Like so many Canadians last spring, Brad Stewart found himself wondering how he would support himself and his family at the beginning of the global pandemic.
When the federal government announced it would be providing financial support to employed and self-employed Canadians who were directly affected by COVID-19 through the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), the 37-year-old wounded veteran and Barrie resident said he was skeptical he’d qualify. But he decided to call just to be certain.
“I called the number. You push one or two and then it just hangs up on you and then there’s this cheque in the mail,” he told BarrieToday, adding he was sent a $2,000 cheque even though he didn’t actually qualify for the CERB.
Stewart wrote a letter and sent it — along with the cheque — back to the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA) informing them that he did not qualify for the money.
“They didn’t answer. … They just sent the cheque back to me,” said a frustrated Stewart. “I did the same thing again. I sent the cheque back to CRA with a letter (and) they sent the cheque back again.”
He says this happened three more times until he got fed up and finally managed to get someone at the CRA on the phone to attempt to resolve the situation.
“They told me at first to send it back,” Stewart said, adding after he explained he had tried that several times already, the agent told him to simply not cash the cheque, assuring him he would in no way be impacted when tax time rolled around.
“I didn’t cash it… and about two months later I got a T4A in the mail stating that I’d received a CERB cheque for $2,000," Stewart said incredulously.
Getting more and more frustrated, Stewart got back on the phone with agents at CRA, who acknowledged he had been in touch multiple times over the course of the year. They instructed him not to add anything on his tax forms when the time came to file them, promising him he would not be taxed on the funds.
Stewart was skeptical, but ultimately agreed to do so. When he got his tax refund, Stewart was livid, seeing he had in fact been taxed on the CERB money, despite multiple promises that it would not be the case.
“They robbed me of $650. Then when I get a hold of them and again tell them of their mistake, they say it was 100 per cent (their) mistake. So when I asked if they’d be returning his money, CRA flat out refused,” he said.
“The people who have been fraudulent and taken this money even though they didn’t qualify for it are not, for the most part, having anything done," Stewart added. "People like myself, who received these cheques by mistake and are giving back Canadian tax dollars… the Canadian government is stealing money from us and taxing us for things we didn’t even receive. No matter how many times I sent it back… they just kept giving it back. It’s just unbelievable how unprofessional they were.”
At a loss about how to proceed, Stewart ended up reaching out to his local Member of Parliament for help.
“I just want my money back. I’ve fought for this country and served this country for years, and I have absolutely zero faith left in my government now,” Stewart said.
In an interview with BarrieToday, Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte MP Doug Shipley said Stewart isn’t the only one of his constituents who have found themselves in this situation.
“Our office has dealt with a few tax issues in regard to the CERB payments. My staff are aware of the problems and are on top of it," the MP said. "They are trying to deal with CRA to get things straightened out in all these cases, but it’s not happening as quickly as we’d like."
With 338 MP offices across Canada likely dealing with similar issues, that could amount to hundreds — or even thousands — of similar incidents, Shipley added.
“It’s frustrating that it even happened in the first place, quite frankly," he said. "We think there was perhaps some rush in sending out CERB cheques, and probably some people didn’t understand the taxing of those, either, and now both those are coming a bit of a head.
"Times are definitely stressful and busy… but we are trying to get their funds returned to them in a timely manner. It’s their money and they deserve it," Shipley said.
In Stewart’s case, Shipley said his staff have been dealing with an agent at CRA directly, who is admitting it was the agency’s mistake.
“We’ve dug into it enough that we have got CRA’s attention and they are aware of this particular situation," the MP said. "The challenge now is trying to rectify it. The first result was they just wanted to rectify it on next year’s tax return, which was not acceptable to the resident or myself, so now we are trying to expedite it to get him his money back sooner than that.”
Shipley admitted the last year has been tiring and confusing to many, but said his staff are ready and willing to help however they can.
“We’ve been saying from the beginning that if people have issues or problems to reach out to our office. We are working with Brad and others on these accounts … and if others are struggling with similar issues with the federal government, give our office our call and will help in any way we can.”
Shipley's constituency office can be reached by phone at 705-728-2596 or through the website by clicking here.