THE STANDING SENATE COMMITTEE ON SOCIAL AFFAIRS, SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

EVIDENCE


OTTAWA, Friday, February 25, 2022

The Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology met with videoconference this day at 2 p.m. [ET] to study Bill C-12, An Act to amend the Old Age Security Act (Guaranteed Income Supplement).

Senator Ratna Omidvar (Chair) in the chair.

[English]

The Chair: Honourable senators, my name is Ratna Omidvar, a senator from Ontario and chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. Today we are beginning our review of Bill C-12, An Act to amend the Old Age Security Act (Guaranteed Income Supplement).

I would like to introduce our first witnesses. We have with us today the Honourable Kamal Khera, Minister of Seniors. The minister is accompanied by officials from Employment and Social Development Canada, and they are Alexis Jonathan Conrad, Senior Assistant Deputy Minister, Income Security and Social Development; Cliff C. Groen, Senior Assistant Deputy Minister, Benefits and Integrated Services, Service Canada; and Annette Gibbons, Associate Deputy Minister.

Thank you all for being with us today, and thank you, minister, for taking the time. I invite you now to make your presentation.

Hon. Kamal Khera, P.C., M.P, Minister of Seniors: Madam Chair, thank you for this opportunity. It’s good to see you.

Before I begin, I’d like to first acknowledge that I’m joining you from Brampton West, which is situated on the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the New Credit.

Thank you for inviting me today to answer your questions on Bill C-12. I’m pleased to be joined by our extraordinary senior officials from our department, and thank you to the committee members for your study of this legislation. I’m confident that your work today will help our government support some of the lowest-income vulnerable seniors in our society. I think we can all agree that the focus should be on those affected people who are having trouble making ends meet each month and how we can make a real difference for them. Madam Chair, I’ll use my time today to briefly explain why we tabled Bill C-12, what it would do and why it is so important to pass this legislation quickly.

The last few years, as you know, have forced us to repeatedly adapt to a constantly changing reality. Bill C-12 is another example of this. As you know, our government introduced pandemic benefits to support people who lost jobs during the pandemic. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit, or CERB, and then the CRB, which is the Canada Recovery Benefit, helped millions of Canadians avoid catastrophic income loss.

However, in the longer term, emergency benefits also affected the financial security of some Guaranteed Income Supplement, or GIS or Allowance, recipients. The Income Tax Act defines pandemic relief benefits as taxable income. Every July, an individual’s entitlement for these income-tested benefits is reassessed based on individuals’ income, or the combined income of a couple, from the previous year. As a result, GIS and Allowance payments can increase, decrease or even cease according to the changes in personal annual net income. Therefore, some GIS and Allowance recipients saw their benefit payments decreased or even stopped completely because of the income they received from these pandemic benefits.

We recognized that some seniors were facing financial challenges as a result of this, and we needed to move quickly to rectify the situation. I can tell this committee, Madam Chair, we moved very quickly with our officials to look at all options available and worked very closely with the Minister of Finance to do just that. To correct the situation, our government proposed a two-step solution.

First, we are providing up to $742.4 million for automatic tax-free one-time payments to compensate seniors for the full amount of their loss of GIS or Allowance. This will help these low-income working seniors who relied on these pandemic benefits to get by, similar to how we were all struggling to navigate the pandemic and give them the full amount they otherwise would have received. These payments will be issuing in mid-April of this year, and my department is also working hard to issue a smaller number of payments in March 2022 to seniors who are experiencing severe financial hardship.

Second, our government tabled Bill C-12 to make sure that this does not happen again. Through this, we want to make sure that seniors don’t face another loss or reduction in their GIS or Allowance benefits because they received pandemic benefits. Bill C-12 would simply modify the Old Age Security Act to permanently exempt federal pandemic benefits from the calculation of GIS or Allowance benefits beginning in July 2022. This important legislative change will provide seniors peace of mind and certainty in knowing that they will not have to face any undue financial hardship if they continue to access these pandemic relief benefits.

As you may know, Madam Chair, GIS follows the annual July 1 to the end of June cycle that factors in tax information each year to assess eligibility, which is why this bill exempts starting at the end of June. It’s simply how the GIS cycle has long operated.

To be clear, Madam Chair, the following benefits would be exempt: The Canada Emergency Response Benefit, including any CERB amounts paid under the Employment Insurance Act; the Canada Recovery Benefit; the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit; the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit; and the Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit. That’s what Bill C-12 would do. It’s something all parties endorsed in the House of Commons unanimously, and you know how significant that is, Madam Chair.

It is extremely urgent to get this legislation through. In order to exempt that income and to prevent lower benefit payments for some GIS and Allowance recipients because of the income they received from these pandemic benefits, as you know, this legislation has to be passed by early March. My officials will certainly lay this out a little bit further in our Q & A. Bill C-12 must receive Royal Assent by March 4 to guarantee that this takes effect as of July 1. Every year, every day thereafter causes immense challenges for the system and will have an impact on the seniors’ file. That’s why it’s important to pass this legislation quickly. We recognize our duty as parliamentarians to do rigorous debate on pieces of legislation, but we often do that with complex bills. This one achieves a short, clear and significant goal that we all support — helping financially the lowest-income, vulnerable seniors. We have a very short window of opportunity at a very busy time of the year. I’m very fully aware that we do not want honourable senators to be on any timeline, but we can all agree on the noble goal of making this correction in time for July. Low-income, working seniors deserve the support from us and are relying on all of us to do that. It unanimously passed the House because everyone sees the urgency in getting it done, and I hope we can do that here too.

During the pandemic, the focus of our support was always on people, and as I already said, the last two years have forced us to continue to adapt to a constantly changing reality. Nothing about this pandemic has been normal, and I’d argue that neither should this be. The simple yet significant piece of legislation can help better protect seniors’ finances and take away the worry that some seniors have as GIS renewals approach, and I want to certainly reiterate how appreciative I am of all the time and work that the committee is putting into this study for this legislation. I’m certainly happy to answer any questions and feedback and comments that you may have.

Thank you very much for your time.

The Chair: Thank you very much, minister. We will proceed to questions from senators. Senators, as is our previous practice, I would like to remind you that you each have five minutes, and that includes both the question and the answer. It always helps when you direct the question to a particular witness, if at all possible. If you wish to ask a question, please raise your hand, and I can already see all hands raised. The first question will go to our deputy chair, Senator Bovey, from Manitoba.

Senator Bovey: Thank you, minister, for being with us today.

I’d like to start by saying I am in Winnipeg, located on Treaty 1 territory, the traditional lands of the Anishinaabe, Ojibway, Cree, Oji-Cree Dene and Dakota, and the birthplace of the Métis nation and the heart of the Métis nation homeland, and I think many of our residents will benefit from this bill.

Madam Minister, I’m sure you’re aware that those of us in the Senate have been increasingly concerned about the short time we often have to assess and properly study bills. We don’t have a lot of time for this one, as you’ve already said.

I appreciate this bill is short, it’s a critically important step, and it is one I support. I think it’s important that money get into the hands of those who need it as soon as possible. I thank you for doing this.

My first question is this: Did you look at other alternatives that might have been available to address the clawback of seniors’ benefits in this fiscal year if Bill C-12 didn’t happen to be passed by March? I’m increasingly concerned about clawbacks to the vulnerable in our society. If you can answer that for me, I have another question in a moment. Thank you.

Ms. Khera: Thank you to the honourable senator for, first, certainly stating the urgency and knowing why this bill is so important and significant.

I can certainly say that when the pandemic first hit two years ago, as honourable senators know, we moved very quickly to provide rapid support to Canadians, from seniors to students, from workers to businesses, because we knew Canadians needed that support at that time. These programs were meant so that people could stay at home and stay safe, have a roof over their heads and put food on the table. Some working seniors were certainly part of a group that relied on these pandemic benefits to help them get through this crisis.

To be clear, Madam Chair, every year, thousands of seniors get their GIS adjusted depending on the income that they received from the previous year. Since some working seniors received these pandemic benefits — they certainly needed them at the time — they had their GIS affected in 2021. I agree they shouldn’t be penalized for that because they needed that support at that time.

I can assure the honourable senator that when I was first appointed to this role, this was the very first thing that we worked on. Indeed, it was the first thing that I was briefed on when I was appointed Minister of Seniors. I worked very closely with our officials and looked at all options possible to support these seniors. Of course, we worked with the Minister of Finance.

As the honourable senator may know, we put in a major investment in the Economic and Fiscal Update in December to fully compensate those seniors who were affected by this last year. That work is already under way. This automatic one-time payment will support affected seniors by fully compensating them. We’re moving quickly on that.

We want to ensure, Madam Chair — and this is a part of my mandate letter as well — that this does not happen again and to fulfill the commitment, as I mentioned, in my mandate letter to ensure that those seniors who took pandemic benefits last year know that they won’t have that impact again. Again, this is a very simple bill. I can say this is, indeed, in collaboration with parliamentarians from all different parties because they all see the urgent need to get this through. We want to support those working, low-income seniors, and I want to make sure we emphasize that these are the lowest income, working, vulnerable seniors that need that support. I think we can all agree why it’s important to move quickly on this.

Senator Bovey: If I may, minister, I don’t debate any of what you’ve said at all. I just wondered if you looked at other options for dealing with the clawback. Did you address other barriers that these groups may face? Are there other barriers that we may have to look at in the future with regard to seniors’ benefits? It’s one thing to deal with it once and, as you say, you don’t want to do it again but you’ve only mentioned the issues dealing with the pandemic. I wonder if you’ve done a bigger look, a bigger scope, as you’ve come to your decision.

