“Absolute fear and panic”: PKU recovery measures affect the quality of life of NWT seniors

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George Lessard says he felt “absolute fear and panic” when he found out his federal benefits were being clawed back.

In July, Lessard received a letter from the federal government stating that he was no longer eligible for the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), which is an additional payment for low-income seniors, due to his induced income increase. by the PCU.

“Wow, I didn’t know that. No one told me that. What can I do ? ” he said. “I knew I had to pay taxes on [CERB] … But I never thought about the impact that would have on my pension. ”

Lessard decided to apply for the Canada Emergency Benefit (CEP) at the start of the pandemic because he said he was eligible.

The self-proclaimed 69-year-old freelance media artist, who was living in Yellowknife at the time, received $ 14,000 in ECP payments to supplement his income, which came mainly from Old Age Security (OAS), Income Supplement guaranteed (SRG) and occasional works and royalties.

$ 40 remaining after paying rent

The change means Lessard now only receives $ 697.91 per month from the OAS pension, which significantly affects how he can make ends meet.

“I had about $ 40 left after I paid my rent,” he said.

Lessard’s experience is shared by many seniors across the country.

Seniors’ eligibility for the federal GIS depends on marital status and income: single or widowed seniors earning less than $ 18,984 are eligible, and eligibility varies for couples depending on whether or not they have a pension. of the OAS.

Last month, members of the Federal Conservative Party told the Canadian press they were “inundated with calls” from people over 65 who saw the same decline in government support.

“You can’t live on $ 1,000 a month in the NWT”

Suzette Montreuil, executive director of the NWT Seniors’ Society, has heard a handful of cases like Lessard’s in recent weeks, but says there are many more going through the same thing in silence.

She said she knew a senior who lives on a monthly income of $ 1,000 after going through the same cuts.

“You can’t live on $ 1,000 a month in the NWT,” Montreuil said. “How do you pay the rent? How do you shop for groceries? It really is [about] the ability of the older person to stay here and meet the basic needs of life. ”

The cost of living in the Northwest Territories is already high, with electricity being one of the biggest costs. The NWT have the upper the average residential electricity tariff in the country, which shows up on household bills and translates into higher prices for almost all goods and services.

An Energy Hub graph showing the average electricity prices in all provinces and territories in 2020. The NWT has the highest average residential rate in the country, which is reflected in household bills and reflected in by higher prices for almost all goods and services. (Energy center)

So a reduction of any kind in a senior’s income, Montreuil said, will be “bigger” for NWT residents than in the provinces.

Lessard, who moved to Lethbridge, Alta., In January, said he would not be able to live with the adjustment in the Northwest Territories.

Ottawa “unclear and incorrect” information

In an email, a spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada, the federal department responsible for GIS payments, said GIS benefits “are calculated on the basis of the previous year’s income.”

“Any change in income in any given year will result in an adjustment of GIS benefits in the next payment period,” the spokesperson wrote, adding that the PKU benefits are considered taxable income.

However, the spokesperson added that in limited circumstances, such as loss of pension income, a senior may request that their GIS benefits be calculated based on their estimated income for the current year instead of that. of the previous year.

The spokesperson said this is the “option” provision and it can take up to 12 months or more to process.

“Requests are handled on a case-by-case basis and in many cases will not result in a reinstatement or adjustment of the customer’s payment amount,” the spokesperson wrote.

A note published in the May 12 edition of the Canada Gazette, the official publication of federal government rulings, acknowledges that information about ECP delivery on the government website and provided by appeals officers was “unclear and incorrect ”.

In fact, the Canadian government has launched two benefits under the same umbrella: the PKU for those who lost their jobs during the pandemic and the AE-ERB, emergency support for people with insurable income of at least $ 5,000 in 2019.

Part of a $ 2,000 Canada Emergency Benefit (CEP) check, a taxable monthly federal payment made to eligible workers who had lost their income due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At nearly $ 82 billion, it was Ottawa’s costliest coronavirus measure. (Chris Helgren / Reuters)

The government said many interpreted the income requirement as gross income, not net self-employment income, meaning they thought they were eligible for the program when they did not. were not.

The order stated that anyone who misunderstood the criteria “will have their debt paid off.” It is expected to affect around 30,000 people across the country.

NWT Seniors Benefit Continues

A spokesperson for the Northwest Territories Department of Education, Culture and Employment said he also received a few calls from seniors reporting lower OAS and GIS payments after taking the PKU, but say they have no involvement in these federal income programs.

The Territory offers a Seniors Supplement, which consists of monthly payments of $ 196 from the federal government to seniors who receive GIS and Old Age Security.

These payments are continuing, the statement said, and have not been affected by CERB.

The Northwest Territories is asking any senior affected by these payment reductions to contact Service Canada and consider applying for Income Assistance to help meet their basic needs.

Suzette Montreuil, executive director of the NWT Seniors’ Society, says she knows of a case where a senior is living on $ 1,000 a month, which is difficult to do when the cost of living is already very high. (Steve Silva / CBC)

Montreuil gives the same advice to seniors. There are also NGOs with which she connects older people who offer short-term relief.

But, she said there are limited things she can do.

“It is way beyond my level of influence or authority,” she said. “We’ve certainly expressed our concern… but I don’t have a short-term solution for this.”

“Nobody knows anything about it”

After several phone calls to Service Canada, Lessard is waiting for the federal government and the Government of Alberta to review her eligibility for the GIS (Alberta is now responsible for delivering the payment to Ottawa, according to Lessard).

He uses his savings to pay for groceries and other necessities until his case is reviewed.

Lessard said he wanted to share his story so other Elders know it could happen to them too.

“That’s what scares me… there maybe a number of people just passing by because nobody knows anything about it,” he said.

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