Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the federal government will use the necessary tools to punish the “small minority” of people who have abused the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
Trudeau’s comments came at daily press briefing at Rideau Cottage on Tuesday, a day before the House of Commons returns to debate new legislation that would include measures to allow the government to punish those deliberately abusing the emergency support program.
The prime minister said while the CERB was created to quickly flow to the hands of millions of Canadians financially hurting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the government is now looking to crack down on deliberate fraudsters who tried to game the system.
“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 trying to help each other out, by deliberately (defrauding) the system,” he said.
“We will make sure we are punishing people who try and take advantage of this situation.”
Trudeau explained that the CERB was put in place to maximize the number of Canadians reached in a short amount of time, which is why there weren’t complicated background checks “upfront.” He stressed that workers who have had pay partially covered through the federal wage subsidy, at the same time they were collecting the CERB, won’t be punished, but will have to pay back the subsidy they weren’t eligible for.
“We’re not looking to punish people who made honest mistakes, obviously,” he said.
Sources mentioned that the draft legislation says those found guilty of an offence could receive a fine of $5,000 plus not more than double the amount of the income support payment that would have been paid through the fraudulent claim, or both the fine and imprisonment for six months.
Trudeau also said tomorrow’s legislation includes proposals to support people with disabilities, to support more workers through the wage subsidy and to make CERB payments more flexible, while punishing those who committed fraud.
Opposition parties were given a draft of the legislation on Saturday, ahead of Wednesday’s Commons sitting, and Trudeau said discussions with the parties are ongoing.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said his party would not be supporting the legislation, calling it “irresponsible” and “wrong-headed” for the government to target vulnerable people who are hurting from COVID-19-induced economic hardship.
While the Conservatives have yet to announce their voting intentions on the legislation, the party’s finance critic, Pierre Poilievre, called for more fiscal transparency for Ottawa’s “unprecedented spending” in a press conference Tuesday morning, saying that while government spending has doubled in the past 10 years, the number of audits have been halved.
Poilievre also announced his intention to introduce a motion at the Commons finance committee that would call for an increase of the auditor general of Canada’s budget by about $10.8 million, and have the office examine the economic programs introduced by the federal government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The most recent federal figures show 8.41 million people have applied for the CERB, with $43.51 billion in payments as of June 4.