Navigating government bureaucracy can be a challenge at the best of times.
But Chilliwack resident Richard White’s series of unfortunate circumstances has plunged him into what feels like a Kafkaesque bureaucratic black hole.
Between the global pandemic, a workplace accident, and hackers, White finds himself unable to access a federal government program for those who are self-employed and who are directly affected by COVID-19, the Canada Recovery Benefit.
White is at his wit’s end, which is why he came to speak to me.
“Financially, honestly, I’m starting to understand why so many people get involved in crime living in Canada,” White told me.
Here’s his situation. White works in communications and is self-employed, working on contracts for the military all across Canada. When the pandemic hit last spring, he applied for the temporary Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). He received CERB funds for about one month in April.
He then went back to work.
Then some time in the summer of 2020, the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) was hacked. The federal agency temporarily suspended its online services after a series of cyberattacks that affected thousands of CRA accounts. The hacks were connected to the system used by Canadians to access services such as CERB.
Moving on, White continued to work but then suffered a workplace injury on Dec. 11, 2020 while working on a contract in Nova Scotia. In serious as-of-yet undiagnosed back pain, White has trouble sitting or standing for too long at a time. Back home in Chilliwack, where he was born and raised, White is on disability based on Nova Scotia’s cost of living, which amounts to about $1,600 a month.
“That doesn’t even cover the rent,” he said.
So what he has been doing for weeks and now months, is trying to access the new version of CERB, the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB). Because his CRA account was hacked, he gets an error message on the CRA website.
So he can’t apply for CRB online. OK, why not try the phone? He says that because he had CERB last year for one month and applied for that online, he can’t apply for CRB by telephone.
Are you still following?
Next step is to contact the CRA to try to resolve the matter. But every time he phones the CRA line, he is told that the wait time will be in the four-to-six hour range. And after four hours on hold, CRA callers are hung up on.
Exasperated, White turned to his elected representatives for help. He started with his MLA, but as Chilliwack MLA Dan Coulter explained to me (White is actually in Chilliwack-Hope MLA Kelli Paddon’s riding), “we literally have no ability to assist on federal issues. Folks have to go through their MPs.”
So that’s Mark Strahl’s office, where he was met with assistance, but even Strahl has little power to rattle the bureaucratic powers that be. He said he was told that it takes several weeks for CRA to respond to requests for information from the MP.
“Mr. White came to the office last week to discuss his situation and we have made the appropriate inquiries with CRA to attempt to assist him as expeditiously as possible,” Strahl told me in an emailed statement.
“We can also confirm that many Canadians have difficulty resolving their files with CRA in a timely fashion and that even our office has been frustrated by the bureaucratic delays that plague the CRA.”
Frustrated doesn’t begin to explain White’s state of mind.
“I can’t even buy groceries,” he tells me. “People need food.
“My bank account has $8 in it. I’m trying to live a crime-free life but I’m starting to see why people turn to that,” he told me, again, in a tone that only sounded like he was half joking.
I told White there was nothing much I could do, other than sharing his story. It’s possible, likely probable, that this is a lot more common than it should be.
Every government agency has been under severe pressure for the last 14 months, but no Canadian should have to endure navigating in a bureaucratic black hole like this.
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