Paperless tax filing leaves seniors in the lurch: Goar

The paperless revolution is accelerating, leaving Canadians without Internet access at ever-greater risk of missing important announcements, failing to meet deadlines and incurring financial penalties.

Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) is the latest to join the rush. Determined to promote electronic tax filing, it has decided to stop mailing income tax returns to most of the population.

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There was no formal announcement. Instead, the federal tax collection bureau sent letters to the 10 million Canadians who used paper returns last year, directing them to choose one of three alternatives:

  • Go to the post office and pick up a traditional tax package.
  • Download a tax return and the accompanying schedules from CRA’s website.
  • If neither is possible, phone a toll-free number (1-800-959-2221) and request a mailed-out tax package. (Filing by phone is not an option. The government cancelled Telefile last summer.)

For seniors, it was another painful reminder that they are being left behind. Many are struggling to keep track of their finances (most banks have implemented a $2 monthly fee for a paper statement) and pay their phone bills (Bell Canada is phasing out paper bills). Now the government was hounding them to embrace the Internet.

“It’s clear this was not well thought out, if it was thought about at all,” said Susan Eng, vice-president of advocacy for CARP, which lobbies for adults over 45. “Our members, like most Canadians, take their obligation to file their tax returns very seriously. This last-minute disruption — for some a serious barrier — is no way to manage an important relationship with Canadians whose taxes, after all, pay their salaries.”

A revenue department official defended the measure as part of the government’s waste-reduction drive. Last year, she pointed out, 1.3 million of the paper tax returns sent out were unused. (Eight million were used.) To bolster Ottawa’s case, she added that it costs four times as much to process a paper return as an electronic one.

This may be a compelling argument for federal bean-counters. But for Canadians who don’t have Internet access, don’t have the skills to download CRA’s tax software, or don’t want to transmit sensitive personal data through cyberspace, it amounts to a sharp prod in a direction they don’t want to go.

According to CRA’s website, two-thirds of Canadians have switched to digital filing. But this statistic can be misleading. More than half of online filers don’t complete their own tax returns. They use professional tax preparers for whom electronic filing is mandatory.

According to Revenue Minister Gail Shea, winner of the 2012 “Golden Scissors Award,” taxpayers must keep up with the times. “The way Canadians file their taxes is changing and we are changing to meet those needs.”

CARP recognizes that the digital juggernaut is unstoppable. What its members find objectionable is the way CRA sprang the new policy on them three months before the filing deadline. They’re asking her to implement her changes next year when seniors have time to adjust and organize their affairs. The chances of a “yes” are slim to nil.

What is most troubling about this measure is that is it exacerbates a long-standing problem. For 30 years, revenue ministers have been peddling the myth that filling out a tax return is so easy the average citizen can do it. A cursory glance at this year’s tax guide shows how absurd that proposition is. The language is abstruse, the instructions are convoluted, the tables are confusing.

On paper, a frustrated taxpayer can at least signal his or her lack of comprehension by leaving a line blank or putting in a question mark. CRA’s software precludes both responses.

Before Shea lectures seniors on the need to get with it, she owes them a thorough examination of the barriers they face. Her job is to make the system work, not to blame the clients.

Carol Goar’s column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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