Today, the Globe and Mail reported that the Federal government plans to legislate fines and jail time for people who received the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) but did not meet eligibility criteria. Those found guilty of CERB “fraud”  could apparently face six months in jail and/or fines of $5,000 plus up to double the amount received through CERB. 

This is an outrageously draconian proposal that, if implemented, could ruin Canadians who are guilty of nothing more than failing to navigate a confusing benefit program in the middle of a global emergency. Proven cases of CERB fraud are yet to be produced, and even if such cases do exist — I’m sure there are a number here and there — it’s still an open question how many of them could reasonably be called “fraud” rather than the inevitable result of overly complicated eligibility criteria and a botched rollout.

You’ll recall that eligibility criteria for emergency benefits have changed several times since the pandemic began. On March 18, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced an Emergency Care Benefit for workers who had to stop working because they were sick or caring for someone who was sick, and an Emergency Support Benefit for people who lost their income and didn’t have EI. This plan was immediately derided as insufficient, and quickly discarded in favour of the CERB version 1.0, announced on March 25. Then on April 15 — more than a week after CERB applications opened — the government changed the eligibility rules again with CERB 2.0, including people who had lost income but were still making up to $1,000 per month. 

Call me a bleeding heart, but I’d say it’s reasonable to forgive Canadians struggling during a pandemic for attending to more pressing concerns than the ever-evolving details of a bizarrely complex relief scheme. Indeed, the CERB website still cautions potential applicants that ineligible claimants may be contacted to make arrangements for repayments. I believe the CERB should have been universal to begin with, and so there’s little reason to care that some ineligible claims were made. But even repayment is a far more sensible approach than the jail time and financial devastation the government apparently intends to dish out.

It’s worth pausing here to contrast this harshly punitive approach with the government’s light-handed treatment of tax-dodging corporations. As Erika Beauchesne wrote last week in Passage, the Federal government’s “restrictions” intended to keep emergency aid from flowing to tax-dodging corporations are effectively meaningless. This, despite the fact that corporate tax evasion costs Canadians nearly twice as much each year as the entire CERB program.

Given all this, the vicious punishment regime for CERB rule-breakers appears to defy logic. But that would be a misunderstanding of the function of this law, which is not to limit costs and recovery money, but rather to allow employers to exert greater control over workers.

This is why the draft law also introduces harsher language around eligibility exclusions for people who don’t: return to work when their employer demands; resume self-employment when “it is reasonable to do so”; turn down a “reasonable job offer.” 

What is a “reasonable” job offer? When is it “reasonable” for your boss to demand you go back to work? These are legitimate questions, but with the threat of jail time and fines looming most workers aren’t going to run the risk of finding out the hard way, even if they’re being asked to return to unsafe conditions or accept wage cuts. Instead, they’ll comply with the demands of employers who now have the threat of prison to wield over their workforce.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the largest lobby group for small- and medium-businesses, made this function more or less explicit in their praise of the proposal, telling the Globe the law was needed because “many employers are reporting they are facing a growing shortage of labour at the same time as employees hesitate to return to work.”

If the Federal government is seriously concerned about theft of public money, they should focus their energies on the large corporations and super-wealthy individuals who employ armies of accountants and attorneys to avoid paying their taxes. After all, this variety of fraud — some of it legal thanks to loopholes crafted by expensive lobbyists — costs us $62.3 billion each year. 

But given what we know about the draft CERB law, clawing back some of this revenue is clearly not their concern. The only reasonable conclusion is that the Federal government’s priority is returning the whip to the hand of the bosses, and driving workers back into jobs that may be less safe, stable and well-paid than before the pandemic.

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