The Yukon government has back-pedalled on clawing back the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) from social assistance recipients.
Minister of health and social services Pauline Frost announced the change at a media briefing on April 27, confirming that the CERB, a $2,000-a-month federal fund available to Canadians who have lost work because of COVID-19, would now be exempted.
As first reported by the News on April 22, the Yukon government was to deduct the CERB dollar-for-dollar from social assistance payments.
Sandra Bigger, a Whitehorse woman on social assistance who was laid off from her part-time job due to the pandemic, told the News the deduction would leave her financially worse off than before, and that she feared losing her home and vehicle as a result.
Frost, however, told reporters that the government would be making changes to the Yukon’s Civil Emergency Measures Act in the coming days to fully exempt the CERB from social assistance income calculations from April to June.
“In other words, we are not deducting the CERB payments from Yukoners’ social assistance benefits,” she said.
The decision makes the Yukon one of two Canadian jurisdictions so far to exempt CERB from social assistance deductions; British Columbia announced April 2 that the benefit would “have no effect” on its income or disability assistance.
Frost said the Yukon government would be reviewing the exemption after the three-month period — Canadians can receive CERB for up to four months — noting that the current exemption to June “doesn’t preclude us from looking at an extension.”
Reached after the announcement, Bigger, who received her first CERB cheque on April 24, said the news was “a huge weight off.”
“I am so happy because it means that, you know, we can actually afford to … maybe actually get a few cords of wood before winter and we’re actually going to be able to afford groceries and yeah, it’s awesome news,” she said.
“I would like to tell the Yukon government thank you, and to thank them for doing the right thing so that the money that was meant for the people who have the least and who really need it right now are getting it,” Bigger added. “It was the right thing to do and I’m very grateful.”
The Yukon NDP and Yukon Party also lauded the decision, but said the Yukon government still had some explaining to do.
“Of course it’s absolutely the right thing to do,” Yukon NDP leader Kate White said of the change. “I guess, partially, the question is why it took so long — why it took so long for them to make the announcement, because we know it’s affected people adversely up to this point.”
White said she knew of cases where social assistance case workers had told clients not to apply for the CERB because of the deductions.
“Will YG be reaching out to any folks who would qualify to help them apply?” she asked.
Asked during the media briefing why it took more than a month between the Canadian government announcing the CERB and the Yukon government announcing it would not be clawed back, Frost said her department “didn’t have all the details of the CERB funding or the criteria or the recommendations” earlier on.
She also said she “suspect(ed)” all case workers had been informed of the change.
Yukon Party house leader Scott Kent said that while he felt the decision to not claw back the CERB was a good thing, “one of the big things that this kind of turns the focus back on is the decision-making of the government.”
“They don’t seem to be very proactive in what they’re doing, they’re reacting to things,” he said. “… There’s so many Yukoners that are looking for leadership and the premier and his Liberal colleagues need to step and provide that for so many people at this point.”
Like White told the News last week, Kent said he was also concerned, with the legislative assembly not sitting, about opposition MLAs abilities to hold the government and its decisions accountable.
“I think there’s a level of frustration amongst opposition MLAs with the amount of information that we’re able to get,” he said. “I understand that it’s an evolving situation but again, we need to either, through public accounts or a committee or some recalling of the legislature, to set something up, we need to find a better way to address …. Yukoners’ concerns around what’s happening.”
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