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Ottawa will distribute pandemic money now, ‘clean up’ fraudulent claims later, PM says

The government isn’t focused on “cleaning up” fraudulent claims for government pandemic benefits right now — but such claims will be looked into later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today.

Trudeau’s remarks were in response to suggestions that some Canadians are applying for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) even though they don’t qualify.

CBC News first reported that ineligible Canadians were receiving the benefit after a CRA employee spoke out. The employee said that she sees ineligible applicants getting the $2,000-per-month payments every day.

On Tuesday, The National Post reported that some federal employees have been told to ignore potential cases of cheating and that compliance and enforcement have been suspended. An unnamed source cited in the story said 200,000 applications have been “red-flagged” as potentially fraudulent.

As MPs held a “virtual Parliament” online today, Conservative MP Dan Albas pressed the PM on whether the government intended to ignore instances of fraud.

Trudeau said his government’s focus was on acting quickly to help struggling Canadians.

“We knew that there would be a need to clean up after the fact, to go after fraudulent cases, and we will do that,” he said. 

“But our priority now and in the coming months is to ensure Canadians get the support they need and our economy comes roaring back. That’s what we’re focused on.”

Trudeau said the government would take “retroactive action” to pinpoint instances of fraud.

He repeatedly refused to directly answer when asked whether he or another cabinet minister approved any memo telling government employees not to act on potential cases of fraud.

Easy access in the face of growing need

Federal officials have made it clear that anyone who applies for the benefit will get it, although applicants do have to attest that they meet the criteria.

More than 7.83 million Canadians have applied for the benefit as of May 10, government statistics show.

To qualify for the CERB, an applicant must be a Canadian resident over 15 years of age who has been forced to stop working because of the pandemic. The applicant also must have earned a minimum of $5,000 over the last 12 months and must expect to make less than $1,000 a month while collecting the benefit.

The latest economic numbers show that the suffering created by the pandemic has been severe. 

According to the latest numbers from Statistics Canada, more than 3 million Canadians have lost their jobs since February. Millions more have seen their paid work hours reduced.

New repayment option

The government has acknowledged a growing number of Canadians need to repay some portion of the benefits they’ve received.

As of Monday, a new repayment option is available to Canadians through the “My CRA account” online portal.

A spokesperson for National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier said the option was added to the portal to help Canadians who accidentally received payments from both employment insurance and CERB.

“We started getting a lot of calls and messages on social media from Canadians asking how they could refund the extra CERB payment,” said Janick Cormier.

Anyone who has received a payment to which they are not entitled can also mail a cheque to the CRA or return the government-issued cheque if they have not yet cashed it, she said.

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