We’d hate to think that the Liberals are punishing everyday Canadians for not electing them into their ridings, but when it looks like a fish and smells like a fish, something is fishy.
Members of Parliament in all Saskatoon ridings are complaining that the Canada Revenue Agency has stepped up reviews of the Canada Child Tax Benefit (CCTB) for their constituents.
An email from the CRA clarified that these are reviews, however most MPs have referred to them as audits when talking to The Hill Times.
Three of the four Saskatoon ridings are held by Conservative members, while the fourth seat is occupied by NDP MP Sheri Benson. All four offices, including those of Conservative members Kelly Block, Brad Trost, Kevin Waugh, and Ms. Benson, told The Hill Times there has been a noticeable increase in case files pertaining to these reviews, and have witnessed firsthand the “ridiculous” process for proving your children exist, and that you have custody of them, as described by Ms. Benson.
This is the same area where the Canadian Press reported that a Saskatoon man had been reviewed twice by the CRA to prove his children exist and are in his care in order to continue receiving his child tax benefits.
Emery Sampaga, another Saskatoon man, has also been undergoing the same, arduous review, for almost a year now. He says he’s nearing the end of his patience. Mr. Sampaga worked as an electrician in Fort McMurray, Alta., when he lost his job due to layoffs and moved to Saskatoon in an effort to find other work. Shortly after arriving, the CRA issued a review of his child tax benefits, to prove that he did have children and that they were in the care of Mr. Sampaga and his fiancée.
Mr. Sampaga has had difficulty finding work in Saskatoon, as well, but said he has refused employment insurance because that’s not the way he was raised. Recently, he started his own cleaning business, and is working double time to try to make enough money to support his wife and three children, aged six, three, and one.
“I don’t like asking for anything, because I got taught not to ask for any money. But the kids are entitled to it,” he said. “Diapers, milk. It’s just hurting us. I want my kids just to have it,” Mr. Sampaga told The Hill Times, sounding exasperated at having to explain this situation one more time.
Despite the hassle and costs associated with providing all the proper documentation, Mr. Sampaga said his file continues to be under review nearly a year later, though he’s not getting much feedback on what is happening with it.
“It’s not funny anymore,” he said. “We’re going back and forth, and it’s costing us money to get all the papers. Every sheet of paper, we have to get from the doctor, it’s $25 a piece.” Mr. Sampaga said he has provided the CRA with “everything,” even the baptism certificates for his three children, and photos of the family together.
“It’s not funny that you say we don’t have any [children]. It kind of offended us,” he said, explaining that he has been calling the CRA every day and leaving messages, because no one is returning his calls, let alone picking up the phone in the first place. That’s what led him to seek out the help of his MP, Ms. Benson.
“What happens is people said, ‘I cannot get through on the phone,’ that is why they are eventually coming in. Or they’ve had CRA say they’ve lost their documents. I mean we’ve submitted documents two or three times and we don’t know where they’ve went,” Ms. Benson told The Hill Times. She said one of her constituents who was being reviewed, a lawyer, was so frustrated with the process he “went to an extreme” and started sending the CRA pictures of his family.
She said it’s as if the CRA keeps adding barriers to the process. “You provide the birth certificate, then it comes back and they say, well, we’d like, now we want proof of citizenship…Or that letter from your doctor said ‘next of kin,’ instead of ‘legal guardian,’” she said, explaining a particular situation that one of her constituents was in through this CCTB review.
This issue, compounded with the fact that there is currently a delay in responses from the CRA problem-resolution phone line for Western Canada MPs, means there is a significant impact on lower-income constituents like Mr. Sampaga.
Ms. Block, in an emailed statement, said she wants the minister to “intervene and stop this unnecessary auditing of my constituents.”
Her office also confirmed there has been a recent rise in the number of CTB reviews they are seeing come through since roughly November.
“People are being asked to prove that their children reside with them even though they have lived together as a family and received the benefit for years. Some families have stopped receiving the benefit until they are able to provide the proof required by the department,” she said.
Mr. Waugh, too, brought up the growing number of reviews his office was seeing in an interview. “A lot of people are getting audited. Some of these people don’t really have a lot of resources to fight the audit, meaning they can’t go out and get a birth certificate. But they have to, right. It’s that chicken and egg we’re going through here,” he said, indicating that he has heard a lot of complaints in his riding about these reviews while door-knocking this summer.
Mr. Trost’s office has already this year worked on more than the 10-15 child benefit cases it would receive in a typical year, Alan Chant, a staffer for Mr. Trost, wrote in an emailed statement.
Often, those cases involve constituents who didn’t respond to CRA requests for information, and had their benefits cut off, he wrote.
When asked why it appears that the Saskatoon region is being targeted with these reviews, an emailed response from CRA spokesperson David Walters said there are no statistics available on that.
Lisa Damien, another CRA spokesperson, wrote that “some cases are selected at random, but the vast majority of benefit reviews are selected based on impartial and non-discriminatory criteria using sophisticated computerized case selection logic with no consideration given to the province or territory or residence.” This was in response to being asked how it is determined who gets audited, and when.
Ms. Damien also wrote that “the fact that reviews are conducted does not mean that there is suspicion of fraud.” According to her, in the past two years, 65 per cent of benefit reviews led to changes resulting in either “CRA records being updated with recipients’ information so that they could continue to receive full benefits,” or “reduction or elimination of benefit payment, including the possibility of an overpayment which would require reimbursement.”
When asked what percentage of all reviews led to the latter, Mr. Walters said the CRA did not have those statistics.
Over the past three years, there has been a noticeable increase in Canada Child Tax Benefit reviews conducted by the CRA. In the 2012-2013 year, the CRA completed 103,946 reviews. In 2013-2014, the CRA completed 172,040 CCTB reviews, and in 2014-2015, the latest statistics available according to CRA, 196,014 CCTB reviews were completed.
The CRA did not offer a reason for the increase in reviews over the past three years.
While the number of case files in Saskatoon seem to be particularly high, it’s not the only area in the country that is being affected by a large number of reviews.
NDP Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay, Ont.) also said his office has seen a definite increase in these cases since the Liberal government came into office, and described the number of child tax benefit review cases his office was seeing as “disproportionate” compared to the other casework his staff sees.
“It’s a huge problem. It’s compounded because you’re dealing often with families who have few resources,” he said.
“Obviously there are going to be cases where you want to verify if it’s the ex-husband or the mother with the child, or is the child with the grandparents in another location. You have to do verification. But it seems that these levels of audits are much more intrusive. I would say if the minister spent nearly as much resources going after international tax cheats as they’re going after single mums in my riding, Canada might be a little better off,” said the MP of the Northern Ontario riding, referring to the Minister of National Revenue Diane Lebouthillier.
Budget 2016, released in November under the newly elected Liberal government, committed “$444.4 million over five years for the CRA to enhance its efforts to crack down on tax evasion and combat tax avoidance by: hiring additional auditors and specialists; developing robust business intelligence infrastructure; increasing verification activities; and improving the quality of investigative work that targets criminal tax evaders.”
MP Ziad Aboultaif (Edmonton Manning, Alta.) is the Conservative critic for national revenue. He told The Hill Times that because he hasn’t seen the situation arise in his own office, he won’t be pursuing it with Ms. Lebouthillier at this point.