PM Justin Trudeau says a new bill the federal government is advancing to crack down on fraudulent claims for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit is not about punishing people who made “honest mistakes.”
“Unfortunately, in every situation, there are a few criminals who will deliberately try to take advantage of a moment of solidarity, a moment where we’re in crisis and we’re trying to help each other out by deliberately defrauding the system,” Trudeau said.
“There may be a number of people who mistakenly took both the CERB and the wage subsidy because they weren’t sure what they were going to do, and they were really worried and they just took everything. Those people will simply have to pay back the one that they shouldn’t have been taking,” Trudeau said. “We’re not looking at punishing people who made honest mistakes, obviously. This is a time for us to pull together as a country.”
The Liberal government is proposing legislation that would impose tighter rules for claiming the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) and is threatening to impose fines and jail time on those who deliberately lie on applications. An offence could net a fine of up to $5,000, plus a penalty equal to double the amount of the income support claimed, or a fine plus a period of imprisonment up to six months, according to proposed legislation.
The bill comes as the government faces pressure from the Conservatives on the one hand to weed out fraudulent claims and urge people to get back to work — and pressure from the NDP on the other hand to extend emergency aid and avoid going after Canadians who file ineligible claims.
In a bill to be tabled in the House of Commons Wednesday, the government says Canadians won’t be eligible to claim the benefit if:
- They fail to go back to work when it is reasonable to do so, and their employer asks them to return.
- They fail to resume self-employment when it’s reasonable to do so.
- They decline a reasonable job offer when they are able to work.
This comes as his government works to secure support for the bill, amid concerns from the NDP that people who may have registered for the CERB, despite not meeting the qualifications, aren’t penalized disproportionately.The House of Commons has been recalled on Wednesday for an emergency session to pass what will be the fifth piece of COVID-19-prompted federal legislation. As part of the bill — which outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has called “omnibus” — the Liberals are looking to impose fines and jail time for those who fraudulently claimed or tried to claim CERB, in addition to including new language to prompt those who can go back to work to do so.
“Discussions are ongoing, but I fully expect us to be able to work well with the opposition to deliver this important support to Canadians,” Trudeau said Tuesday during his Rideau Cottage address. The program offers $2,000 per month and was introduced in late March in an effort to help those who were out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the cross-Canada shutdown it prompted. As of June 7, more than 8.4 million Canadians have applied for CERB, receiving a total of $44.6 billion.
These proposed changes come as the government is mulling how to evolve the program as the economy reopens and many businesses are able to bring their staff back into work. The initial hope was that once the 75 per cent wage subsidy program got off the ground, a large number of laid-off workers would be re-hired with the help of the subsidy, but so far take-up has been far below what was initially projected by Finance Canada.
Trudeau made an effort again on Tuesday to encourage employers to access the 75 per cent subsidy for employees’ wages. “I also want to remind people that we launched a hotline service to help entrepreneurs and small business owners, including not-for-profit organizations and charities, navigate these uncertain times. People with pressing financial needs can now call 1-866-989-1080 to speak with an accountant or a business advisor,” Trudeau said.