty for low-income Canadians, including youth who have aged out of care during the pandemic, who accessed the CERB in good faith.
I look forward to your response and action on this critical matter.
Leah Gazan, MP for Winnipeg Centre