ATHABASCA - Canada’s social safety net came through for nearly nine million Canadians this year when they were unexpectedly laid off or lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, but recent comments by a UCP MLA suggesting some were abusing the system is rubbing many of them the wrong way.
During a Sept. 29 town hall meeting in Evansburg, Lac Ste. Anne-Parkland MLA Shane Getson responded to a concern from a business owner that they were having a hard time finding employees because of the federal government’s Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
"Well, because they make more on CERB eating Cheezies and watching cartoons, I guess," said the MLA, whose constituency includes a small area in the south of Westlock County, including the hamlet of Busby.
And after speaking to a friend in B.C., he also remarked that CERB funding, which he referred to as “funny money,” may also be contributing to drug addiction.
"So people that were getting $700 a month are now getting $2,000 a month," Getson said. "We're concerned about the same thing here. Because now all of a sudden you have this population that has all this extra cash and now their addiction levels are going through the roof."
A video from the town hall was released by the Opposition NDP, and many are now calling for Getson to apologize or step down.
Janet Zatorski was one of the 1,062,640 Albertans faced with having to apply for the benefit since March, when her massage therapy business was shuttered by order of the government.
After 20 years in Athabasca as the independent owner of Northern Comfort Massage Therapy, Zatorski was appalled to hear the comments from Getson.
“I had to apply for the CERB program through the federal government — I had no other income,” said Zatorski in an interview last week. “We were mandated to close and couldn’t operate, I was a recipient for three-and-a-half months, until (Alberta Health Services) gave us the green light to open again.
“I was online and I saw the comments from MLA Shane Getson about CERB recipients being lazy and drug addicts and waiting for funny money. It was unreal; totally insulting. I don’t get it.”
She went on to say she deals with clients, who are of the same mind and opinion and tells them outright that she was a CERB recipient between March and June. Without it she wouldn’t have been able to pay rent or insurance, make her vehicle payments, or eat for that matter.
“I wasn’t laying around watching cartoons and eating Cheezies,” she said. “I find it astounding because so many people were forced to closed, and we would have nothing.”
Getson released a statement on his Facebook page the day after the public meeting, saying the NDP had taken his comments out of context for the sake of political gain.
“The context was that a local business owner had raised concerns about not being able to hire workers despite being able to operate,” the post said. “Clearly, the vast majority of recipients of government support truly need it. At the same time, some legitimate concerns have been raised about these programs that cannot be ignored.
“These are important issues that deserve our attention as they are happening everywhere. I recently spoke about these issues at a town hall in my community. Unsurprisingly, the NDP is now attacking me instead of focusing on how we keep our people safe. It is important that we look at the evidence objectively. This will help protect our families and businesses in these difficult times.”
Admittedly, Zatorski is no supporter of the UCP government, but she feels that this was a time when those who have been elected by the people needed to stand up for them, regardless of political stripe. She did tip her hat to local MLA Glenn van Dijken for taking her call and said “he was reasonable and helpful.”
She has also contacted Getson’s office by phone, but was still waiting for a response. She was also working on a letter at the time of the interview. She would like to see an apology to all CERB recipients.
“The thing that really got me was we were mandated to close and follow the rules, yet we weren’t supported in any way, and now we’re being attacked and abused over it,” she said.
CERB now ended
After distributing more than $79 billion to 8.8 million people affected by job losses across Canada due to the coronavirus pandemic, the federal Liberals announced a bill last week that will act as a replacement for those who are unable to transition to employment insurance.
Bill C-4 passed unanimously through the House of Commons last week and is now awaiting Royal Assent from the Senate. The bill will create a new Canadian Recovery Benefit (CRB) and two other temporary benefit programs, for those unable to qualify for EI.
CRB is for workers aged 15 and over who don’t qualify for EI or who are self-employed. If you lost your employment because of COVID-19, or if your income has dropped by at least 50 per cent, you may qualify.
Also included as part of the legislation is the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) and the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit (CRCB). The CRSB provides $500 per week for up to two weeks for workers who are sick, or who must self-isolate for reasons related to COVID-19. People who receive paid sick leave from their employer are not eligible.