Natalie Zhang fled domestic abuse and stayed in a shelter with her two children for three years while trying to build a new life in Canada.
Studying and working at the same time, the single mother, already entangled in costly legal fights for her asylum and with her estranged husband, then got a letter from the federal government demanding repayment of the Canada Child Benefit that it said they didn’t deserve.
Children of refugee claimants are not entitled to the federal benefits designed to lift all children in Canada out of poverty, it said, adding she needed to return the $18,000 payment she had received in error.
“I already had personal loans from family and friends for legal fees and daily necessities. The letter from the Canada Revenue Agency was a punch in my face,” says Zhang, who says she had no one to turn to for money to pay the government back.
“I tried to keep my little children from knowing all the legal issues and financial struggles in our life,” she added. “I was crawling through a dark tunnel with my children on my back. The journey seemed endless.”
On Tuesday, Zhang joined a news conference in Toronto to announce a lawsuit against the federal government alleging discrimination against low-income children and families with precarious immigration status as a result of denying them access to the Canada Child Benefit.
Three women, including Zhang, are claiming the eligibility section of the Income Tax Act violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms on the basis of race, gender and immigration status by excluding them and their children from the benefits.
“Excluded from accessing CCB are refugee claimants and other individuals who are living in Canada with precarious immigrant status, even though many of these individuals are working legally in Canada and filing personal income tax return,” said Avvy Go, director of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, which represents the women.
“In some cases, these families have Canadian-born children, but are still denied CCB because of the parents’ immigration status.”
The irony is that the Income Tax Act does allow Ottawa to hand out the benefits to a visitor or a tourist with a temporary visa whether or not they are working in Canada or paying any Canadian income tax, said Go, so long as they have stayed in the country for 18 months.
Advocate Leila Sarangi said 1.3 million or 18.2 per cent of children live in poverty in Canada, which disproportionately affects racial minorities, women and immigrants due to systemic barriers faced by these groups.
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Poverty rates for immigrant children hover around 35 per cent and 32.2 per cent of low-income households are led by women, said Sarangi, national co-ordinator of Campaign 2000, a coalition made up of 120 organizations that monitors Ottawa’s poverty-reduction efforts.
“Now it’s the time for the federal government to honour its human rights obligations, its own legislation and stop discriminating against women and children with precarious immigration status by providing them immediate access to the CCB benefits,” she said.
The lawsuit asks the Tax Court of Canada to declare the immigration status requirement for the CCB unconstitutional, claiming that it undermines the growth and development of refugee children as well as their full integration into Canadian society.
“It results in harm to the children’s health and well-being, both physical and psychological. The provision further stigmatizes children of parents with precarious immigration status as not deserving of equal benefits and treatments afforded to other children in Canada,” it said.
“This denial is arbitrary because it is inconsistent with the legislative objectives of the CCB regime and the blanket prohibition does not consider such factors as the applicant’s and her child’s ties with Canada, their financial need, and the best interests of the child.”
In a brief reply to the appellants, government lawyers asked the court to dismiss the cases, arguing that it does not have the authority to make a declaration under the Income Tax Act.
“The ITA does not engage the appellants’ rights to life or security of the person,” said the government’s written response. “In any event, the definition (of eligible individuals) is not discriminatory, as it does not impose a burden or deny a benefit in a manner that reinforces, perpetuates or exacerbates disadvantage.”
Zhang, who has been granted asylum in Canada after a three-year wait for a hearing, said she still believes the child benefit program is designed for good reasons to ensure disadvantaged children like her son and daughter, now 10 and eight years old, are not left behind.
“My story is not an unusual one. Because of my personal experience, I have dedicated my study to the field of social justice,” said Zhang, who is a first-year law school student. “I believe one day it will be my turn to serve and empower others who will need a compassionate advocate on their side in time of need.”
A three-week trial is scheduled to begin in April.
Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung
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