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Sneaky snowbirds could get clipped

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OTTAWA—Snowbirds beware: the federal government will use its planned border exit-tracking system to avoid paying hundreds of millions of dollars in social benefits now going to those who shouldn’t receive them due to absences from Canada.

Newly-obtained memos say the Canada Revenue Agency and Employment and Social Development Canada expect to save between $194 million and $319 million over five years once the long-anticipated system is fully in place.

Federal officials have been working quietly to satisfy privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien’s office that personal information will be properly collected, used, and disclosed under the program.

Under the 2011 perimeter security pact, Canada and the United States agreed to set up co-ordinated systems to track entry and exit information from travellers.

For the moment, the tracking system involves exchanging entry information collected from people at the land border—so that data on entry to one country serves as a record of exit from the other.

The first two phases of the program have been limited to foreign nationals and permanent residents of Canada and the U.S., but not citizens of either country.

The initiative was to be expanded by June 30 of last year to include information-sharing on all travellers crossing the land border.

In addition, Canada planned to begin collecting information on people leaving by plane—something the U.S. already does—by requiring airlines to submit passenger manifest data for outbound international flights.

Federal officials have said work continues on the final phases, though no revised dates have been disclosed.

The U.S. has legislative authority to proceed but Canada would need to pass a bill.

A memo last summer, recently released under the Access to Information Act, says savings can be expected through “preventing abuse and eligibility fraud” with respect to the employment insurance, old age security, and child tax benefit programs by ensuring Canadian residency requirements are fulfilled.

It estimates savings over five years of:

  • $48 million by Employment and Social Development Canada for the old age security program;
  • $21 million by Employment and Social Development Canada for the employment insurance program; and
  • $125 million-$250 million by the Canada Revenue Agency for the child tax benefit program.

For instance, if a Canadian citizen or permanent resident was out of Canada for more than 183 days, entry-exit information would be shared with the revenue agency to administer the child tax benefit, says an explanatory memo.

However, this information alone would “never form the basis” for action against someone, as it is merely intended as a tipsheet.

Verification would be needed before a federal agency could crack down on the traveller.

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