Ms. Khera: Absolutely. Let me say our government’s priority has, first, always been there to support those lowest-income, vulnerable seniors. That is why one of the very first things that we moved forward on was to restore the age of eligibility for OAS and GIS back to 65. We then enhanced the Guaranteed Income Supplement that has helped over 900,000 lowest-income seniors — I would say single seniors — and actually has lifted 45,000 poor seniors out of poverty, which has made a significant difference in those lives.

This particular bill does one thing. I’m certainly looking forward to engaging with all senators on all things related to seniors, and certainly looking forward to engaging with the honourable senator on that. There is certainly an urgent need to get this bill through to avoid any reductions of GIS and Allowance because of pandemic benefits that these low-income seniors took. I think we all agree on that. As the honourable senator knows, it certainly got unanimous support from all different parties. Indeed, I’ve worked collaboratively with all parties on this bill together. This is precisely why we have it in front of us. This is something that is very important to get through quickly, and I hope we can get it through. Thank you.

Senator Bovey: Madam Chair, I’m going to suggest you move on to other members to give them the opportunity for their questions.

Senator Patterson: Thank you, Madam Minister, for being here. Your parliamentary secretary reached out to me, and I was also part of the all-senators briefing.

I want to make it clear, minister, absolutely we can all agree the focus should be on the vulnerable people who are in need and making sure that those much-needed payments are not clawed back. There’s no disagreement on that whatsoever on my part, and I’m sure on my colleagues’ part.

However, due to a significant drafting error, you don’t have current legal authority to exempt one-time payments from taxation, and that wasn’t caught in the Commons because there was no committee study. It was deemed read, and undoubtedly that error would have been addressed had the Commons had time to study the bill. The Budget Implementation Act would have granted the authority to exempt, but because that reference in the act was clearly wrong, you have no current legal authority. The intention is understood. It’s a good intention. I agree with it. But your moving forward based on that intention is not in keeping with the rule of law.

I hope you understand that we here in the Senate have a solemn duty. I’m a legislator and a lawyer. We have a solemn duty to correct errors in the law. It bothers me that we’re being pushed on the March 4 deadline, saying you need clear legislative authority to do that, but you don’t have clear legislative authority. This has been drawn to your attention many times well before this meeting. You don’t have the legislative authority to move this forward.

There’s an easy fix. I’d like to ask you if you agree with me that we should do this right. We should do this properly and make sure you and your officials have the proper legal authority to make these payments as is required by the rule of law.

Ms. Khera: Thank you, senator.

Let me first say that I am, and indeed we all are, open to engaging with senators on all matters related to seniors.

However, I would argue this bill is focused and is a direct solution to an issue raised on a very time-sensitive basis. We need to move quickly to enact it and to take away the worries held by those seniors who are about to file their taxes and are worried about the impact of pandemic benefits they took. I would encourage and commit this committee to please discuss other productive things that we might do for seniors overall. But this issue needs to be dealt with urgently, as I mentioned, by early March as has been outlined. Low-income, vulnerable seniors deserve an immediate solution to this matter. That’s exactly what Bill C-12 does.

I’m certainly happy to discuss other matters at appropriate junctures. Any amendment I would suggest, though, would certainly risk not passing it in time. I think we can’t risk those affected seniors, indeed, all seniors who have their files processed by the department. There are certainly pre-budget consultations and other junctures to make changes that the honourable senator has suggested. I would argue that this is something that we can move closely on.

I would, if I may, ask my officials if they had any comments on this as well.

Alexis Jonathan Conrad, Senior Assistant Deputy Minister, Income Security and Social Development, Employment and Social Development Canada: Senator, you are right. There is a drafting error in the budget implementation act. The drafting error was that the number was not changed after a clause was removed from the Budget Implementation Act. That was around a payment to OAS recipients who were 75 years and older. That does need to be fixed. It does not have a bearing on this exemption that’s requested through this legislation, but we are aware of it. We have been working with the Department of Justice, which is aware of the drafting error, to see if the government will include it in a miscellaneous amendments act, which is the standard process for these kinds of repairs. I can assure you that we are aware of it, and my colleague Cliff can explain how operationally we ensure people are not negatively impacted as a result of this one-time payment, but that is a separate issue from what this bill is trying to accomplish. I understand there’s a relationship between benefits provided to seniors, but that amendment will not impact the attempt here to exempt pandemic benefits from GIS calculations starting on July 1, 2022.

Senator Patterson: With all respect, if I may, the BIA was intended to exempt all of these kinds of payments, including the $500 one-time payment that was generously provided, all of those payments from taxation to seniors. The act is flawed in that it missed the full suite of payments, including the $500 one-time payment.

The miscellaneous statutes amendment act is not appropriate for this. This is not a comma or semicolon or a T or I not crossed or dotted. This is a legislative drafting error which, with respect, does not give you the authority.

Frankly, Madam Minister, if we approve an amendment in committee or in the Senate next week, maybe it will take a week off the timetable that has been imposed or suggested be imposed on us, but the work will expand to fit the time allotted.

I ask you to work with us to get this done right, and quickly, with goodwill on all sides. I’m sure the House of Commons will be happy to accept the amendment and make sure that everybody has the proper legal authority to do this right. I’m asking if you would agree that we can work together to make this happen promptly, in a quick manner that would have the bill go through the Senate and back to the House of Commons in the proper form. There’s a simple amendment possible: instead of exempting A, B, C, D, we would exempt A, B, C, D, and E. That would fix it and let us all move forward together with goodwill to get this done right.

Ms. Khera: I would like to first thank the honourable senator. I believe, as my official alluded to, there is an avenue for that to get done, but I would argue that we know the urgency in getting Bill C-12 passed quickly to make sure those seniors — the most vulnerable, the lowest-income seniors — can have surety and certainty that their pandemic benefits won’t be affected.

As the honourable senator may know, both CRA and ESDC have a lot of work together in the months leading up to each July. We need to give them time to make sure this exemption is actually possible. I think any time that we are limiting that factor, it will have a huge impact on those vulnerable seniors. I certainly don’t think anyone wants to do that.

As you know, this bill was put in in collaboration with all different parties, with many conversations that I’ve had with my honourable members from different parties and critics. Indeed, we’ve held MP and senator sessions on technical briefings and engaged with stakeholders on this. There is certainly a huge urgency to get it done right and to give those most vulnerable seniors that certainty that their pandemic benefits won’t have a negative impact in that situation. The folks that are on GIS are some of the most vulnerable, low-income seniors. I think we can all get together and get this done so we can have it in place so that seniors won’t be affected.

The Chair: Thank you, minister. As we move to Senator Poirier, I will ask everyone, senators and witnesses, to try to compress the responses. Everyone has their hand raised, and I want to be fair to everyone.

Senator Poirier: Thank you, minister, and the other witnesses for being with us today. It is greatly appreciated.

I know you talked a lot about the urgency of having all this done by March 4. I also understand and realize that it was introduced in the House of Commons on February 8, and seven days later, on the 15th, we had the second reading. We’re here in a time crunch with very little time.

But I’m also aware, minister, that the former Minister of Seniors at the time knew about this problem as far back as May 12, 2020. I’d like to quote her comments at the time:

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit is intended to replace income that has been lost due to COVID-19. It’s considered to be a taxable income and must be considered when determining entitlements to the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) and the allowances. This being said, this will not affect the Guaranteed Income Supplement and the Allowance for about a year. Income received from the Canada Emergency Response Benefit in 2020 will only affect the GIS and Allowance benefit amounts beginning in July 2021, as these benefits will be based on 2020 income.

My question to you, minister, is this: Can you tell us why it took so long to do this — we’re now in the last days and in a time crunch to get this done by March 4 — if that problem was existing way back in 2020?

Ms. Khera: Thank you, senator. The reality of the matter is we are still living under this pandemic. I think it’s important to recognize that at the height of this pandemic, we moved very quickly to provide supports for people, whether it was seniors, workers, businesses or students, to make sure that Canadians knew that their government had their backs. We left no stone unturned to make sure they were supported.

I can assure the honourable senator, when I was first appointed to this role, we moved very quickly. Indeed, I would say this was the very first briefing I received, and we moved very quickly and looked at all the different options available with our extraordinary officials, and, of course, with the Minister of Finance, to quickly put in a major investment in the financial and economic update, which is going to fully compensate these seniors who were affected last year.

Of course we want to make sure that we move even further, and, of course, that work is under way to make sure that those seniors get the support they need. This is precisely why we introduced Bill C-12, to ensure that this does not happen again. Give vulnerable seniors the security that GIS and allowance benefits won’t be impacted because of the pandemic benefits they took last year. I hope we can all work together on this.

This is something that unanimously passed the House of Commons. We worked with all different parties and stakeholders. We’ve had many conversations with senators, including in this committee, to make sure they understand the urgency and the technicalities that do exist. But I really think we can certainly work together to ensure that these most vulnerable seniors can have that comfort moving forward.

Senator Poirier: Following a comment you just said about making sure this doesn’t happen again, out of the $742 million in payments, which would go to approximately 183,000 GIS recipients age 65 and older, and another 21,000 Allowance going to those 60 to 64, can you tell me if that $742 million includes the loss that the GIS recipients will experience for the remaining months of this current benefit year, or will another payment be necessary to cover that period? And if yes, what would that amount be?

