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Government data suggests First Nations hit more often with CERB repayment letters

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Vivian Ketchum applied for emergency aid during the first wave of the pandemic when she was forced to isolate after being a close contact of someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

As someone who is already in a financially precarious spot, Ketchum found taking time off from her low-paying job doing phone surveys completely devastated her situation.

The 57-year-old residential school survivor thought the Canada Emergency Response Benefit could be her financial life raft.

“I thought the federal government was being gracious in giving out the CERB,” she said in a recent interview from her Winnipeg apartment. “But they are unforgiving and relentless in wanting that money back.”

Ketchum was one of 441,599 aid recipients who in late 2020 received a letter from the Canada Revenue Agency questioning their eligibility and warning they may owe back some of the payments.

Number-crunching by The Canadian Press about where the letters went suggest a disproportionate number landed in postal codes home to First Nations, including in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Two areas of northern Manitoba stand out from the data, with more than half the average number of CERB recipients during each of the benefits’ pay periods receiving what the CRA called “educational letters.”

The forward sortation areas, meaning the first three digits of a postal code, are home to two of the largest Indigenous communities in the province. The local MP notes there are also high rates of poverty.

Data from the CRA show the average personal income in the R0B postal code is just over $11,900, below the national average of just over $51,000. Nearly 5,000 of the letters landed in this area.

New Democrat Niki Ashton, who represents the region in the House of Commons, said her office has received calls from residents worried about having to repay the CERB.

“This whole issue has caused a lot of anxiety and worry for people in our communities,” Ashton said. “But it really speaks to the lack of, well, frankly, the lack of fairness from the federal government that is extending significant resources and tracking folks down in one of the poorest parts of Canada.”

Areas with large numbers of CERB recipients, including in and around the Greater Toronto Area, showed smaller shares of letters in the data obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

The CRA said no one has been forced to repay any of the aid, no repayment deadlines have been set and “no recovery or collection efforts have been made with respect to any group, including Indigenous applicants.”

That could soon change. Work is moving ahead this year to verify CERB recipients’ eligibility as the government always promised would happen, with efforts continuing over the next few years. Thousands more letters have also been sent to recipients of the now-defunct program.

Just under 8.9 million Canadians used the $500-a-week emergency benefit the government set up quickly at the onset of the pandemic as millions of workers saw their incomes slashed.

Eligibility rules were ultimately set to require someone to have earned at least $5,000 in the 12 months prior to applying, something the government noted became easier to verify once tax filings rolled in.

Part of the issue with letters going to Indigenous communities is that tax filing rates are lower among Indigenous families.

The CRA’s website encourages Indigenous aid recipients to file their 2019 and 2020 tax returns as a way of proving eligibility, even though the deadlines for those have long passed.

The agency suggested another issue could be that some applicants have tax-exempt income because it is earned on-reserve under a specific section of the Indian Act.

“If an individual had tax-exempt employment or self-employment income, it’s possible that the CRA did not have the necessary income information on file to confirm their eligibility for the CERB,” the agency said in response to questions from The Canadian Press.

The agency added that it has an email for specific questions about COVID-19 workplace restrictions and the impact on Indigenous income-tax exemption.

Ketchum struggled to understand the CRA website and what, if any, options for leniency there were. She asked a tax preparer for help, but was told she would have to pay back the money.

Indigenous workers who met the CERB’s earnings requirement were more likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to receive the CERB, according to Statistics Canada research.

Among First Nations workers, the rate was 41.5 per cent, for Inuit 40.3 per cent, and 36.2 per cent for Métis. The corresponding percentage for non-Indigenous workers was 33.9 per cent.

The reason they were more likely to receive CERB had to do with their disproportionate ranks in low-wage jobs that were hit hardest during the pandemic amid rounds of lockdowns and cuts in hours, and which still have not rebounded to pre-pandemic levels despite the top-line figures.

Ketchum shakes her head at the situation. She relies on getting money back during tax season to help pay her bills, but instead sold her condominium and took out $4,000 in risky payday loans to survive the pandemic.

She said she can barely afford to eat and can’t afford needed dental work.

“CRA took my teeth, my rent, my food,” Ketchum said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 22, 2022.

— With files from Erika Ibrahim in Ottawa.

 

Jordan Press, Kelly Geraldine Malone and Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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Prince Charles and Camilla wrap up Platinum Jubilee visit in Northwest Territories

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YELLOWKNIFE — Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, took part in ceremonies and learned about Indigenous language in the Northwest Territories Thursday as their royal visit wrapped up.

