House Call with Carol Hughes

Elements of CERB will have to be extended

The Canada Emergency Response benefit is set to expire at the end of the month. It was introduced to limit the shock to household budgets and the wider economy with the hope that people would be able to return to work once we made our way through the worst of the pandemic. While some people are being allowed to return to work in Ontario, many are not. Included in this will be instances where parts of workplaces, such as restaurant patios, will be able to open and return individuals to their jobs. Still, many in the service industry will be waiting for their jobs to resume as the CERB expires. To top it off, the government is threatening individuals who shouldn’t have received the benefit, whether out of confusion about assistance programs or in a fraudulent manner.

That’s why the prime minister started the week talking tough about people who have cheated the system to collect the CERB and introducing legislation with hefty fines and even jail time for people who received the benefit but weren’t eligible. The bill also includes measures that will expand the wage subsidy program so that seasonal workers and more businesses will be eligible. New Democrats are looking to negotiate improvements since the government will have to work with one of the main opposition parties to pass any legislation in this minority parliament.

Our concerns relate to two issues that aren’t connected. The first is that there are already laws in place to deal with fraud and identity theft, which was also listed as an area of concern related to the CERB. It’s worrisome that the government has become so hawkish after stating earlier that those who received the benefit in error would merely have to give the money back. In our opinion, the legislation amounts to a reversal of that commitment and, again, is unnecessary given the laws we have in place to deal with any criminal activity that may have taken place.

The second is that the recently announced financial support for disabled people will only apply to 40 percent of Canadians with disabilities. In the same way that Employment Insurance would have left too many people to fend for themselves, the government’s aid must apply to more disabled people.

Similar to our work on both the CERB and the wage subsidy, New Democrats are seeking improvements on these fronts before agreeing to support the government’s bill. For that to happen they need to remove the increased penalties they are proposing for people who applied in good faith and must extend the CERB. There are still millions of Canadians who need help to pay the rent and feed their families. If the government refuses to extend the benefit, many will lose the benefit in July.

This pandemic is far from over but instead of focusing on getting help to people who need it, the government is breaking their promise to not punish anyone who applied in good faith and is threatening people in need with jail time.

The CERB was necessary and 8.41 million people have received the benefit to date. While some workplaces are reopening, many are not and a portion of those returning will not be fully open. This is no time for the government to abandon and threaten people who need assistance. It is time to give families some confidence that they will have support until the economy truly opens which is why we are calling for the CERB to be extended another four months. We can use the laws we already have on the books to catch anybody who knowingly abused the program without scaring those who needed it. And, we can do better on behalf of disabled Canadians who have been hit hard by the measures to tackle the pandemic.