Ms. Khera: Thank you for that important question. Let me say, as I mentioned to the honourable senator, that we moved very quickly to provide and put in our financial and economic update a significant amount of money, which is going to fully compensate the seniors that lost their GIS. For example, an individual whose monthly GIS was reduced to $100 will receive a one-time $1,200 payment. So we’re moving this, as the honourable member may know, in April of this year, in the next two months. For individuals who are in extremely precarious financial situations, we’ll also be able to provide them with their payments even earlier than that. We moved very quickly on that, and I will turn to my officials to give a little bit more breakdown on the numbers you provided.

Annette Gibbons, Associate Deputy Minister, Employment and Social Development Canada: I think you covered it well, minister. We are fully compensating people for the loss for July 2021 to the July 2022 GIS period.

The Chair: We will move now to the sponsor of the bill in the Senate, Senator Cordy.

Senator Cordy: It’s great to be back at the Social Affairs Committee. I spent many years on it. As usual, the questions from senators are terrific.

I am speaking to you today from the unceded land of the Mi’kmaq people.

I would like to go back to Senator Patterson’s concern. The amendment he suggested would indeed not be to Bill C-12. The amendment would be to change the drafting concern from a totally different piece of legislation. We’ve heard that this drafting issue could be fixed. All the materials that I’ve read over the past couple of weeks said it could be fixed as part of a miscellaneous statute law amendment act or another piece of legislation. You also mentioned that today, minister.

First, has the numbering resulted in any material impacts on benefits and services for seniors to date?

Second, I know that you talked about the effect that the proposed amendment would have on seniors. Could you be specific?

Third, the March 3 deadline is so important. Anything that I’ve read talks about the March 3 deadline. What happens if that’s not reached? Mr. Groen — a compliment to you — I read your response to this in the House of Commons. Minister, if you wouldn’t mind either explaining it or handing it off to Mr. Groen. Thank you.

Ms. Khera: Absolutely. I will certainly turn to Mr. Groen to explain. I think there is a significant urgent need to get it through, and those seniors are certainly looking at all of us who worked together. Senator, as you very well know, we worked in collaboration with all different parties, and you all will appreciate how hard it is to get every single party on board to do something. But this is something everyone got behind because they understood, and they heard from their constituents and those very vulnerable seniors why it was so important to do just that.

I will turn to Cliff. If you can talk a little bit about why the tight timeline is so important and crucial.

Cliff C. Groen, Senior Assistant Deputy Minister, Benefits and Integrated Services Branch, Service Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada: Thank you, chair, and minister, and thank you, senator for the question.

I would like to be very clear. March 4 is a very hard deadline, and the reason is that is the root of how the program is designed and administered. We receive throughout the year a data feed from CRA with income information. From the middle of March to the following February, the income information is based on the previous tax year. So up until early February this year, we were receiving income information from CRA for the 2020 tax year, the most recent tax year that has been completed. That information is used to determine people’s eligibility for the benefit, both existing beneficiaries as well as new applicants.

Every year, from the middle of February to early March, that income feed is put on hold as there is a shift and a system change both at CRA and Service Canada to change over the income tax year. Right now, we’re in the midst of that change from the 2020 tax year to the 2021 tax year.

The hard deadline of next Friday, March 4, is in order for CRA to determine how that income feed will come to us. Will it be based on this new legislation, therefore exempting 2021 pandemic benefits from the GIS calculation, which would be what this legislation would provide, or will it revert to the existing prior to this legislation and therefore it would be counted as income?

If we do not have Royal Assent by then, we would not be able to proceed with the implementation of this legislation. It is not that we could not do it for a week — we would not be able to implement it because we need to turn that income feed back on in order for us to continue to pay Canadians their OAS and GIS benefits. If someone had applied for GIS and OAS in January of this year and we’re in the midst of processing it, right now that application is on hold because we do not have that income information because we’re shifting over from one year to the next. After March 4, that income feed resumes, and we need to know whether we have Royal Assent to be able to operate under the new legislation and, therefore, exempt these benefits.

Every week, tens of thousands of GIS recipients are processed. So if we delay this, that puts in jeopardy those tens of thousands and puts at risk the overall delivery of the program. Thank you.

Ms. Khera: If I may, just to answer your first question around the drafting error, because I think we went to your last question first, the drafting error has no impact on any seniors, and I commit to this committee that this is something we can certainly look at and work with you in dealing with it in an appropriate legislative vehicle, but it does not have an impact on this particular bill, Bill C-12. It’s important to recognize that, and, as Cliff mentioned, recognize the timeliness in making this happen for those most vulnerable seniors to ensure they’re supported. Thank you.

Senator Moodie: Thank you to the minister and to your senior leaders for joining us today.

My question is in two parts. The first is: How was the figure of the automatic one-time payment decided upon? How do we know that it is sufficient? Tell us in that answer a little more about the analysis that you performed on GBA+ considerations here and how this financial hardship might affect people of colour, people of Indigenous background and vulnerable groups.

The second part of my question has to do with the current international context, which reminds us that our economy is quite volatile at times and the price of essential goods can and will fluctuate as it is doing now. Do you believe, minister, that the approach to GIS and other supports for seniors is robust enough in calculating what the supports need to be to handle the various pressures they face and will face in their budgets?

Ms. Khera: Thank you for your important question. The amount that was proposed in the Fall Economic Statement was based on the number of seniors. I will turn to my officials to tell you why we came to this number, but this is to fully compensate them for the losses they have had.

Certainly, we talked about GBA+, and I think it’s so important. In everything, especially the budgetary work that we do, we have a GBA+, and it’s important to look at that intersectionality, whether it is racialized seniors, seniors within minority groups, seniors in the Indigenous community or seniors who are disabled and to have that intersectionality in everything that we do as a government. I absolutely agree with you, and that’s the work that I’m committed to do.

On your second question about the work we are doing to help seniors, when it comes to strengthening their financial security, this is the biggest priority for me as the Minister of Seniors. This is something that we’ve heard loud and clear from seniors across Canada; this is something that is needed.

I will first state that OAS and GIS benefits are indexed quarterly based on the Consumer Price Index, so they have increases depending on the cost of living. Seniors can rest assured that, by law, OAS benefits amounts cannot decrease. They stay at the same level even when there is a decrease in the cost of living, so they’re indexed.

Strengthening financial security for seniors is the biggest priority for me. As the honourable senator may know, one of the very first things that we did as a government was to restore the age of eligibility for OAS and GIS back to 65 from 67. We then moved forward and enhanced the Guaranteed Income Supplement that has helped over 900,000 low-income, single seniors and has lifted over 45,000 seniors out of poverty.

Of course we need to be doing more. There is the work we are doing in terms of enhancing the CPP or QPP or the work we’re doing, as the honourable senator may know, by the permanent increase of 10% of OAS for those 75 and older. Of course I have a very ambitious agenda in my mandate letter. One of my biggest priorities in my mandate letter is around increasing the Guaranteed Income Supplement by $500 for single seniors and $750 for couples. This is a big priority for me, and we are going to continue to make sure that we support seniors, but particularly those most vulnerable seniors in Canada.

I will certainly turn to my officials to answer your first question around where that exact number in the Fall Economic Statement came from. Maybe I’ll turn to Cliff or —

Ms. Gibbons: I can take it. Basically, we knew the individuals who had lost some or all GIS due to receipt of pandemic benefits. We knew that number, and we knew the amounts that they had lost, so it was a very simple calculation to make them whole.

Senator Lankin: I have three quick questions. The first one is just a question about data. You showed us how many women, greater percentage of women, greater percentage of Indigenous, Black, people of colour, and we know that relates to the economic status of those groups in our country, which is another issue for us to address at some time. I’m wondering if you have any data that gives us analysis of regional breakdown on these numbers on a proportional basis to the population of the provinces or territories. It would just be of interest. If you don’t have that today, that’s fine. Could you forward that to us? I think it’s something of general interests for us to know. That’s my first question.

Ms. Khera: Thank you. Alexis, do you have that data to share?

Mr. Conrad: Yes, minister. Chair, I can walk through the provincial numbers. Also, we would be happy to share them with the committee after. I will go through each one, if that helps. I’m focused here on not the allowance ones but the GIS.

Senator Lankin: I would be fine, Madam Chair, with it being sent.

Mr. Conrad: That’s perfect. We have a nice chart we can share with you.

Senator Lankin: Thank you very much.

The GIS for low-income seniors and the child benefit for low‑income families are certainly a base floor that we accept as a society that’s necessary. I wonder why the government’s approach separates out those two groups and why we don’t so that across the entire low-income population — to give it a name that might turn you against it right away, but a basic-income approach. To me, during CERB, it was a perfect opportunity that the government didn’t take. They recognized the need, and that could have been generalized. Do you have any comment — it’s really to you, minister, not to the officials — on that from a government perspective?

Ms. Khera: Thank you for that important question, senator.

As you may know, our government is certainly committed to ensuring that no Canadian ever needs to make the impossible choice between the reality around paying their rent or putting food on their table. We know Canadians have different needs that require different levels of support, and that is why, in addition to the CERB, we also introduced the new caregiver benefits and the new Canada Recovery Benefit, which will help sustain our economic recovery and ensure that no one falls through the cracks.