They were greeted by a large group at the Yellowknives Dene First Nation community of Dettah. The First Nation east of Yellowknife has a population of just over 200 people and dozens came out to shake hands with the couple and take part in a ceremonial lighting of a fire.

The prince also took part in a round dance with community members and learned about traditional tools.

“It’s very emotional for me,” said 53-year-old Eileen Drygeese.

Drygeese said her parents and grandparents would tell stories about when they met the royals during a tour in the 1970s when Prince Charles was a teenager. She gave Camilla a medicine bundle to represent the women of her family and their history together.

Some members did not support the visit, Drygeese said, but added they understand the power of showcasing their community and culture.

Many of those who came were wearing orange clothing and other items with the words “every child matters” representing the legacy of residential schools.

Charles was given a pair of moosehide moccasins before he joined Dettah Chief Edward Sangris, Ndilo Chief Fred Sangris and other Indigenous leaders for a private meeting.

The trip has been shaped by Canada’s reckoning with its relationship and history with Indigenous people as possible graves continue to be found at the sites of former residential schools across the country.

The three-day tour began Tuesday in Newfoundland and Labrador, where Prince Charles recognized the visit came at an important moment.

“We must find new ways to come to terms with the darker and more difficult aspects of the past, acknowledging, reconciling and striving to do better,” he said.

During a Platinum Jubilee reception at Rideau Hall on Wednesday, Gov. Gen. Mary Simon encouraged the couple to listen to Indigenous leaders, elders and community members in the North.

RoseAnne Archibald, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said during the reception that she asked the prince for a formal apology from the Queen, as head of the Church of England.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said Thursday that while all effective power rests with the government, not with the Queen, he understands comments from the royals could be important to some Indigenous people.

“It’s nuanced,” he said. “There are some Indigenous Peoples ⁠ — much like non-Indigenous people ⁠ — who couldn’t care less. There are many who have a profound deep connection to the Royal Family.”

The couple were greeted earlier Thursday on the tarmac by Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty and Margaret Thom, the commissioner of the Northwest Territories.

They were also presented with flowers wrapped in birch tree bark by a young student from the K’alemi Dene School,

While Charles met with leaders, the duchess stopped at a school to hear about programs aimed at preserving Indigenous languages. There, she took part in a demonstration with a greenscreen and puppets, as well as stop-motion animation.

“Very clever,” Camilla said about the animation project.

Later, Charles was made an honorary Canadian Ranger at an event in Yellowknife. Rangers are a part of the Canadian Army Reserve in northern and isolated areas.

The prince also met with local experts to discuss climate change and permafrost.

The last royal visit to Northwest Territories was in 2011, when Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, were welcomed by large crowds during a one-day stop in the North during a whirlwind first royal tour for the newlyweds.

This royal visit was to culminate with a celebration in Yellowknife in honour of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2022.

 

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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Liberals revive bill to create watchdog for Canada Border Services Agency

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OTTAWA — The federal Liberals are rekindling a plan to allow travellers, immigration detainees and others who feel they have been mistreated by Canada’s border agency to complain to an independent body.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino introduced legislation Thursday to give the RCMP watchdog the additional responsibility of handling public complaints about the Canada Border Services Agency.

The bill to create the Public Complaints and Review Commission comes after previous versions died on the order paper.

Border officers can stop travellers for questioning, take blood and breath samples and search, detain and arrest people without warrants.

An internal agency unit handles complaints from the public, while other bodies, including the courts, the federal privacy commissioner and the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency, examine various concerns.

But the border agency is not overseen by a dedicated, independent complaints and review body, prompting civil liberties advocates, refugee lawyers and parliamentary committees to call for stronger monitoring.

The government proposes spending $112 million over five years, and more than $19 million a year ongoing, to establish the new body, which would replace the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP.

Michelaine Lahaie, chairperson of the existing RCMP complaints commission, told a news conference she was pleased to see many of her key recommendations had been included in the bill.

The legislation would require both the RCMP and border agency to respond to interim reports from the new watchdog within six months — addressing a long-standing sore point.

The RCMP commissioner was taken to court over chronic foot-dragging in providing feedback on interim reports from the current complaints commission. The problem has led to lengthy delays in the public release of final reports and recommendations.

“Codifying the timelines is a way to ensure that we remain vigilant going forward,” Mendicino said.

