People in northern Canada have received more than $250 million in Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) payments since the program began in April.
The federal government first introduced the CERB in March as an emergency benefit for Canadians who have lost employment during the COVID-19 pandemic. The benefit provides applicants with $500 per week for up to six months to replace lost earnings.
To qualify for benefits, a person must have earned at least $5,000 the previous year and have lost their job or been laid off as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Northwest Territories is the northern jurisdiction with the largest CERB uptake. Data from the federal government shows 11,690 N.W.T. residents have claimed $101 million in the last six months.
In Nunavut, 9,830 residents have claimed $85 million in monthly CERB payments. In the Yukon, 9,010 residents have claimed $72 million.
Numbers 'surprisingly high'
But these numbers don't quite match up with labour force statistics.
In the Northwest Territories for example, the N.W.T. Bureau of Statistics says that roughly 47 per cent of the territory's work force work in the public sector, where there have been no layoffs.
The bureau's statistics show that roughly 600 more people were unemployed in August than in February. That increase meant August had the highest unemployment rate on record for the N.W.T., of 11.3 per cent. Although it had a big impact on the employment rate, it doesn't account for the 11,690 people that applied for the CERB.
In Yukon, where more than 9,000 have received the CERB, the territory's Bureau of Statistics says that from February to August only 2000 people or so left the labour force, many of those laid-off from the struggling tourism, food services, accommodation and retail sectors.
"The numbers ... for the CERB were surprisingly high to me," said Gary Brown, a senior information officer with Yukon's Bureau of Statistics.
Brown said the high uptake could be discouraging some workers from returning to work.
"Anecdotally, we hear a lot from the business owners that they're having a hard time finding workers to come back."
Feds to 'crack down' on fraudsters
In an effort to get it to people as quickly as possible, the federal government does not require applicants to verify they have been laid off or have lost their job due to COVID-19. To start receiving the benefit, all they need do is answer a few questions on the phone or online.
When a claimant is found to be ineligible, the Canadian Revenue Agency says they are contacted to make arrangements to repay an amount.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and some federal ministers have said the government will not go after those who made honest mistakes when filing for emergency benefits, but they've vowed to crack down on those caught deliberately defrauding the system.
Northern politicians are worried that "crack down" could mean clawing back other benefits that vulnerable residents rely on throughout the year.
In a special sitting of the Nunavut Legislative Assembly on Wednesday, David Akeeagok, the acting minister for child and family services, said the federal government could look to get CERB money back from ineligible claimants by taking away federal benefits later on.
"A majority of our income assistance [clients] also rely on federal programs such as goods and services tax rebates and their child benefits," he said. "If you don't pay for your taxes the first clawbacks would be your federal benefits. We're worried with Nunavummiut that might happen."
Akeeagok says he's working with the federal government to try and lessen the negative impacts that could be felt by vulnerable residents in this situation.