We’re also ensuring that we have Canadians’ backs every step of the way, whether it is, as you mentioned, the Canada Child Benefit, which I know has helped nine out of ten families in my own communities, which is one of the youngest communities in the country, or the work we’re doing by enhancing the Guaranteed Income Supplement and the OAS, which we’ve done, as I mentioned earlier, that has actually helped 900,000 low-income seniors and has lifted over 45,000 seniors out of poverty. Of course, as I mentioned, we have an ambitious agenda. This summer we will be increasing the Old Age Security for those 75 and over because we know as they age so do their needs.

Of course, in my mandate letter, my biggest commitment is to increase the Guaranteed Income Supplement certainly $500 for single seniors and $750 for a couple. We’re committed to doing more. This is a priority for me, and we’re going to continue to do that work. Thank you.

Senator Lankin: My final question goes back to Senator Patterson and Senator Poirier and the comment about the drafting error that needs to be corrected.

I fully understand what Mr. Groen and others and you, minister, have said about the deadline and the timeline. I’m prepared to accept that and work with what we have in front of us. You’re catching the backlash, which is a growing sentiment around the whole chamber in the Senate of the impossible timelines that are given, not on this specific bill but in general. That’s why some of these drafting errors don’t get caught, because we’re not given enough time to do our jobs properly, let alone what the House of Commons has done.

There is a way without waiting. It’s been years since there has been a miscellaneous statutes amendment brought forward. There is also the budget implementation act, but you could also have a very straight, short, easy bill to correct this, that you have the government draft and introduce in the Senate, and it could probably be done as quickly as we’ll get this bill done, but I leave that with you. Do you have any comments on it?

Ms. Khera: Thank you, senator. I will say as the new Minister of Seniors that I will certainly — and I commit to you working with all of you, particularly in this committee — find ways and make that correction. Certainly in different legislative agendas and with the BIA you mentioned and others, I commit to you in working with you in finding a way forward on that for sure.

I will say when it comes to Bill C-12, I think you have all seen the urgent need to get this through because of the timelines you are aware of, and we need to move forward on that for sure. But I will also say I certainly recognize the important work that all of you do and the tight timelines that you have been working with, and I certainly recognize the importance of Parliament taking time to consider legislation. I will say in this particular bill we’ve held MP sessions, senators’ sessions, worked proactively with many of you to make sure we are proactive in working towards this, but I will assure you that there’s an urgency to get this done, and that is why we’re in this urgent situation, but I will certainly work with you on other legislation moving forward.

The Chair: Thank you, minister. We’re desperately running out of time. I want to give everyone heads up that we will likely go over time so that I can be fair to all senators. I would like our witnesses to respond to the questions in a tighter framework, if they possibly can.

Senator Kutcher: I think we have to make sure we realize we don’t live in a parallel universe here, and we are taking umbrage, and rightly so, but I think this bill is really important. So let’s try to figure out how to do this.

The question that I have relates more to my ignorance, which is profound much of the time. Are these supplements geographically differentiated, for example, if someone lives in Vancouver as opposed to someone who lives in Moosonee or Halifax? I notice that the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver as of January was $2,176, which, if you put this and everything else together, doesn’t leave much room for anyone. That’s my question. Thank you.

Ms. Khera: Thank you, senator. I will be very brief, and the answer is that the amount is the same everywhere in Canada.

Senator Kutcher: I don’t have a follow-up, but I look forward to improvements in the base amounts for seniors.

Senator Bernard: Thank you, minister, for being here and staff from your offices. I had several questions, but in the interest of time I’m only going to ask one, and it picks up on the question that Senator Lankin was asking.

Let me go back and say I’m starting by saying I fully understand the urgency of this legislation, and I support it going forward. However, I am aware of the fact that many people, many seniors, are falling through the cracks. Many seniors are being left behind. Many of these seniors are racialized, persons with disabilities, women and newer Canadians. They’re struggling beyond what anyone in this country should be. I want to pick up on the question that Senator Lankin asked about a guaranteed livable income and whether or not it is part of the longer-term vision to truly addressing issues of deep structural poverty in this country. Is that part of the longer-term vision to address seniors’ poverty?

Ms. Khera: Thank you, senator, for that very important question. I agree with her on many fronts. There are certainly many challenges when you look at the intersectionality of seniors, particularly the file that I’m involved with, when you look at whether it is those single widowed seniors, whether you look at racialized seniors, whether you look at LGBT2Q seniors or seniors living with disability. We certainly know that this pandemic has disproportionately impacted lower-income households, and we will continue to take action to combat poverty, including seniors’ poverty.

As a government, Madam Chair, as you know, we certainly value the contribution that seniors have made and continue to make to our communities. That is why, Madam Chair, we as a government are very proud to say we actually reduced the number of seniors who are living in poverty by 11% since 2015 through restoring the age of eligibility for OAS and GIS back to 65 and by enhancing the Guaranteed Income Supplement for those vulnerable single seniors and other measures.

Of course, there are many things that we need to do, and I certainly look forward to doing that with the honourable senators and looking at ways that we can move forward, as I said, but this is a priority for me, I can assure you, and we’re going to move forward.

[Translation]

Senator Petitclerc: Madam Minister, the subject of my main question has been amply covered. It was about why, from the moment the drafting error was discovered, no corrections were made at the first opportunity. You have answered this question and I hope that a solution will be considered in the very near future.

I would like to take this opportunity to ask you a second question which relates to the needs of our seniors. We knew that they were vulnerable, but the pandemic has shown us just how vulnerable they can be. Does the government have a concrete, strategic, quantitative plan that takes into account all the needs that have been identified and allows us to see what we have done right and what we have done wrong?

Is there a plan to move forward and ensure that our seniors are treated appropriately?

[English]

Ms. Khera: Thank you, Madam Chair, and thank you to the honourable senator for that very important question. As the honourable senator pointed out very importantly, we’ve certainly learned many lessons during this pandemic, certainly things that we can do efficiently as a government and things that I think we need to be looking at broadly for our seniors, particularly those most vulnerable seniors. I will say this is a priority for me as I move forward on this.

For me, if you look at the three main buckets that I think are extremely important — and this is a different discussion that certainly we can have — but one is around strengthening financial security. This is something I’ve heard loud and clear. This is something seniors have been asking us for, and that’s why we’ve put measures in place that have actually decreased poverty in seniors by 11%.

There are measures we’re putting forward, whether it is this summer that we’re going to be increasing OAS by 10% for those 75 and older, because we know when seniors age, so do their needs, and they’re more likely to outlive their savings; or whether it is the biggest platform commitment that I have around increasing the Guaranteed Income Supplement by $500 for single seniors or $750 for a couple; or the work I think that we need to be proactively thinking about ensuring that we get more Canadians to live independently in their own communities. A lot of the focus is around aging well, and we have initiatives in place to do just that. Of course, there are the tragedies that we’ve seen in long-term care homes and the work that I think we all need to do to ensure that is supported.

So there is certainly a lot of work ahead of us, but I really look forward to chatting with you, senator, on how we can work together to solve some of these issues. Thank you.

Senator Quinn: Thank you, minister and officials, for being here.

As a preface to my question, very briefly, I’m quite concerned that we knew about the error for some time; as a former senior official in the government, we are putting our eggs in the basket of the miscellaneous statute law amendment program, which, as we know, doesn’t come forward all that often.

The real question I want to pry on is the March 4 deadline. I guess, minister, whether it’s you or Mr. Groen, as you’re making, as the minister qualified, major system changes, are you not doing that in a staging environment, a testing environment? Is there a testing environment in place that allows you to be doing work now in anticipation of this act so that when it comes into force, and I think it needs to come into force, that you’re that much further ahead and ready to switch over?

Ms. Khera: Thank you. I will turn to Cliff to give a substantive answer to that question.

Mr. Groen: Thank you, minister, and thank you, senator, for the question. Yes, certainly when we implement any system changes, we do it through a comprehensive test system. That is absolutely the case. That initial work has been done by ourselves and by CRA. In fact, we have two scenarios ready to be able to be implemented, one which is based on the legislation being passed and therefore exempting 2021 benefits for GIS purposes, and the other one is to proceed if the legislation were not to pass.

The critical issue with March 4 is that income feed from CRA has to be turned back on. It is paused, as always happens at this time of year as we switch over from tax years. If we do not turn it back on immediately — not in July, but immediately — tens of thousands of seniors every week will be impacted because we will not be able to process their income-tested benefits. So if somebody applied for GIS in January of this year and we’re trying to determine if they’re entitled — maybe they’re turning 65 in March — we would not be able to determine their entitlement and we would not be able to pay them. That would happen immediately if we were not able to proceed with the implementation of this legislation. Thank you.

Senator Quinn: As a follow-up, if the 4th is missed, the 5th or 6th, do neither of those dates work? I’m hearing that the proposal to fix the legal position of the act can be done in very short order and back to the House for consideration next week, by midweek. I’m just curious, minister, if we can fix it, why wouldn’t we fix it? We didn’t fix it when we had all the notice, and I’m concerned with the miscellaneous law amendment program, as I said. Why wouldn’t we just fix this and get it done quickly?

