Wed. Dec 6th, 2023

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<p class=François Boileau, taxpayers' ombudsman


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Tax season can cause stress and frustration for many Canadians, some of whom may not get optimal services from the Canada Revenue Agency ( BOW). Faced with this giant of financial bureaucracy, did you know that there is a taxpayer ombudsman responsible for receiving your complaints and imposing service improvements at the Agency?

François Boileau dissected his role in nine questions at the microphone of Daniel Thibeault, host of the show Behind the scenes of power.

This is a person responsible for receiving complaints from the public, therefore someone impartial who will analyze the vagaries of an administration. There are legislative ombudsman, others by ministerial decree – like me – and others who are institutional ombudsman, as is the case in hospitals or universities.

I take care of taxpayers, not just people who pay taxes, but all Canadian citizens who deal with the Canada Revenue Agency. So, it can also be people who receive benefits from the Agency, for example people who receive the Canada child benefit, GST refunds or any other benefit.

The Revenue Agency has a dual role: not only collecting funds and recovering but also distributing benefits to which people are entitled.

For individual complaints, therefore which come from people who receive poor services from the CRA. They will complain to our office and we will do individual investigations to find out what happened in their file and how we can improve their situation.

There are also urgent cases, people who cannot make ends meet because they are waiting for benefits. They communicate with us and, under an agreement we have with the CRA, the latter undertakes to communicate with these people within three days. That doesn't mean that the file will be resolved, but at least it is underway and we are following up.

Another of our roles, it is to observe at the systemic level to identify the main trends in the problems of the ARC. We then give him ideas for improving the situation.

It's not over yet, because even if the programs are stopped, we are starting to recover from people who received a benefit and who, according to the CRA, were not eligible. This approach will continue until December 2024. I expect that there will be an increase in complaints in this regard.

Our role is not to know whether the person must repay or not but rather to find out how they can make this repayment. There must be a plan. This is part of the discussions I have already had with the Agency.

We want, when the agent sends a collection letter to a Canadian, there to be a telephone number where they can speak directly to an agent who is aware of the matter. We need to make a realistic payment plan and not just say: You have to repay $4,000 by this date.

In the last two years, we have received a staggering number of complaints and urgent requests, mainly related to the pandemic and emergency benefits. There were validation problems: people wanted to receive a benefit but waited [12 to 18] weeks to obtain validation in order to access their benefits. So, these are people who had pressing needs.

We received 1,760 urgent requests last year. It may not be a lot, but it's a drastic increase from previous years. We received almost 4,000 complaints and 5,000 requests for information. These are increases of 132% compared to last year, which was already a record year.

If anyone calls at the agency and waits two or three hours to be transferred to someone else, then the line is cut, it's a serious communication problem.

We made recommendations in this sense so that we also have a callback service and that people can go to the website – as we do with big banks, in particular – and plan a specific time: “We will call you tomorrow at such and such a time. » That's a good service. We're not there yet, but we're working on it.

The Agency said yes, so it’s now a matter of putting that in place.

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An income tax return form

All the recommendations we made – three this year and five last year – were accepted. I make them public on our website and in an annual report to add a little to our moral suasion role.

The Agency is not required to say yes, but the fact that the recommendations are public and pragmatic pushes us in the right direction.

Promise not to tell my employees, but I want us to have more, because I want our office to be known. At the same time, we are overwhelmed. But that's a reality that doesn't concern Canadians.

The Revenue Agency has thousands of interactions daily, so it's normal that there are errors and dissatisfaction. If someone has sent all their documents to the Agency and realizes that the recovery figure that is proposed is not the one that was calculated, it is possible that we notices that a document is missing.

This is where we can intervene to ensure that this document may indeed be missing, so redo your homework at the Agency. It can even go as far as letters of apology that we request from the Agency.

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For the majority of Quebecers, the deadline to send their 2022 income tax return is April 30, 2023.

It's difficult. I listen very well to the Minister [of National Revenue], to whom I report directly, Diane Lebouthillier. We have a good hearing for the 2023-24 budget which has just started, things are going well. But I am worried about the next few years, because we will have to repeat this exercise annually. We will see, but certainly that our office is better known and that the complaints we receive are more complex.

People call our office because they know we'll listen to them, not just spend 12 minutes with them on the phone. We're really going to take the time we need to listen to them. Already, starting out, this is an aspect that is not negligible. We will also search their file. We will look at the facts, and if there are facts that show that citizens are right to protest, we will follow up.

Whenever we talk about money, it's a question that can be stressful. If we are waiting for a tax refund and it does not arrive while there is a strike, it can create stressful situations for citizens. We are aware of that.

It will be difficult for our office to get involved, but I am very aware that it could bring a higher degree of stress to citizens who expect to receive something that does not arrive. There are people who depend on it, not just to go on vacation but to put food on the table or to pay their rent.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


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