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The federal government has loaned Canadians stranded abroad by the COVID-19 pandemic a total of nearly $18-million to help cover emergency expenses, such as a flight home, but only a handful of taxpayers have repaid the money.

The government announced the COVID-19 emergency loan program in March, as thousands of Canadians travelling and living abroad scrambled to find a way home amid the early days of the pandemic. The program allowed Canadians to apply for an interest-free loan of up to $5,000 to help secure an emergency flight home or temporarily cover “life-sustaining” needs while they tried to find a flight.

In a statement to The Globe and Mail, Global Affairs Canada said that, as of Friday, 4,810 Canadians had been approved for emergency loans – a total value of $17.86-million. However, only 175 loans had been repaid. Global Affairs said it could not provide the total dollar amount for the repaid loans, as the figures were not yet available and the department is at the “very early stages" of collecting repayments.

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Rob Oliphant, parliamentary secretary to the Foreign Affairs Minister, said the number of repayments is within the government’s expectation, as it only started issuing invoices for loans recently. Loan recipients are required to pay the money back within 180 days – approximately six months – of receiving an invoice from the government.

“Our hope is that people will take the time they’ve had now and the next, really, six months to pay it back," Mr. Oliphant said.

“This is Canadian taxpayer money so we’re expecting it to be paid back."

Loans that are not repaid on time will be referred to the Canada Revenue Agency for collection, Global Affairs said. The CRA did not respond to a request for comment at time of publication.

Aaron Wudrick, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said that while there has to be some compassion given the emergency circumstances, the loans still need to be repaid.

“If they’re not paid back, that is going to represent a bigger burden on everybody else," Mr. Wudrick said. “People took these loans in good faith, knowing they were loans. They should be making every reasonable effort to repay them. There should not be an expectation that they will be written off.”

Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said that while the number of repayments is low, the Opposition trusts the CRA will work hard to ensure repayment. He expressed more concern over the Liberal government’s “slowness” in repatriating vulnerable Canadians stranded abroad at the onset of the pandemic.

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“Early on Conservatives called for a more robust effort to repatriate Canadians stranded overseas, including ensuring that vulnerable Canadians identified as higher-priority evacuees received confirmed tickets for the designated flights and chartering commercial aircraft,” Mr. Chong said.

During the early days of the pandemic, Canadian officials in Ottawa and abroad worked around the clock to help repatriate thousands of citizens, in what Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne described as the “biggest consular operation in peace time in the history of Canada.” Although the consular response has scaled back significantly, Canadians stuck abroad can still apply for a loan. As of Friday, 140 applications were under review.

“Global Affairs Canada remains focused on ensuring that eligible Canadians receive financial assistance to return to Canada and to sustain themselves while they work toward their return. Ensuring the health and safety of Canadians, both at home and abroad, is our top priority,” said Global Affairs spokesperson Ciara Trudeau.

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