Ms. Khera: Thank you, senator. I will allude to Cliff to answer why again. I think he has done so in a manner that explained why the March 4 deadline is so significant. But I will point out that the drafting error has had zero impact on any seniors, but if Bill C-12 doesn’t pass on March 4, it will have significant negative impact on thousands of seniors. There are definitely means in place where we can move forward certainly on the drafting error with other pieces of legislation, and I commit to working with the member, and, of course, other ministers, to do that important work. But I think it is crucial to know that Bill C-12 not passing on March 4 will have a significant impact on those lowest income, most vulnerable seniors. It is important for us to recognize that and certainly move forward in doing the right thing, which is to ensure those seniors are supported. Thank you. But I will turn to Cliff, if you have a quick second, on why March 4 is so important.

Mr. Groen: Very quickly, there’s no error in Bill C-12. There’s no issue whatsoever with Bill C-12. March 4 is important. Because of the pause that happens every year with the shift over from one tax year to the next, currently we are not processing anyone’s GIS applications, and we cannot do that until the feed is turned back on, and we are unable to turn that feed back on until we know where the legislation is going. Literally, tens of thousands of seniors every week would be negatively impacted if this legislation is not passed by March 4. Thank you.

Senator Dasko: I only have a couple of questions, just points of clarification. Thank you, minister, for being here. We are talking about benefits that were taken away from July of 2021 to the end of that year; correct? And in addition to that, from the beginning of this year until when that would change in July; is that correct? Have I got that right?

Mr. Conrad: Just to make sure everyone is clear, the one‑time payment, the $742 million that the minister talked about, covers the period from July 2021 until the end of June 2022. That’s to reimburse that year’s GIS. The legislation is forward‑looking. It takes effect the payment period July 1, 2022, and ongoing. In actual fact, it future proofs the problem not just for the next year but in subsequent years if those benefits continue in some form. That’s where the split is. The one-time payment goes up for a couple more months, and then starting July 1, the legislation solves the problem going forward.

The Chair: Let me quickly get in a question of my own, and it is likely, minister, to one of your officials. You talked about new applicants also being impacted if the legislation was not given Royal Assent by March 4. Based on your own demographic projections, and I know you have them, how many new applicants would be affected by any delay in this legislation?

Ms. Khera: I will turn to Cliff on that.

Mr. Groen: Thank you for the question. I would like to be clear as well. The impact would be felt on overall GIS recipients writ large. It is not specific to seniors who have lost their GIS related to the pandemic benefits. Every week, we process tens of thousands of applications or adjustments to Canadians’ entitlement for GIS. Our projections vary a little bit from week to week, but every week it is way more than 10,000. Some weeks it’s 30,000, 40,000 applications that we process related to income-tested benefits. If the legislation is not passed, that data feed, which gives us the income information for us to determine if someone is eligible for GIS and how much they’re eligible for, if we are unable to resume that data feed, those clients are being impacted and their payments are being delayed. Thank you.

The Chair: Thank you very much, minister and your officials for the time you have spent with us. This is certainly a very important bill, and we look forward to continuing our study.

Ms. Khera: Thank you very much, senators.

The Chair: In continuing our study on Bill C-12, our next witnesses are, from Campaign 2000, Leila Sarangi, National Director; and from the Income Security Advocacy Centre, Devorah Kobluk, Senior Policy Analyst.

I invite Ms. Sarangi to begin her presentation, followed by Ms. Kobluk. In order to keep us all on track, I want to share with you that you have five minutes for your presentation. If you go over that time, I really don’t want to interrupt you, so you may see me waving my hand as a signal, if you are able to. Thank you very much. Please proceed, Ms. Sarangi.

Leila Sarangi, National Director, Campaign 2000: Thank you, Madam Chair, and honourable senators, for inviting me to appear today to speak to why we have been advocating for the changes you see before you in Bill C-12. I am the National Director of Campaign 2000, a pan-Canadian coalition of over 120 organizations working to end child and family poverty.

I’m calling in from the traditional territories of the Huron-Wendat, Anishnabek, Chippewa, Haudenosaunee Confederacy and most recently the Mississauga of the Credit First Nations.

The onslaught of the pandemic was sudden and caused a lot of chaos. For those already struggling with poverty, the overnight closures of workplaces, schools and community supports threw people into further disarray.

The quick and relatively low-barrier design and implementation of the CERB was a lifeline for those living on low incomes. They used the funds to stay safe at home, as we were all directed to do, pay their rent, order in groceries, buy PPE, extra cleaning supplies and pay for enhanced cell and broadband services so they and their children could stay socially connected.

But the quick design and delivery also caused confusion. We know seniors who called their MP offices or Service Canada to ask if they were eligible and if there would be any negative impacts to other benefits, and they were assured there would not be. They have said to me that they would not have taken the CERB if they knew their GIS and other income benefits would be reduced in subsequent years, and they said this because they knew how difficult or impossible it would be to live without those income benefits.

To put this in context, the GIS is a payment made to those aged 65 years and over who earn less than $19,464 if they are single and less than a combined income of $25,728 for couples. After a life of working, instead of enjoying their retirement years, they continue working precarious and minimum-wage jobs and receive the GIS because those jobs do not enable them to make ends meet. The CERB replaced earned income.

GIS recipients are able to keep their first $5,000 of earned income, but this does not apply in the case of pandemic benefits. The clawbacks started on the very first dollar. It also triggered the reduction of other benefits, such as rent supplements, which were reduced by 30% of the pandemic amount, and rendered them ineligible for other benefits connected to the GIS, such as the supplement to account for the higher cost of living in the North. Seniors depended on this resource. They had no financial resiliency to get them through this past year, and they definitely cannot go through future years with additional clawbacks to their GIS payments.

I’ve heard stories of hardships from seniors across the country over these past eight months: a senior woman in the Northwest Territories evicted in late fall and living in her car when temperatures were sub-zero; immigrant seniors in Ontario being evicted in online tribunals in an unusually cold January, as pandemic rent moratoriums lift; a senior with $70.88 left after paying rent; and a couple unable to afford medication on their combined monthly income of $1,300.

Some have been going to their places of worship, families and friends to borrow money. Others have been taking out lines of credit or loans from predatory payday lenders and racking up interest charges. They are unable to meet their basic needs. They are going without food, without toilet paper and without medication. Seniors have shared with me very serious health complications that are worsening by the day. Fear, stress and anxiety are increasing and, in the worst-case scenarios, we’ve heard of seniors taking their own lives.

The amendments to Bill C-12 will help the 183,420 seniors who had clawbacks to their GIS, in addition to helping those who have just turned 65 and will now be eligible for GIS and who took pandemic benefits. Seniors are relieved to know that the government will be repaying them the lost GIS amounts in full for this past year, and this bill before you will give them the knowledge that the basic financial security available through the GIS will be available to them in this and future tax years.

The Chair: I must ask you to wrap up quickly.

Ms. Sarangi: My last sentence: We also hope that this amendment paves the way for a full CERB amnesty, which is to make whole all those on low incomes who lost a variety of income supplements and to fix the patchwork of income supports. Thank you.

Devorah Kobluk, Senior Policy Analyst, Income Security Advocacy Centre: I speak to you today from the territory that is covered by The Dish with One Spoon wampum belt, an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabeg.

I am Senior Policy Analyst at the Income Security Advocacy Centre, or ISAC. ISAC is a specialty legal clinic funded by Legal Aid Ontario. Our mandate is to advance the rights and interests of low-income Ontarians with respect to income security and employment. We carry out our mandate through test-case litigation, policy advocacy, community development and public education.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to Bill C-12. Throughout the pandemic, ISAC has monitored the impact of temporary pandemic benefits on pre-existing benefits at both the provincial and federal levels. When, in August 2021, we were flooded with calls in the legal clinic system from seniors who had suddenly had their GIS reduced or eliminated because they accessed the CERB in 2020, this was yet another instance of low-income people in Canada experiencing unintended consequences after accessing pandemic benefits.

The seniors impacted by the loss or reduction of GIS are some of the poorest seniors in Canada. They supplement their below‑poverty GIS income with part-time work to make ends meet. At an age when one hopes to not have to work, these seniors work. During the pandemic, they have accessed CERB and the CRB and other pandemic-related benefits or EI because of job loss and, as a high-risk population, to isolate and stay safe. They were not informed of possible consequences to their GIS.

At the end of July 2021, affected seniors lost up to $600 of their monthly income, sometimes more, and with no warning. Further, a threat to GIS could disproportionally impact women, older seniors, Indigenous and racialized seniors.

ISAC first wrote to Minister Qualtrough in August 2021, as soon as we were alerted to the issue. Then in October, we wrote an open letter to Minister Qualtrough, signed by 100 anti-poverty and community organizations, and a letter to Minister Khera after she was appointed Minister of Seniors. In November, we wrote to every Ontario Member of Parliament. In December, we wrote a letter to Minister Freeland, following the economic and fiscal update and, in January 2022, we wrote again to Minister Khera.

At every step of our advocacy, we have asked that seniors have their GIS returned quickly and that CERB and other pandemic benefits be excluded from the calculation of GIS and other income to determine seniors’ benefits.

The government knew of these interactions as early as May 2020. When I spoke at the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance in December 2021 on Bill C-2’s lack of support for impacted seniors, I argued against clawing back the GIS, a poverty-reduction tool, particularly during the exceptional years of a pandemic. At that point, the confusion and panic for low-income seniors had been occurring for four months. We are now in month seven of this crisis. By the time seniors receive their one-time payments, it will be month nine. With every day, the situation for these seniors is more and more desperate. It is a situation that should never have happened and must never happen again. Bill C-12 corrects this wrong.

