The Canada Revenue Agency is relying on a clause in an emergency bill approved by Parliament in a single day in April as the legal basis for disclosing the names this week of all companies that received the federal wage subsidy.
The agency is planning to update the information on Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) recipients as the program continues into the new year.
However, the database does not reveal the amounts that each company received.
Both the names and the amounts would have been private under federal tax law, which prevents the government from releasing taxpayer information.
But C-14, a pandemic-related bill approved by MPs and senators on April 11, included an Income Tax Act exemption for names. The legislation stated that the government “may communicate or otherwise make available to the public, in any manner that the minister considers appropriate, the name of any person or partnership that makes an application [for the wage subsidy].”
Katherine Cuplinskas, a spokesperson for Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, said in an e-mail Tuesday that the government worked with the federal privacy commissioner in developing the wage subsidy registry. Ms. Cuplinskas said the database balances transparency with the protection of personal information.
Ms. Cuplinskas also noted that the legislation that approved CEWS and contained the new disclosure provision was “unanimously approved by all members of Parliament from all political parties.”
Some political parties are also included in the database of CEWS recipients. Earlier this year, the Bloc Québécois sharply criticized other federal parties for accepting the wage subsidy. The Conservative Party originally accepted payments, but then vowed in September under new Leader Erin O’Toole that it would stop and repay the funds.
Conservative Party spokesperson Cory Hann told The Globe and Mail on Tuesday that the party received just more than $1-million in CEWS payments but has not yet started to return the money.
“We’re committed to paying it back. We are prepared to start doing so immediately if other parties will do the same,” he said in an e-mail. “Erin O’Toole believes that the wage subsidy was designed to help businesses survive and not to subsidize political parties. ... At the same time, Erin O’Toole has been very clear that he would not allow the Trudeau Liberals to use taxpayer money as an unfair advantage, particularly as they were trying to orchestrate an early election.”
The Liberals said in September that they would stop taking the CEWS, while the NDP and Greens planned to continue accepting the wage subsidy. Only the Conservatives have promised to pay it back.
In an update Tuesday, Liberal Party spokesperson Braeden Caley said the CEWS helped the party keep 80 people employed. While official amounts will be revealed in party disclosures, he said the party received $1.25-million in wage subsidy payments from mid-March to late August.
A Green Party spokesperson said the party received $361,853 from March to the end of August. The NDP is in the database but a party spokesperson was not immediately able to provide an updated total Tuesday.
The CRA says more than 368,000 businesses, non-profits and charities have received the CEWS and that the program has paid out more than $54-billion since April.
Many large publicly traded companies have disclosed their CEWS payments through public reports to shareholders.
The searchable database includes a heading called “information to employees,” in which the agency urges workers who believe a CEWS applicant is misusing the subsidy to report suspicious activities to the CRA.
Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa professor and privacy law expert, said in an e-mail that under a strict interpretation of privacy rules, publishing company names does not involve identifiable information because the government is not disclosing the names of specific employees. Prof. Geist said the government could have gone further in its disclosure, however, writing “… the government might have considered a threshold that exempted small businesses from disclosure and limited this public disclosure [of dollars received] to larger entities who benefited from larger amounts of support.”
Kevin Page, a former parliamentary budget officer and president and chief executive of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy, said in an e-mail that Canadian businesses were aware that the government could disclose information about the subsidy. He noted that in the United States, coronavirus-related payments to businesses, including dollar amounts, have been made public.
Mr. Page said it is understandable that many businesses would not want such information disclosed. But he said broader disclosure would improve the ability of the public and parliamentarians to scrutinize the wage subsidy program, and could expedite the review and audit process. “Increased transparency will promote trust,” he said.
Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux, a former CRA assistant commissioner, said that while the agency must follow the confidentiality provisions of the Income Tax Act, he would have liked to have seen an exemption for the CEWS amounts in addition to the names.
“I personally believe the amounts should be released, as is the case with many subsidies provided to corporations,” he said Tuesday.
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