And, as of June 1, the tax agency has also received 600 tips about potential abuse or fraud of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which the government launched earlier this spring in order to support people who lost work and income due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a government spokesperson confirmed.
The CERB provides eligible applicants with $2,000 every four weeks, retroactive to mid-March, for a maximum of 16 weeks. Both the tax agency and Service Canada, which handles the federal employment insurance (EI) program, are the federal departments responsible for distributing the cheques.
Federal officials admitted at the time that all CERB applications through the CRA would be automatically approved — whether or not the applicants qualified for the funding — and they were leaving it up to Canadians to answer the online CERB attestation honestly.
CRA officials would verify the claimants’ information later and make sure people “didn’t game the system,” Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said back in April.
As of June 3, the agency had received approximately 190,000 repayments, a spokesperson for the minister of national revenue confirmed in an email on Wednesday.
The CRA plans to release “updated figures” sometime next week, press secretary Jeremy Bellefeuille said.
Asked about the repayments and fraud tips on Wednesday, Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos chalked up the repayments to errors “made in good faith” by people who applied quickly for the CERB program out of fear they wouldn’t “have the ability to make ends meets.”
“At that time there was also understandable confusion on the role between EI and the new CERB,” Duclos added. “Most Canadians had difficultly understanding exactly how and when it would be delivered.
“So most of these people — the vast majority of these people — are people that applied twice and received, therefore, a double payment and they reimbursed, in many cases, half of those double payments.”
The 600 tips that the CRA has received about potential abuse of the program is “an approximate number” and the government is relying on CRA and Service Canada officials “to make sure that these are actual frauds,” Duclos said.
Duclos’ comments came just before MPs were expected to debate a proposed government bill seeking to adjust some COVID-19 measures, including the introduction of penalties for abusing the CERB.
The governing Liberals want to legislate fines and even jail time for CERB recipients who submitted fraudulent claims.
“We are giving ourselves the ability to sanction fraudsters who are trying to deliberately take advantage of the system during a crisis and when people are most vulnerable. We do not have the intention of penalizing people who made a mistake but we have to have a system that is capable of targeting people who deliberately defrauded the system,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Tuesday.
Asked on Wednesday why the government feels the need to threaten Canadians with fines or jail times given the number of repayments made voluntarily to date, Duclos said federal officials expect those penalties to apply “to very few people.”
“Unfortunately, as the prime minister said again yesterday, there is a small, very small minority of people that take advantage of such situations to commit fraud,” he said, adding the government wants to ensure the CERB has “integrity measures” similar to the EI program.
As of 3 p.m. on Wednesday, the opposition parties had all denied unanimous consent to debate and vote on the government’s latest COVID-19 bill under an accelerated time frame.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters that 1.2 million Canadians “went off the CERB” in May.
“What that says to me … is that Canadians really want to work but because of coronavirus, many people have been unable to work,” Freeland said.
— With files from Global News’ Amanda Connolly
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