Last updated: 27th August 2010
First published: 27th August 2010
Article written by Brett M. Christensen
About Brett Christensen and Hoax-Slayer
Refugees don’t receive more financial assistance from the federal government than Canadian pensioners.A news ombudsmen report published in November 2004 provides information about the origins of this long-lived urban myth. The report notes:
A letter to the editor of a Canadian newspaper contained this incorrect information. In it, a one-time, start-up payment provided to some refugees in Canada was mistaken for an ongoing, monthly payment. Unfortunately, although the newspaper published a clarification, the misleading information had already spread widely over e-mail and the internet.
In truth, about three quarters of resettled refugees receive financial assistance from the federal government, for a limited time, and at levels lower than Canadian pensioners. They are known as government-assisted refugees.
We have to remember that many of these people have fled from unimaginable hardship, and have lived in refugee camps for several years. Others are victims of trauma or torture in their home countries. Many arrive with little more than a few personal belongings, if that. Canada has a long humanitarian tradition of accepting refugees and helping them start their new lives here.
For this reason, government-assisted refugees receive a one-time amount of up to $1,330 from the federal government to cover essentials — basic, start-up needs like food, furniture and clothing. They also receive a temporary monthly allowance for food and shelter that is based on provincial social assistance rates. In Ontario, for example, a single refugee would receive $710 per month. This assistance is temporary — lasting only for one year or until they can find a job, whichever comes first.
This short-term support for refugees is a far cry from the lifetime benefits for Canada’s seniors. The Old Age Security (OAS) program, for example, provides people who have lived in Canada for at least 10 years with a pension at age 65. The Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) is an additional monthly benefit for low-income pensioners. The Canada Pension Plan (CPP), or Quebec Pension Plan (QPP) for people in Quebec, pays a monthly retirement pension to people who have worked and contributed to the plan over their career. In October 2007, Canadian seniors received an average of $478.28 in OAS benefits and $481.46 in CPP retirement benefits ($393.84 in QPP). Lower income OAS recipients also qualified for an average of an additional $393.99 in GIS benefits. In Ontario, for example, a pensioner would receive approximately $959 per month.
Don SellarIn spite of thorough debunking over a number of years, this hoax message is still circulating. Moreover, during that time, it has spawned other equally false versions set in several other nations, including the US, the UK and Australia. It is high time that this false rumour was laid to rest once and for all.
Today’s rather sad and twisted tale began last March when the Star published a feature about plans to settle hundreds of African refugees in smaller Canadian cities.
It was a simple story: Canada and the United Nations were flying asylum-seekers from a Somali refugee camp to new lives in centres such as Hamilton.
As immigration/diversity reporter Nicholas Keung wrote, immigration officials hope to encourage (but not force) refugees to make new lives outside the magnet cities of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
“We hope by relocating them all together and resettling them as a whole to the same community, we can create a positive environment to help them integrate into the Canadian society successfully,” an immigration official explained.
Fine and dandy. But halfway through the 1,500-word article, unforeseen trouble was lurking.
In paragraph 16, the story said single refugees are eligible for $1,890 from Ottawa as a “start-up allowance, along with a $580 monthly social assistance, depending on how soon the person is able to find employment.”
In addition, they get “a night lamp, a table, a chair and a single bed from the government,” the story said.
In painful hindsight, those details could have been clearer.
Actually, the $1,890 “start-up allowance” including a $580 monthly social assistance cheque from Ottawa was a one-time payment for basic household needs such as furnishings, pots and linens. The furniture is used.
In quick order, two things happened after the article ran.
First, a reader sent a nasty e-mail to the reporter. Among other things, it said charity begins at home and Canada should not “roll out the welcome mat” for refugees.
The e-mailer assumed erroneously that the refugees would collect $2,470 a month. They’d be better off than Canadian pensioners.
More worrisome, the polemicist sent his rant to 100 recipients, some of whom likely spread the word to wider audiences.
Ah, the wonders of the Internet!
Alarmed by the e-mail, reporter Keung tried to contact the sender. It was too late. Having spread the misinformation, the e-mailer already had changed his address. At the same time, a second development occurred.
The Star ran a letter to the editor that said the $2,470 “compares very well to a single pensioner who after contributing to the growth and development of Canada for 40 years can only receive a monthly maximum of $1,012 in old age pension and Guaranteed Income Supplement. “Maybe our pensioners should apply as refugees?” reasoned the writer.
Readers may not realize that fact checking of letters to the editor is nearly impossible at most daily papers, given limited staff resources and unforgiving deadlines.
Although many mistakes are caught, the occasional doozer gets through. That was definitely the case here.
Over the next several months, it became increasingly clear a disturbing urban myth had been born.
Various offices at the Star have been getting e-mails from around the world, usually one or two a week.
Many quote from the erroneous letter to the editor, expressing varying degrees of curiosity, dismay, envy or anger.
“Let’s send this to all Canadians,” one e-mail roared, “so we can all be p—– off and maybe we can get the refugees cut back to $1,012 and the pensioners up to $2,470 and enjoy some of the money we were forced to submit to the government over the last 40 or 50 years.”
In hindsight, the ombud now wishes he’d issued a speedy clarification to help set the record straight.
But with information (and misinformation) moving at warp speed on the Internet, I doubt there was a silver bullet for the problem.
Maybe this column can help dispel a damaging misperception about refugees and pensioners. Please tell your friends.
Saturday, November 27th, 2004