The RCMP and border agency would also have to report annually to the public safety minister on progress in implementing commission recommendations.

In addition, there would be race-based data collection and publication to increase knowledge of systemic racism in law enforcement and guide responses.

The new Public Complaints and Review Commission would carry out specified reviews of any non-national-security activities of the RCMP and border services agency, either on the commission’s own initiative or at the request of the minister.

It would also conduct complaint-related investigations concerning both agencies, which include:

— receiving complaints from the public about conduct and level of service;

— reviews when complainants are not satisfied with the RCMP or border agency’s handling of their concerns; and

— initiating complaints and investigations into conduct when it is in the public interest to do so.

“Ultimately, this legislation is about strengthening our law enforcement agencies by strengthening accountability, transparency and in our trust in them, and it will lead to a safer country for everyone,” Mendicino said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2022.

 

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

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Five reasons Quebec’s language law reform is stirring controversy

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MONTREAL — A protest against Quebec’s proposed overhaul of its language law drew a large crowd in Montreal on Saturday. The government says Bill 96 is a moderate reform that will improve protection for French while preserving English services, but critics say the bill will limit access to health care and justice, cost college teachers their jobs and increase red tape for small businesses.

Here are five reasons the bill, expected to be passed before the summer, is under fire:

Health care

Marlene Jennings, president of the Quebec Community Groups Network, an anglophone advocacy group, says the law could prevent hundreds of thousands of English speakers from accessing health care in their language. The bill requires government agencies, including health services, to communicate with the public in French except “where health, public safety or the principles of natural justice so require.”

There are also exceptions for people who have the right to English education in Quebec, those who have previously communicated with the government in English and immigrants who have lived in the province for less than six months.

On Tuesday, Premier François Legault offered assurances that the law won’t affect access to health services in English, but Jennings is skeptical. “We already have problems, when language hasn’t been made an issue, to access quality health-care services in a timely fashion. Bill 96 is going to compound those problems,” she said in an interview.

Education

The bill would require all students at English junior colleges to take three additional courses in French. Students with English education rights — those who have a parent or sibling who was educated in English in Canada — will be allowed to take courses on the French language, but other students will have to take other subjects, such as history or biology, in French.

Adding French-language classes in English institutions will be a challenge, said Adam Bright, an English literature teacher at Dawson College in Montreal. Because the law would require students without English education rights to take a French exit exam, Bright predicts few of those students will choose English literature courses, making it more difficult for them to succeed in their other classes.

He said his union expects the changes would lead to staffing cuts in the English department. “My wife is also an English literature teacher at Dawson, so if this bill goes through, both of us are going to lose our jobs,” he said in an interview.

Red tape for businesses 

The bill would expand provisions of the province’s language laws, which previously only applied to businesses with 50 or more employees, to those with 25 or more.

François Vincent, Quebec vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, estimates that complying with the law after it comes into effect will involve 20 to 50 hours of paperwork for business owners. Some businesses may have to hire consultants to help. While Vincent said it’s important to help people learn French, he doesn’t think that additional red tape will do that.

“Asking a small garage or a small restaurant in Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean that’s working 100 per cent in French to fill out paperwork so that the Office québécois de la langue française will say ‘Congratulations, you work in French,’ will not change anything,” he said in an interview.

Access to justice

The bill would require all court filings by businesses to be in French or translated into French and empower the minister of justice and the minister responsible for the French language to decide which provincial court judges need to be bilingual.

It calls for amending pieces of legislation — including Quebec’s Charter of the French Language, the Code of Civil Procedure, the Consumer Protection Act and Montreal’s city charter.

Pearl Eliadis, a Montreal human rights lawyer, said that complexity can make it hard to see the extent of the changes being proposed. “Access to justice isn’t just going to court and being able to get there, it’s also being able to understand the law,” she said.

Warrantless search and seizure

The bill would proactively invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Constitution to protect it from charter challenges.

Among the elements of the bill that would be shielded is a provision granting language inspectors the power to engage in search and seizure operations without a warrant. Eliadis said inspectors are not required to show reasonable grounds or reasonable suspicion before conducting a search related to the law.

“It’s more than a group of administrative rules designed to bolster French, because they’ve deliberately gone into each part of the act where constitutional rights can be invoked and essentially, with one sweep of the brush … disappeared an entire swath of our constitutional protections, leaving us with no remedy,” she said. “I worry the rule of law is being diminished.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2022.

 

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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