Income

Feds may need to think beyond income tax to secure benefits for First Nations families

OTTAWA – When the first Canada Child Benefit checks were mailed in 2016, Cabinet ministers fanned out across the country to raise awareness of the Liberals’ flagship new program to lift children out of poverty.

Then-Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett was sent to Enoch Cree Nation, just outside Edmonton, to talk about the importance of the new benefit for First Nations people and encourage them to complete their tax returns.

“It’s important for Indigenous families to be aware of this benefit and we are committed to providing the support they need to help them file their taxes,” Bennett said in a statement about the trip.

In the six years since, the government has struggled to make benefits accessible to First Nations families, and Indigenous advocates and economists have called for a more creative approach that goes beyond income tax. revenue.

Now the Auditor General of Canada has added her voice to that chorus.

In a report released on Tuesday, Karen Hogan found that the government was not doing enough to ensure that means-tested supports, such as child benefits, reached hard-to-reach populations like those living on reserves. , despite tens of millions of dollars spent on awareness. .

The most recent figures show that only 79% of eligible First Nations families accessed the Canada Child Benefit in 2017, compared to 97% of the general population.

The auditor said it was not possible to know whether this gap had closed since 2017, as eligibility figures are based on census data, which is only collected every five years.

Although not directly related to her report, the auditor said on Tuesday that the government should consider an approach that does not include tax reporting as a mandatory requirement.

“You could explore, like they are doing with the Guaranteed Income Supplement, another way to demonstrate income other than a tax return,” Hogan said at a news conference.

“It’s that kind of creative thinking to get out there and reach that hard-to-reach population, which could be helpful in trying to increase uptake in some of these programs.”

There are many reasons people don’t file their taxes, from principled stances against colonization and lack of trust in government to declining literacy resulting from poorly funded public services, Cindy said. Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. .

“To expect families who have this added element of traumatic crises and disadvantage due to underfunding of education and therefore low levels of literacy to access benefits in this way, it just doesn’t matter. just nonsense,” Blackstock said in an interview.

The Assembly of First Nations has been saying for years that relying on tax returns is not efficient.

When asked if the government would consider separating the benefit from the income tax system, Minister for Families, Children and Social Development, Karina Gould, highlighted the government’s current strategy of putting First Nations families in contact with federal employees to help them complete the necessary forms.

“There are real Service Canada people connecting with third-party organizations that have community connections, where they can go and build that trust in terms of making that application,” Gould said at a news conference. tuesday.

“It’s absolutely a top priority for me.”

Public sector economist Ross Hickey said it’s unclear whether federal workers can overcome First Nations families’ lack of trust in government. But the government has a fiduciary and moral responsibility to Indigenous peoples to ensure they get the benefits they are entitled to, whatever personal decision they make about their tax returns, he said. .

There are options the government could consider to encourage people to complete their income tax forms, automate the process or bypass it entirely, Hickey said, but the government needs to balance that with ensuring the program integrity.

One option would be to hire band offices, said Hickey, who is of Aboriginal descent.

“I think the band can play a role in encouraging Canadian native band members to make sure they have access to these programs,” he said, but added that currently , bands have neither the incentives nor the resources to do so. this.

Blackstock suggests creating a parallel program specifically for First Nations that does not use the income tax system.

“There are already mechanisms in place to channel funding through First Nations for the provision of social services, such as child welfare, social assistance, etc. And that should be added,” she said.

Others have suggested automating the income tax system, but Hickey said it’s an imperfect solution because many people earn money on the black market.

“It will not be a solution to this problem. There have to be a lot of different approaches, I think,” Hickey said.

Suggestions are nothing new, however, and the auditor’s greatest frustration with their work is that they often highlight problems and nothing changes.

“It is very frustrating and disheartening for the government to know for many years that problems exist, barriers exist, but little action is being taken to address and remove them. So it’s time for actions to catch up with all words,” Hogan said.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 1, 2022.

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