Among those impacted was a 68-year-old senior in Ottawa who reached out to the legal clinic system. She worked as a self‑employed dog walker prior to the pandemic. The pandemic caused her small business to completely collapse. She used CERB to supplement her lost income, pay for groceries, personal protective equipment and taxis to medical appointments. The avalanche of unintended consequences has been devastating. She was trying to survive on approximately $650 per month. Her rent increased because her “rent geared to income” was recalculated when she received CERB. She was at risk of homelessness, and we have heard of cases of eviction. She lost her Trillium Drug Program benefit that helped her pay for medication. We do not know if she will make it to the lump sum payment time in April. Like other seniors in her position, with every passing month, it is becoming harder to pay for rent, rising food prices, transportation and medical supplies.

We now know that over 204,000 seniors will receive the lump‑sum one-time payment starting April 19, 2022, and that Service Canada will work with members of Parliament to help constituents in dire need to receive payments in March. We are concerned about working through MP offices and emphasize that every low-income senior who relies on GIS is in dire need if their benefits have been reduced or lost for seven months. Seniors are urgently awaiting this money to be returned as quickly as possible.

We must now ensure that seniors are not subject to the impacts of benefit interactions like these in July 2022 or ever again. The one-time payment corrects this past year, and Bill C-12 ensures a systemic solution going forward. I therefore urge the standing committee to complete the consideration of this bill quickly and for senators to pass it without delay so that low-income seniors never again experience a year of lost or reduced GIS benefits as they did this year. Thank you.

The Chair: Thank you so much to both our witnesses. At this point, I will hand over the chair to Senator Petitclerc, who will proceed to questions.

[Translation]

Senator Chantal Petitclerc (Acting Chair) in the chair.

The Acting Chair: Thank you very much, Madam Chair. I’m happy to take over. We will continue with questions.

[English]

Senator Bovey: I want to thank both the witnesses. I very much appreciate the lens they put to this.

My question is short, and then I’m afraid I’m going to have to slip away from this meeting. I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts about measures that should be looked at to secure seniors’ financial status going forward. Rather than take time out of this meeting to respond to that, it would be wonderful if you could send some documents to the clerk of this committee so that we can review them. You’ve told some very real stories, and many of us are hearing very similar things from people who live near us and whom we know. Madam Chair, if I may, I say thank you, and I look forward to further discussions to make sure that these situations do never arise again. I could not live on $600 a month.

The Acting Chair: Do any of the witnesses want to comment on that?

Ms. Kobluk: I’m happy to jump in.

Thank you for the question, Senator Bovey. One piece that needs to be remembered is there are some seniors who don’t even qualify for GIS in Canada because of precarious immigration status. The first thing would be to broaden the inclusion to these seniors as well as those who have difficulty with tax filing for a variety of reasons. The eligibility needs to be expanded.

There’s a larger discussion on poverty that needs to happen, and we need to ask ourselves if we are okay with people just meeting the poverty line. The MBM is the Market Basket Measure, and it would be different by region. It might be something that the Senate could propose to study.

Senator Bovey: I think what you’ve said is a wonderful segue into this bigger question. I know that’s not the question we’re being asked to address today, so I don’t want us to go off on that tangent because our time is tight. I think you’ve given us a very important springboard and solid stories that tie in with so many that we’re hearing, so I thank you.

Senator Patterson: Thank you very much for the compelling evidence provided by the witnesses.

I’d like to ask you both about strong statements we’ve just heard from the minister that every senior through this legislation will be fully compensated. She used that expression several times, “fully compensated.”

Ms. Sarangi, you’ve described outcomes way beyond the shortfall of money — the heartbreaking story of a senior woman being evicted in the North, losing her housing, having to move into a car, and another senior who lost her job. Some felt great distress or impacts when they couldn’t buy food or drugs, and it was horrifying to hear that it did lead to suicide.

I would like to ask you both: When the minister and the department talk about full compensation, do you think that’s a good description of what is really just a money fix now? How will that really compensate for the difficulties, the hardships and the anguish those seniors have gone through, as you’ve described? I’d like to ask each of you to comment, please.

Ms. Sarangi: Thank you, Senator Patterson, for the question and for your observations.

We do understand that the payment will, dollar for dollar, refund the amounts that were clawed back on the GIS, but with the experiences of seniors over the last several months, there is really no price that we can put on the kinds of hardships that people have been going through.

There have been other benefits that have been clawed back. I did mention rents went up because their supplements went down. That’s an additional cost that came out of the pockets of seniors. There is the $200 a month that seniors in the North who get GIS are able to access because of the higher cost of living. They’re unable to get that, so that money came out of their pockets. Many have taken out loans from lines of credit and payday lenders, and those interest rates are exorbitant and that interest will come out their pockets.

If we’re just calculating the dollars, this is not counting any of those additional costs that seniors have had to go through. The emotional hardships, going without medication for several months and compounding health and emotional deterioration will have some longer-term effects. I think, as my colleague Devorah was saying, we need a bigger fix. This is one very small piece of a puzzle that is important and that needs to happen immediately, and we need to take a step back and look at the broader inequities.

I will say that Campaign 2000 does put out an annual report card on poverty. This year, we have 60 recommendations that cover a variety of areas, including the income support system but also the social safety net. I will forward that to the clerk so each of you have a copy of the recommendations that we put forward to looking at fixing the social safety net and the income security net for everybody, not only seniors but everybody.

Ms. Kobluk: Thank you very much for the question, Senator Patterson. I mentioned, and I know Ms. Sarangi has mentioned, there are other benefits that are impacted, things like rent geared to housing. The Guaranteed Annual Income System, GAINS, is another one in Ontario. We are at a point in our advocacy where we’re wondering if we have to then go back to the province and see if they will also retroactively recalculate to get a little bit more compensation. I don’t have an answer on that yet, but for full compensation to occur, that would have to happen. That shows you the complexity of this situation when someone loses their GIS.

The other thing I would say is the 68-year-old senior that I mentioned in my remarks had been living in their housing situation for 14 years. I don’t know anywhere in this country, and certainly not in Ontario, where rent has not gone up in 14 years. For them to then rehouse themselves if they have gotten to the point of eviction will be very difficult to compensate.

I guess — not to be redundant — I also want to say, what is the cost to the dignity for these seniors? Let’s remember the first wave and those who were hit the hardest. There were no vaccines, and suddenly they have this extreme loss of income. There are seniors that are very robust and have very full lives, but they still should not be in a position where they have a 36% higher rate of food bank use in Ontario last year compared to the year before.

I don’t think it is full compensation. I think you’re right that it is a financial fix, but I would reiterate that it’s much needed and we are glad that it is finally happening.

Senator Poirier: Thank you for your testimony. I’m very grateful to be able to hear what’s happening out there from the people that are hearing from Canadians that were affected by this.

My first question will go to both, but I’m going to address it first to the Income Security Advocacy Centre and then I’ll go to Campaign 2000. As you mentioned and as I mentioned when I was questioning the minister a while ago, they knew about this in May 2020. My question was whether you contacted the government. You answered that question by saying that you wrote to them in August, October, December and January. Every time you contacted them, did they respond to you? What kind of response were you getting? For Campaign 2000, have you and your side contacted the government? What kind of response were you getting to address the concerns that you’re hearing from our seniors who are so affected by this?

Ms. Kobluk: Thank you for the question.

Minister Khera responded with a short, I would say, form letter inviting us to meet with one of her staff officials. We replied and never had a meeting. Minister Qualtrough never replied. Minister Freeland never replied.

My colleague actually sent something out to every Ontario MP. Some did reply and we did meet with a couple. I’m happy to let the committee know that if that would be helpful. But we were unable to get any specific and lengthy or face-to-face replies from ministers.

Senator Poirier: Thank you. Do you have any comments, Ms. Sarangi?

Ms. Sarangi: Thank you for your question.

Campaign 2000 has also contacted ministers. We have been organizing a national working group, which we’ve called the CERB Amnesty campaign. When CERB first came out, we heard from our partners, our local community organizations, that people — especially in March, April, May, who were on different kinds of social assistance or income assistance or disability assistance programs — were experiencing clawbacks right away, and monthly calculations of rent supplements were increasing right away. We convened a national working group and have been meeting since the spring of 2020. Over that almost two years, we have been contacting the ministers and elected officials since then. I can go and get our list together. I don’t have it in front of me, and I didn’t make the count of how many times, but we’ve had many meetings with various members of Parliament from all political parties. We have reached out to all the political parties leading up to the GIS and the announcements in the fiscal update and subsequent announcement of this bill and the repayment. We presented at the Finance Committee twice.

We had a very good response actually from the NDP Party, who had put in their election platform this repayment for seniors who had their GIS clawed back, and I know that MP Blaikie and MP Blaney have been very strong advocates on this issue. I have worked with their staff in their office.

We’ve written to the Minister of Finance. We did not hear back. We wrote to Minister Khera, and we did not hear back. Just about a week ago, I was able to have a conversation with her policy staff, but it did take a very long time to get to that point. We were very disappointed by the lack of communication from the ministers who have the ability and control over this file.

Senator Poirier: Thank you very much.

The Acting Chair: We will now turn to Senator Cordy, the sponsor of the bill.

Senator Cordy: Thank you both so much. Your testimony is in many ways heart-wrenching and riveting. The information you’ve given us is not a surprise to many, but to hear witnesses speaking about it brings it to light.

