Tracking the not-so-clear trail of $240B in federal COVID-19 spending

This story is part of The Big Spend, a CBC News investigation examining the unprecedented $240 billion the federal government handed out during the first eight months of the pandemic. 

The federal government has spent an average of $952 million a day fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a CBC News analysis.

Figures compiled from federal government websites, corporate financial reports, the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer and through access to information requests indicate that Ottawa made $240 billion in payments and transfers to individuals, businesses, organizations and government entities between the beginning of the lockdown on March 13 and Nov. 20.

That eight-month spending spree has seen funds course through more than 100 measures and programs, many of them created from scratch. 

And while the federal government has readily disclosed its overall numbers and spending envelopes, few details are being provided about who has received the payments and in what amounts — information that is vital if taxpayers are to know how their money is being spent.

“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t see that level of transparency,” said Kevin Page, Canada’s former parliamentary budget officer. “We should know more about where that money is going.”

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s financial update on Nov. 30 pegged total government spending on the pandemic at $322.3 billion for the current fiscal year, which ends March 31, 2021. However, that figure includes newly pledged funds and budgeted amounts yet to be spent. 

“We don’t really have a good view — almost no view — of the government spending today. We have estimates of what the government thinks it will spend for 2020, 2021,” said Page, who now heads the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy. “But those are not the actual monies that are going out the door.”

WATCH | Kevin Page on why we need to know more about where the money goes:

Kevin Page, the former parliamentary budget officer, says that Canada is lagging behind the United States when it comes to the transparency of government spending during the coronavirus pandemic. 1:09

The CBC News analysis has tracked $105.66 billion in federal payments to individuals; $118.37 billion that has gone to businesses, non-profits and charitable organizations; and a further $16.17 billion in transfers to government departments and agencies. 

The largest single expenditure thus far has been the $81.64 billion spent on the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB), the monthly $2,000 payments that were offered to Canadians who were unable to work during the pandemic, with 8.9 million people — a third of all adults in the country — having received them.

The direct payments to individuals, which also included $7.7 billion in enhancements to employment insurance, a $5.6-billion GST credit, almost $3 billion in emergency benefits for students, and $2 billion in bonus payouts to Old Age Security and guaranteed income supplement recipients, establish a new benchmark for government support. The $105.66 billion total between mid-March and November was almost $10 billion more than all major federal transfers to individuals, including children, for the entirety of fiscal 2018-19.

But the federal subsidies for businesses and other organizations have been even larger. Those supports include $49.27 billion sent to more than 352,000 enterprises to help defray payroll costs under the Canada emergency wage subsidy (CEWS). Another $31.55 billion of interest-free loans extended to almost 790,000 businesses under the Canada emergency business account. As well as $6.1 billion spent on personal protective equipment procurement under the Safe Restart Agreement, and $5.8 billion in support for banks and other lenders under the Insured Mortgage Purchase Program.

The scale of the federal government intervention is unmatched in Canadian history. At one point this past summer, Ottawa was providing money to 11,721,827 people via CERB and CEWS — meaning that almost 40 per cent of all Canadian adults were receiving government assistance.

And since the pandemic began, the Receiver General of Canada has issued 10,358,070 cheques and 78,390,950 direct deposit payments, according to the latest government figures. 

But in most cases, the federal government refuses to provide details that may serve to identify who has received these funds — even when it’s a business. For example, while the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation has recently responded to an access to information request by providing CBC News with more than 330,000 applications made under its $2-billion Canada emergency commercial rent assistance (CECRA) program, the names of all landlords and tenants were redacted. And CMHC refuses to release them, citing privacy laws. 

That stands in stark contrast to other Western countries that provide context and details about their pandemic spending. Like the U.S. government, for example, which has almost full disclosure on funding for businesses via a searchable website that details the names of companies, their location and the amounts received. 

In some cases, the information has pointed to potential conflicts of interest. For example, data from the Small Business Administration, released to a consortium of U.S. media this past week, revealed that 25 Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loans totalling more than $3.65 million US were given to businesses that rent space in properties belonging to the family of U.S. President Donald Trump or his son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Tracking down the business bailouts 

CBC News has also uncovered new details about the extent of government support for some publicly traded companies. Using data shared with regulators in Canada and the United States, CBC News searched reports filed by more than 2,000 corporations, identifying 409 that have disclosed they received funds from at least one of Ottawa’s emergency programs. (Many listed corporations have yet to file the financial reports that might show such government funding. And privately held firms have no obligation to disclose if they have received help from the government.)

The largest CEWS beneficiary appears to have been Air Canada, which has reported $492 million in wage subsidies. Imperial Oil is second on the list at $120 million, and autoparts-maker Linamar was third at $108.06 million. 

