A photo of Canadian currency. CERB is requiring millions of Canadians to pay back money they were promised was not a loan.
CERB is requiring millions of Canadians to pay back money they were promised was not a loan. Credit: Anita Hart / Flickr

On May 30, 2022, the Toronto Star published a contribution from financial advisor Lesley-Anne Scorgie entitled: You received CERB and shouldn’t have. Now you have to repay it. So, what are your options if you really can’t afford to?

Scorgie’s tough-love advice to CERB ineligibles is basically to ‘buck up’ and face the music. 

After getting clear on the amount you owe and your repayment schedule, start making plans. 

Sell your valuables and belongings, collect debts from friends and family, start doing things yourself that you would normally pay others to do and stop spending as much. 

The language used is pungent.

“Go room by room and purge…do some extra work…DIY everything you possibly can. Nails, cleaning, delivery fees…. Cash in your loyalty points…. Speak to an insolvency trustee….” 

This is undoubtedly great advice to those who clearly knew that they were ineligible for the CERB but cashed in anyways and then blew the proceeds out the door on who knows what? Now they have to perform a belt-tightening lifestyle makeover or face the consequences.   

It’s hard to disagree.

Too bad, however, that Scorgie’s pointed advice only applies in our view to the tiniest sliver of people that the CRA had found ineligible for CERB.  

The reality is that most Canadians who applied in the panic of the early days of the pandemic, only to be told later they did not qualify, are people who were already living in poverty.  They don’t have many possessions of real monetary value.  They certainly do not have an excess of clothing or household items to sell and loyalty points are accumulated by buying basic necessities such as food and hygiene products and then used to buy the same at another date because the hydro or other bill is due.

Remember how confusing the rules were when they first came out?  Remember the advice that they got from government staff to apply anyway even when they may not have been eligible? Remember the self-employment rules that got reversed?  The partial relief for students who should have applied for the Canadian Student Emergency Benefit instead of CERB?  The GIS clawback that only recently got overturned?  If government could decide that it was wrong to force struggling seniors to pay CERB back, why not everyone struggling in poverty?  

In the first blush of the pandemic scare, many who thought they were working did not get their T4’s from employers who closed up without fulfilling their responsibilities.    No T4? No Record of Employment? CRA thought balloon? Ineligible! 

Still others who collected qualifying Honourariums were not issued the T4A’s they required (quite legally and with the blessing of the CRA) to establish eligibility. They are eligible but CRA thinks they aren’t.

There was also a significant number of income/social assistance recipients who were forced to apply for the CERB on the off chance they ‘might’ be eligible for it only to get the bad news later. 

And at the same time, in some jurisdictions these payments were summarily clawed back from their provincial assistance payments leaving them in a deeper hole, with the ever-looming federal CRA also wanting their ‘cut’ 

Subsidized renters across Canada also saw their rents increased by $600 a month (30% of the $2000 a month CERB) because rent geared to income means exactly that. 

Finally, many people couldn’t really worry about whether they qualified or not.  It was a pandemic that was killing thousands.  An already uncertain existence due to poverty was made that much more uncertain and so terrifying. Who wouldn’t grasp at anything that offered some measure of security?

People living in poverty in Canada don’t have the resources to repay CERB. (Say it again.)

The reality is that for the vast majority of ex-CERB recipients who live in poverty the real answer is a CERB amnesty. 

It is an elaborate and misguided fiction that people in poverty have a resource-laden lifestyle. Scorgie, a financial advisor, does not appear to have any understanding of the depth of poverty in Canada and our successive governments failing to create the necessary systemic changes to eradicate it.

In the immediate future, Scorgie’s approach absolves the federal government from fixing the mess caused by its unclear and inconsistent communications and it absolves provincial and municipal governments of their responsibility in requiring ineligible social assistance recipients to apply for CERB.  

The implication is that all those who wrongly received CERB are either dishonest or made a mistake for which they now must be punished.  If we, as a society, continue to allow the depth and breadth of poverty in Canada to continue to exist then at the very least we must stop blaming the victims for being victimized.  

It would seem we have given up on a ‘just’ recovery to recovery just for some.