You both said it’s important to pass Bill C-12 so that these vulnerable seniors can get some funding money. They have been without these resources. Lump sum is not always the best way to get it, but it’s second best. Let’s put it that way. I’m pleased that they will get it this spring, if the bill passes.

I’m going off the bill a little bit, and I hope the chair will indulge me. You both brought forward the broader challenges faced by a large number of seniors, particularly those most vulnerable in our communities. You both itemized and you both did that very well. You spoke about meeting their physical needs, their food and medication, but I think you also touched on the importance of maintaining dignity. You can’t put a price tag on that. Some of the things, like living in a car, certainly don’t allow one to maintain dignity.

We could take a whole study on issues related to seniors. I was part of that a number of years ago headed up by Senator Carstairs, and maybe it’s time to have another special committee.

How do you break down the barriers? For vulnerable citizens who aren’t getting delivery of a newspaper every day or who aren’t getting information on the internet, how do we increase the knowledge of what’s available? You’re right that when they applied for CERB, many weren’t aware that it would affect their Guaranteed Income Supplement. I know they are getting it back, but it’s retroactive. What are the steps we should be doing? Having you here today has been a great reminder.

Ms. Sarangi: Thank you, Senator Cordy, for your question.

Campaign 2000 is hosted by Family Service Toronto, which is a large multiservice organization serving the Toronto area. We provide mental health counselling, we provide services for adults and children with developmental disabilities, and we provide counselling and support to women and gender-diverse folks fleeing gender-based violence. Seniors are an important part of the community who come to us for service, so I will take a moment to speak from that perspective and my work rooted in a community. Community organizations like ours have those trusted relationships with our community and with seniors. We can be that place where we are giving information to those in our neighbourhoods.

I think with the CERB, what we saw is that there was confusion all around. We didn’t know who was eligible. As I mentioned, we’ve talked to seniors who called Service Canada or who called their MP’s office. They didn’t know about the consequences that were going to happen. That clear, warm communication, communication that is in different languages that involve community organizations or those places where seniors are going to, I think is critical in any kind of approach to breaking social isolation and getting information to seniors.

One of the things I mentioned is mental health for people and seniors and the kinds of mental health challenges. As an organization with a large portfolio of providing mental health services to very diverse community members in the city of Toronto, we need much more of those services. When our wait lists get up to two years, we shut them down. We just don’t have the kinds of resources to be meeting the needs, and the pandemic has made all of this so much worse. We need significantly more investment into these kinds of community-based services, those culturally appropriate services for people who are facing multiple marginalizations. One of the best things to do is ask those impacted, what do you need? What is the best way to get this to you? Thank you for the question.

Ms. Kobluk: I would say a few things.

With any marginalized, vulnerable community, you have to go to them, not expect them to come to you. There needs to be an assessment of who is getting missed and targeting those people and making sure that you have an outreach program from the federal level to get them their benefits.

There also needs to probably be a completely unique and different approach for Indigenous peoples. I just don’t want this assumption that they’re not applying or they didn’t fill out the paperwork, because it’s not enough.

The next thing is we need to stop all clawbacks. This goes for any low-income people. Let people keep as much money as they can when they’re living near the poverty line. That’s going to require coordination between the provinces and the federal government. That is something I think would help significantly.

Another thing is the social safety net. There have been decreases in the Canada Social Transfer, so we need money to be going to these local community services, and that can include Legal Aid. Legal Aid was cut back, and we aren’t able to serve as many people as we’d like to. I know my colleagues have files stacked very high and work very long days. Any kind of wraparound services that can come from the social transfer for wraparound services for seniors would assist.

And finally, and this is for my mother: not all seniors are IT connected. That’s a real barrier. It might be financial. It might be a lack of digital literacy. It might be a choice of wanting to do paper and phones. But don’t rely on IT. I hear too much from service providers or governments, “It’s on the website.” You’re going to miss many people for many reasons, so don’t rely on that.

Senator Kutcher: Thank you to the witnesses.

It’s not just your mother that’s not IT connected. I would put myself there. I’d much rather speak to a human being than work my way through a website.

A couple of things: Most senators would agree that we need to do better at improving the lives of seniors, particularly the most disadvantaged, and addressing the major needs of poverty in this country. It’s just untenable. Most of us would also agree that the federal government has not done a very good job in moving the Bill C-12 file forward over the last few years or so. We’ve heard your response to that, and I think it’s appalling. I think we would all agree that the government has done a horrible job in much of the communication around this pandemic.

In the last session, there were questions raised about a potential technical glitch around the legislation should Bill C-12 go forward because of a technicality in another piece of legislation. There have been concerns raised about that. We’ve also been told that May 4 is a hard deadline and that, if it doesn’t get through, then there will be huge consequences for tens of thousands of people. What do you think would be the response of Canadian seniors if this didn’t go through in a timely way on the basis of what they may perceive as an arcane technicality? What would be the response and what would happen to people?

Ms. Kobluk: I want to quickly say that I sympathize with senators because what I heard in that first session is that you’re up against a wall on the timeline and that you have to push this through. I also heard some questions from the senators that said that you would appreciate more time to do it right and to maybe even look at what could have been added to the bill. I sympathize with that predicament in the legislative deadline.

I know it’s above what can be done right now, but I would say that, even with that, we need this to be passed. I certainly learned from one of the bureaucrats how firm that March 4 deadline is and that it isn’t just for seniors who accessed pandemic benefits.

I think the real question is, do we want more seniors in this predicament? The answer I would hope is no. I would also say seniors are very confused and scared when they receive a cheque that is less than they are supposed to receive. When you’re on a fixed income, you know how much you usually get to the penny every month. We don’t want to increase that kind of fear and confusion.

Ms. Sarangi: Senator Kutcher, I would add that I think seniors are already feeling like they don’t matter and that they don’t count. The government said they were going to leave no one behind in their pandemic emergency response and in their recovery plans, and they are being, so far, left behind. If they were to learn that this is all undone on the basis of a technicality, which in my very limited experience of these processes sounds like there are other places where that technicality could effectively be addressed, I think the kind of harm on top of what they’ve already experienced would be very devastating for the seniors who we’re talking about.

Senator Kutcher: I have to leave, I am sorry. Thank you very much, all of you.

Senator Pate: Thank you to the witnesses, and thank you to the committee and to Senator Cordy for all your work on this.

Having worked with both of your organizations in the past — I’m a lot older, so it was a while ago — and your predecessors, I want to thank you as well for the ongoing work and reports that you do. As you were speaking, part of the reason I put my hand up is I was reminded of working with the Income Security Advocacy Centre when we were working on the inquest into the death of Kim Rogers, which really, for many of us, brought home the incredible disparity for those with disabilities, those who are racialized and women. As probably both of you know, that was the situation where she was cut off social assistance. It was where many of us came to the view that we needed to not only shore up the economic system but address the stigma that attaches to those who are poor, particularly where intersectionally they experience discriminatory attitudes.

I’m curious as to how you see this moving forward. I’m very concerned to hear that you’re not receiving responses from the government, particularly when there is growing support for things like guaranteed livable income in combination with pharmacare, dental care and housing strategies. I am curious as to whether you’ve seen any support for moving forward and what your comments are on these incremental approaches. We’ve now had a lurch forward for people who were working during the pandemic. We have had talks about support for people with disabilities, seniors and child benefit, but there seems to be a blockage in actually going to the next step and saying, as you both have indicated, no one should be left behind. I’m curious as to whether you’ve seen any other positive movement or whether you have any additional comments in that respect.

Ms. Kobluk: Thank you. I don’t know if I can comment on whether I’ve seen any movement, but I appreciate the question on the incremental aspect of this. I think that we need to assess, particularly now. We heard from the minister several times today about the $500 increase for 75-and-older seniors, but it’s not keeping up with inflation. I think the only way I can answer that is to go back to my first answer. I won’t stray too far, but what kind of a standard of living do we want for seniors and marginalized people in this country? What is the number that can actually allow them to live a dignified life? The Income Security Advocacy Centre would not object to a larger jump in incomes, broader eligibility or easier access at any time.

Ms. Sarangi: Thank you, Senator Pate.

I too was thinking about the incrementalism. I think the government has shown us with CERB that where there is political will, there is a way to really invest large amounts and do it quickly. I think what we need is more political will.

Our organization focuses on children. We have a historical approach of looking at children. We have expanded our mandate to include families, and seniors, of course, are a part of that. In our indicators, though, we look at the rates of child poverty. In our latest report card that I will share with each of you, what we’ve seen is, as an example, the Canada child benefit losing its power year-over-year. That was a big investment in 2016 and 2017. When we look at the data, we see the rates of child poverty dropping significantly. But in 2018 and 2019, there has been no additional investment. Indexing to inflation keeps a plateau, so those who are lifted out of poverty, who are just below the poverty line, who are $6,000 away from the poverty line, are lifted up and kept just above that poverty line. Children and their families are now in deeper poverty. Their poverty is deeper than it has been since 2012. The Canada child benefit is not reaching them. Instead, we hear this narrative of how the Canada child benefit continues to work. Our evidence-based research is showing it is not working. It’s losing its power. It’s not accessible to people with precarious immigration status and to children in informal care arrangements.