The top 20 recipients identified by CBC News received a total of $1.693 billion in government assistance. And of the 213 CEWS recipients identified, 32 received more than $20 million each.

According to the government’s official figures, a total of 380 companies received more than $5 million each in CEWS assistance, while close to 3,500 businesses have received between $1 million and $5 million.

Part of a cheque for the $2,000 Canada emergency response benefit (CERB), a taxable, monthly federal payment that was made to eligible workers who had lost their income due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At almost $82 billion, it was Ottawa’s costliest measure to try to minimize the impact of COVID-19. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

Ottawa’s PPE-related expenditures, largely made on behalf of the provinces and territories, have also been extensive. Of the $6.1 billion spent, as detailed in Public Services and Procurement Canada contract disclosures, $1.79 billion was for gowns, $1.15 billion for ventilators, $655 million for N95 masks, $381 million for rubber gloves and $376 million for hand sanitizer. At least 35 of the contracted companies appear to be based outside of Canada, and have signed agreements worth a total of $607.7 million.

But again, the details are often lacking. In October, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner filed a motion calling on the federal government to release “all memoranda, emails, documents, notes and other records” detailing the purchase of testing-related equipment and supplies, personal protective gear, as well as vaccine contracts and distribution strategies. The Liberal government objected. 

“If we go ahead and release information, that will undermine our supplier relationships,” Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand told CBC News Network’s Power & Politics, explaining that disclosing sensitive business information could threaten the government’s ability to negotiate future contracts.

Securing a reliable supply of personal protective equipment has been a significant expense for the federal government during the pandemic. (Massimo Pinca/Reuters)

James Cohen, the executive director of Transparency International Canada, an anti-corruption organization, says taxpayers deserve full, public disclosure about the corporations that are receiving, or even seeking, government funds during the pandemic.

“All companies who are applying for contracts and wage subsidies should have to declare who their ultimate, beneficial owners are,” said Cohen. “Transparent disclosures so that the government sustains the trust of Canadians in the rollout of these needed funds.”

Last spring, Transparency International Canada joined with other transparency and anti-corruption organizations and called on Ottawa to improve its oversight of pandemic spending by providing more information to the public and enhancing its scrutiny of contracts and businesses.

But in the ensuing months, little has changed. Even after the government prorogued in August and September to rethink and refocus its coronavirus fight.

“Everyone is stretched thin, and we’ve heard all the stories of public servants spending long hours. I’m not going to criticize anyone,” said Cohen. “But I do think we should be seeing evolved thinking on these kinds of issues by now.”

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland speaks to news media in Ottawa before unveiling her fall economic statement on Nov. 30. The document outlined the government’s plans to spend $322 billion on the COVID-19 pandemic during the current fiscal year. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

Freeland’s office says the government’s top priority is supporting Canadians and businesses, and that Ottawa has been showing its numbers to the public.

“This week’s fall economic statement provides detailed and transparent accounting of government expenditures — as well as a growth plan to ensure a robust and resilient recovery once the virus is defeated,” Freeland’s press secretary wrote in a statement provided to CBC News. “The government also provides breakdowns of COVID-19 support measures and regularly updates this information, including on the wage subsidy, CEBA, CERB, and recovery benefit.”

However, the information that is being shared isn’t always easy to decipher — or even find. 

For example, in seeking details about the government’s announced “one-time tax-free payment for seniors” via the Old Age Security pension and the guaranteed income supplement, CBC News had to follow a maze of Parliamentary Budget Office websites, spreadsheets and legislative costing notices that provided three different totals for the program, ranging from $2 billion to $2.5 billion. 

In the end, CBC News decided that a June costing notice, which allotted $2.478 billion for the program, provided the most accurate breakdown of the actual payments made.

Even Kevin Page, who served as parliamentary budget officer for five years, says he can hardly make sense of the recent 223-page fall economic update, saying an evening spent parsing its charts, graphs and verbiage left him feeling like he had a hangover. 

“It’s impossible to read. I have done this for years and I can’t even follow the money,” he said.

Kevin Page waits to testify before the Commons finance committee in April 2012, when he was Canada’s parliamentary budget officer. Page, who now heads the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa, says he can’t make sense of the federal government’s COVID-19 spending disclosures. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Page wonders if someone in government is actually trying to obscure the data, or whether it’s just a byproduct of the pressures surrounding the COVID-19 fight. But either way, he fears the lack of information is corrosive.

“I hope it’s not deliberate,” he said. “When we go out and tell people we can’t follow the money, the trust is broken.”

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *