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CERB Penalties Raise Concern

In an effort to amend the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), Canada’s Liberal government included amendments potentially leading to jail-time and fines. Penalization clauses found in a leaked version of the bill led to a social media push-back. Ultimately, opposition party demands led the bill to stall on the floor.

In short: Demands to remove penalizing provisions to the CERB are leading to criticism of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government for unclear messaging. The core of the Liberal’s rebuttal is that those who applied to CERB in “good faith” need not be concerned. In its current form, due to these as well as various other objections from opposition parties, the legislation did not pass.

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CERB Application Confusion: The unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 crisis meant the roll-out of CERB did not have the same messaging luxuries a non-crisis policy benefits from. To assuage concerns and confusion, initial messaging efforts by the Liberal Party attempted to clarify that:

“Canadians in need can apply for the CERB without any penalties.”

The interpretation that those in need should apply was furthered by Liberal politicians like MP Adam Vaughan who, in response to a constituent describing how their partner would not qualify for CERB due to income requirements, advised not to:

“over react and impose strict literal interpretations to what is a relatively easy attestation to make.”

  • This was interpreted by some to mean that despite not strictly qualifying for the program, the partner in question should apply nonetheless.

BILL-C17 and Penalization: Statements by the Liberal government in the past week have led to concern about the amplification of this interpretation by an MP, as the tabling of a bill by government Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough outlines ‘Penalties’, including fines and jail-time. The introduction of this bill has been seen as further confusing to some, as on May 14th, Minister Qualtrough said:

“There’s not going to be penalties, and we’re not going to punish people if they did it in good faith.”

The Importance of Good Faith: “Good faith” appears to be at the core of the Liberal Party’s messaging, with Secretary of the Treasury Board Jean Yves-Duclos echoing this idea, stating there

“will be no penalty and no consequences for “mistakes made in good faith.”

Criticism From Without: Irrespective of the efficacy of ‘direct income supports’, this has created a situation where some Canadians are uncertain about their liability. Although the government is emphasizing good faith:

Opposition parties maintain that “criminalization” will “impact people who are most vulnerable.”

Dissent From Within: Criticism has not just come from outside of the party, previously mentioned Liberal MP Adam Vaughan has criticized this approach, saying:

“We need to help them walk back into this economy in a sensitive way and jail should not be hanging over their heads at any time during this process, because that’s just not fair and that’s not what our intent is and that’s not what we’re going to do … so let’s be clear about that and not scare Canadians into being afraid of their government.”

The bottom line:

  • With 8.4 million Canadians on CERB, concern about fraud is inevitable
  • Whether the Canadian government prioritizes pursuing fraudulent applications over applications made in error remains a concern for many of those who applied.
  • For now, without a more explicit understanding of what “good faith” constitutes in this context, the introduction of this bill may leave many Canadians uncertain and in the lurch.