I think we need to do some work to scratch beyond the surface, to look below and to critique even our poverty measurements like the Market Basket Measure, which invisibilizes Indigenous poverty by not counting them at all in the counts. I think we need more ambition around a poverty reduction strategy that has a target of reducing poverty by half by 2030, and then the legislation dissolves and we are okay with leaving 50% of our population in poverty. I think we need to really think about what that recovery looks like. We have an opportunity to really do something very bold and ambitious. It’s possible in organizations like ours and ISAC. There are many who have put forward lots of achievable policy solutions. I think we need that political will to actionize and make them come to life.

Senator Bernard: Thank you both for being here. Some of the questions I had you’ve already answered, so I thank you for that.

I just have one question, and I’d like each of you to expand a bit on this. I think you both mentioned the need to expand eligibility. I would like to hear more of your thoughts in terms of what you mean by that. You’ve both highlighted the very dire needs of seniors who are living in deep poverty and the reality that many are in such precarious situations that the GIS doesn’t even come close to addressing them as we stand now. What are your thoughts around expanding eligibility? What does that mean to you? Thank you.

Ms. Sarangi: Thank you, Senator Bernard, for your question.

From Campaign 2000’s perspective, we believe that all income — whether it’s through the income security system that we have or through decent work — should be working together to drive all incomes up to, at minimum, the Low Income Measure, if not 60% of that Low Income Measure. That should be the goal. No one’s income should be falling below that poverty line, whatever programs they are a part of. We don’t believe that any program should be keeping people in poverty. For example, social assistance doesn’t bring any incomes in any jurisdiction halfway to the poverty measure. For us, determining eligibility would be: Does your income fall below that? And if it does, you should be part of this system, whether it’s people who have precarious immigration status or other kinds of barriers.

We also have recommendations for people who are outside the tax system. That is another group who often faces multiple marginalizations. They are under-housed, unbanked, fleeing violence and maybe have mental health issues or other kinds of severe issues or distrust a system. They will not be in the income tax system and so will not be eligible for any kind of benefit.

Many jurisdictions in the world have these kinds of income support programs where the federal government and sometimes corporations work with charities to get benefits to people in communities. In Canada, that work is happening informally. Charities are doing their own fundraising and giving cash or gift cards to people who don’t have these kinds of benefits and are coming to them for services. We’ve been advocating for a parallel income distribution system as we’re also trying to broaden the income tax system.

Those would be some of the things that we would put forward as a way of broadening the income support system and broadening eligibility.

Ms. Kobluk: At ISAC, we often speak of people with precarious status who don’t qualify for these benefits. They don’t even have the option. They won’t be getting the lump sum back.

I know some people with precarious immigration status are able to access social assistance, but it often involves going to the Social Benefits Tribunal, which does not increase access if you have to go to a tribunal to get the benefit. There are people outside the tax system.

Another piece that hasn’t been mentioned yet is people with disabilities. The federal disability definitions are among the hardest in the country to meet, and people with disabilities have extra costs affiliated with their disabilities, and seniors with disabilities are a large group of that. By having a broad-reaching definition, by choosing people who reside in Canada rather than our Canadian citizens, these small word changes can increase access quite quickly.

One other piece is maybe increasing touch points to sign up for eligibility, as I said before, not relying on IT. I don’t know if there is a way to work more through community centres and even medical professionals with whom seniors might have more constant contact. That would also broaden the access and eligibility.

Senator Patterson: Thank you again to the witnesses.

Ms. Kobluk, your statement that we can do better for Indigenous seniors certainly resonated with me. May I just say, speaking from my region of Nunavut, where, as you know, 85% of the population are Inuit and whose first language is neither English nor French, I’m upset and outraged that the Government of Canada is ignoring the Nunavut government’s Inuit Language Protection Act, which clearly requires all government services in Nunavut to be delivered in the Inuktitut language. That’s being ignored. Could you share your thoughts on what more you think could be done to reach out to Indigenous seniors across the country?

Ms. Kobluk: Thank you.

I think for too long it has been government-to-Indigenous people, and instead of the government telling or providing or giving, it needs to be: What do you need, on what terms, in your regions, in your nation, in what language and in what culturally appropriate services?

I’m speaking provincially. There is a modernization of social assistance and there are different tables, but things that are working in cities and even in urban Ontario are not going to be what people want to do on reserve or off reserve even, and I think there needs to be a real internalization of the understanding that if we’re going to work nation by nation, it is a more challenging process because it takes more time. It’s individualized, and there needs to be better language support. Unfortunately, because of what we know from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there is a larger gap to fill to bring many Indigenous people, including seniors, up to even the poverty line, even to have access to health care, even to have access to these benefits. Many Indigenous peoples, for reasons that we know, do not file taxes. I think there has to be a shift in the paradigm if we’re going to meet the needs of Indigenous seniors across the country. I imagine what happens in Nunavut would be entirely different from what happens in B.C. or in northern Ontario.

Ms. Sarangi: The only thing I would add is that those relationships, Inuit to Crown, nation to nation, Métis government to government, need to be funded. We can talk about self‑governance, but if the government is not providing the resources for Indigenous communities and nations to govern themselves, we’re not going to get very far. I wanted to underscore the need for the financial resources to do that work.

Senator Patterson: I would like to ask Ms. Kobluk if she could elaborate on her thoughts on how internet literacy or access to adequate broadband could be improved for seniors. Thank you.

Ms. Kobluk: There are many parts of this country that don’t have access to broadband. Rural areas are one of them. A program needs to be put in place for seniors where they can learn, even one-on-one, how to use these websites and the technology. For low-income seniors, you will need a digital access benefit to buy the equipment and pay for broadband. One piece is the literacy and the learning. There should be training available, and it needs to be in translation. You’re going to have to look at language access there. But the other side is the study that recently came out of Finland. We still have the highest cost for broadband and data plans among the OECD countries and in the world. So there will have to be a digital access benefit. We’re arguing for this for social assistance recipients, and it would have to occur as well for seniors who are on low incomes.

Senator Lankin: I will attempt to be quick.

Both of you have spoken about the way in which community organizations on the front lines can be the connectors and can reach out. I’m aware of a lot of the organizations in Toronto from my time at the United Way, certainly family services, and we did a lot of work with legal aid as well. What I’m interested in is how have those relationships between community organizations and the administrators of the benefit programs — government, whether it be provincial or federal, but here we’re talking federal — been built and formalized or not.

For example, Ms. Kobluk, you talked about access to both the digital benefits and training opportunities. Again, this is probably very Toronto-centric, but there were a lot of programs, some from seniors’ organizations and some from community organizations, that reached out to help people make their benefit application. I think of St. Christopher and the campaign they had in the early days to do that.

Is there a model that has been put in place to cement these relationships in that the community is provided with the information in a timely way to help you do your outreach? Is there something more we can do to strengthen those threads? And if in large urban areas there is something at least going on, what’s happening in rural and northern parts of this country?

Ms. Kobluk: I’m going to ask Ms. Sarangi to talk about the mode, but what I do want to say is what we saw with CERB: If there was a model, it didn’t work anymore. Right? There’s something that has to occur now with remote.

What I’ve noticed in my work with the legal clinics is that it really depends. There are some counties that have very good bridges, like smaller towns or smaller rural areas. They might be a large geography, but because they’re smaller communities, they have very good links between community organizations and government and getting those services out. Cities, even there are more resources, we think can actually be harder to distribute. I think what we saw is a lot of stuff broke down because of need to isolate during the pandemic. Instead of assuming everything will go back to normal, I think we need to also take a step back and maybe build supplementary models.

Ms. Sarangi: Thank you, Senator Lankin, for that question.

We are in Toronto. I think we do have some very good models around those community-based tax clinics, and not only St. Christopher. I spent many years in the Violence Against Women shelter system and it was just part of the intake process: Have you filled out your income tax forms? Let us help you do that.

I want to touch a little bit more on the model for people who might not be connected or who might not want to share that kind of information. I think investing in those community tax clinics and working with front-line staff who are that touch point and who have that relationship is really important. They’re really important poverty-reduction initiatives. There will always be groups who will not want to engage with the government in that way, for many different reasons. They may have had very negative experiences with different kinds of institutions and so might not want to give up their information. They may not have a bank account or a CRA account. Again, from my experience in the shelter system, there are just very complicated issues such that they didn’t want to provide that kind of information or just didn’t have the time to go through and navigate complex forms.

For example, there’s this program called Bolsa Família in Brazil. It’s been operating for 25 years. It’s federally funded, and it gives money to rural, low-income communities through charities that are working there. If the children are vaccinated and go to school, families get their income benefit, so it’s a little bit conditional, but it’s a very successful model that has been reducing poverty in those rural communities.

There are those kinds of models across Africa, in China, India. There was even a basic income pilot in California that got debit cards to low-income communities in an urban centre. I think we need to be looking at some of those kinds of programs and how we can adopt them for a Canadian context to reach people who will not be part of the tax system, whether they’re undocumented individuals, whether they’re houseless or homeless or don’t have a fixed address or whether they choose for whatever reason to be outside of that system. I think, from my experience and the experience of the partners at Campaign 2000, this would go such a long way in broadening access to those income supports.

The Acting Chair: Thank you very much to our witnesses. Thank you, Ms. Sarangi and Ms. Kobluk. I think we all realize we went a little bit beyond Bill C-12, but this is such an interesting and crucial conversation. Your input into what this committee is studying today and beyond is very valuable. I want to thank you for that.

I thank my colleagues and remind you that our next meeting on this bill is next Monday, February 28, and I believe it is at 2 p.m.

(The committee adjourned.)

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