After 40 years as a registered nurse, Yvonne Gardner never thought she’d have to beg to get her federal pension benefits.
For 14 months, the Toronto retiree has been struggling to prove to Service Canada that she’s eligible for the $500 monthly Old Age Security (OAS) pension.
In the latest twist, she was asked for copies of plane tickets for all of her travels in and out of Canada since moving here from England in 1975 — a mission impossible — as proof she has lived here the minimum 10 years required to qualify.
Deprived of the pension she was counting on, Gardner, a native of Suffolk, England, is 10 months behind in rent on her one-bedroom downtown apartment and faces eviction.
She’s not alone in these struggles.
As a flood of postwar immigrants to Canada enter their golden years, seniors born outside Canada are encountering additional scrutiny about their OAS eligibility, even though they have paid taxes and invested in the Canadian pension system throughout their working lives here.
Some feel that the government, which has already moved to gradually increase the age of OAS eligibility from 65 to 67, is now seeking immediate savings by trying to deny current applicants their rightful benefits.
According to Service Canada, as of June, five million Canadians were receiving OAS payments, at a cost of more than $28 billion a year, according to figures from 2010-2011.
Some 385,000 people will apply for OAS in 2012 and about 3 per cent of them will be rejected, mostly because they either filed too early or failed to qualify under the 10-year residence requirement.
Service Canada spokesperson Amelie Maisonneuve said OAS applicants must submit proof of eligibility because the amount they receive as a benefit depends on how long they’ve lived in Canada. Rejected applicants can appeal to a review tribunal but only a “very small percentage” do, she said.
“An applicant may be asked to provide documents to substantiate the departures from and entries into Canada in order to validate residence in Canada,” Maisonneuve said in an email. “Old Age Security is completely funded by taxpayers’ dollars and it is important that we ensure the integrity of the program, providing benefits only to those who are eligible.”
Gardner, 66, appreciates that safeguards are needed to prevent abuse of the system, but she said the government’s insistence on old plane tickets is ridiculous. Other documents such as tax returns should suffice.
“It just doesn’t make any sense. All they have to do is to check and see when I paid my taxes,” said Gardner, who has delivered more than 300 babies and cared for countless patients in hospital emergency and intensive care.
“I’ve looked after millions of people in my life and paid all the taxes. I need some help now. They can’t use these rules and regulations to beat me over the head.”
John Crisp, of Fenelon Falls, northwest of Peterborough, feels immigrants are being unfairly penalized. His wife, Georgette, who arrived from Holland in 1960, has been denied OAS for failing to provide a copy of her landing papers.
Georgette, who worked all her adult life in secretarial jobs, has Alzheimer’s disease and lives in a nursing home because her husband is unable to look after her. The monthly $1,600 cost of her care — reduced to $1,000 after repeated pleas — is a huge burden on Crisp, 67.
In January, Crisp applied to Citizenship and Immigration Canada for a replacement of his wife’s landing document, but he’s still waiting.
“The government is trying to scrounge any penny it can and beat down on old people by not paying them, hoping they will just go away,” Crisp said.
“Come on. You are picking on people who’ve come to this country and worked their ass off. They deserve better.”
Toronto MP Matthew Kellway (Beaches-East York) said his office regularly gets inquiries from constituents on OAS applications.
“Most certainly naturalized Canadians have a greater burden on them because of the obligation to provide landing documents. This is particularly complicated after the passage of time and when the person arrived in Canada as a child on their mom’s or dad’s passport,” Kellway said.
“Requiring somebody who’s been a citizen for 40 years to confirm residency for that period, to find landing papers or plane tickets is incredibly silly … The government should assume this burden, given that it already possesses, or ought to possess, the records they seek from the applicant.”
Both Crisp and Gardner said all they are asking for is a “sensible” approach to eligibility assessment.
Gardner, who got her Canadian citizenship and passport in 1978, said her nightmare began when she turned 65 in May 2011 and mailed in her OAS application.
After three months, when the benefits had not come through, she called Service Canada. It claimed her application was never received. She then hand-delivered a new application but was told in November that it wasn’t filled out properly and some information was missing.
In January, she called again to follow up. This time she was asked to show her landing paper, which she obtained with the help of a social worker.
In March, after receiving her first eviction notice, Gardner contacted Service Canada again and an officer there told her she needed to provide copies of her old plane tickets to support her declaration on the times she travelled outside Canada.
Gardner said she only lived outside Canada between 1979 and 1981 doing some medical work through her church in the U.K. and Caribbean, and then on and off from 1996 to 2001 to look after her ailing mother in England. “I couldn’t produce the plane tickets, and my file was closed,” said Gardner, who now relies on Meals on Wheels for food.
Currently, she lives on $486 from the Canadian Pension Plan and $431 government assistance a month. Her rent is about $1,000.
Gardner said she has had to abandon her sponsorship, through international aid groups, of five needy children in Burundi, Bangladesh and Cambodia. But she still gives $10 — down from $30 — a month to the Hospital for Sick Children.
Gardner said a staff member at Service Canada had initially quietly advised her to omit revealing in her application the travels she made through the years, warning that it would complicate her application.
“I refused,” said Gardner, a Seventh-day Adventist. “I can’t lie. I am a Christian.”