A mistake that travelled around the world and back again: Public Editor

Click here to read ‘A mistake that travelled around the world and back again: Public Editor‘ by Kathy English – The Toronto Star, December 11, 2015

For more than a decade now, an inflammatory chain email has travelled the globe, making claim that refugees to Canada receive more government assistance than do our senior citizens.

That is false. As we open our borders to welcome Syrian refugees to our country, let this be perfectly clear: Refugees to Canada do not get more financial help from the federal government than Canadian pensioners do.

Unfortunately, the myth that they do is rooted in a mistake in a Toronto Star letter to the editor published in 2004. And although the Star’s then-ombudsman, Don Sellar, sought to set the record straight in a column headlined, “Can we dispel this urban myth?” the misinformation has continued to circulate through the Internet.

The growth of social media – particularly Facebook — has given this lie even more power. Wikipedia even has an entry about this “urban legend” stating that it originated in an erroneous Toronto Star letter to the editor. The entry adds “This apology and correction of the mistake had, however, very little impact on the circulation of the newly born urban myth.”

Indeed, this mistake has now come full circle. The Star itself republished this misinformation last week– once again, in a letter to the editor.

The Dec. 2 letter, entitled, “Let’s help ourselves first” stated “Canadian seniors who worked and paid taxes all of their lives are worth only $550 a month, but soon-to-be-voting refugees will get $2,500 a month plus benefits.”

That resulted in an email from another reader who told me the history of the myth that refugees receive more government assistance every month than seniors do and implored, “Please do what you can do to stop this before it starts again.”

Letters to the editor express readers’ opinions and the Star aims to publish letters that represent a range of views on public issues. This letter was selected for publication largely because it was short and made a point that provided an opposing perspective to the Star’s strong editorial view in support of Syrian refugees.

Given the number of letters submitted, it is nearly impossible for the Star’s letters editor to verify every fact in readers’ letters – and thankfully, factual errors in letters are rare because editors do catch many mistakes. Still, given the potential inflammatory nature of the “facts” cited, I don’t think I would have published this letter without further checking

Letters editor Rob Wright thought the numbers cited by letter writer Patricia Starr looked “feasible” and, given that her past published letters have not presented any issues with facts, he trusted she had her facts right this time.

“Mea culpa,” Wright told me. “The lesson for me is to watch out for letters that state specific numbers.”

Fact checking these numbers turned out to be a time-consuming task for me, taking more than two days, certainly more time than a letters editor could devote to verifying any one letter. When I contacted Starr for the source of her “facts” she said she had been forwarded information indicating that refugees receive $2,500 a month some five years. She did not have a current source to verify the numbers she cited.

So what is the correct information? Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the Canadian Council for Refugees and CARP, the advocacy organization that represents Canada’s seniors, all confirm that it is a myth that refugees get more assistance than seniors.

Comparing amounts each might receive is like comparing apples oranges and bananas too, given the various means of government assistance for refugees and seniors, but here are the basic facts. First, privately sponsored refugees are not eligible for government assistance — support is the sponsors’ responsibility.

When they arrive in Canada, government-assisted refugees are eligible for monthly support aligned with provincial social assistance rates – in Ontario, less than $800 monthly. They are also eligible for a one-time — not monthly — payment to help set up their households. That’s estimated to be about $2,500 for a family of four and $950 for an individual. Monthly income support for government-assisted refugees is provided during their first year in Canada only – less time, if they become self-sufficient sooner.

According to CARP, Canadian seniors currently receive $569.95 a month in Old Age Security upon reaching age 65, for life. Lower income pensioners are also eligible for the Guaranteed Income Supplement (an additional maximum $772 a month, reduced depending on other income.) None of this takes into account what is paid by the Canada Pension Plan to those who have contributed through their earnings years.

“We certainly argue that there is a growing number of seniors who need more income supports, and we lobby for that, but we never argue that the support should come from denying much needed support to refugee families,” Susan Eng, CARP’s executive vice-president told me.

Indeed, these facts do not support an argument pitting new Canadian refugees against “old” Canadians? Let’s dispel this urban myth once and for all.