At first, Teresa Shum and her husband, Mark, thought the situation was funny. The Markham couple received a notice in February from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) that one of Mark’s tax credits was declined due to his marital status being changed to widower.
“We were really taken by surprise,” Shum said. “I was like ‘I’m not dead, I’m right here.’ “
The humour quickly dissipated when they realized the situation couldn’t be fixed immediately and Shum, who is retired, would be missing out on certain benefits. She says they filed an appeal with the CRA right away, and her status was corrected there within about a month after three phone interviews to prove she was, in fact, alive.
However, the CRA sent her a letter directing her to contact Service Canada, where they said the incorrect update that she had died in October 2021 had originated.
So in April, Shum set out to have the Service Canada mistake corrected. It would take her another five months of calls and visits to have the record officially changed.
Service Canada told CBC News in an emailed statement earlier this month that it had removed the date of death on Shum’s account as of Aug. 31. It said this incident is not a regular occurrence.
But the Canadian Taxpayers Federation is calling for better service from agencies like Service Canada, saying taxpayers like Shum have often complained of long wait times on the phone and in person. Meanwhile Shum is demanding answers about how this happened in the first place.
Long waits, passed from agent to agent
“How can anyone just change your data and tell you that you’re dead without a death certificate?” Shum wondered when she started reaching out to Service Canada.
“Of course when you call [Service Canada], every call is a three hour wait,” she said. “No one knew what was going on so I decided to go into Service Canada.”
Shum says when she visited a Service Canada office in Markham in April, she waited in line for hours before she was interviewed by an agent who told her to submit several forms to different departments of Service Canada including the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and Social Insurance Number (SIN).
“Then I was told it would take six to eight weeks to have the record fixed.”
But at the end of the eight weeks, the agent called Shum to inform her they had missed a form and she had to come back to Service Canada and go through the process all over again. This time, she recalled, the agent said there would be an “urgent” tag on her case so that she wouldn’t have to wait another six to eight weeks.
Every agent said the same thing, ‘Someone is taking care of it.’– Teresa Shum, on her experience with Service Canada
When she was still unable to access her Service Canada account in July and hadn’t heard back from anybody, Shum tried calling again. She said she spoke to multiple agents throughout the month.
“Every agent said the same thing, ‘Someone is taking care of it,’ ” she said, noting that some of the agents said they had no idea what was going on with her case because they weren’t involved in previous conversations with agents.
Shum said during one of those calls, an agent told her Immigration Canada was taking care of her situation.
“I said ‘I’m a Canadian citizen.’ … She didn’t even check my account before she answered me.”
During this period of time, Shum, who is retired, was not able to apply for her CPP or Old Age Security Benefits.
She also reached out to her Member of Parliament for Markham—Stouffville, Helena Jaczek, who Shum said also tried to help her speed up the process.
Calls for better service: Canadian Taxpayers Federation
Jay Goldberg, Ontario Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation says they’ve seen many instances of poor service from the CRA and Service Canada including long wait times and difficulty getting answers from agents.
“These organizations need to remember we’re the taxpayers, we’re the ones in charge. They’re serving us, not the other way around,” Goldberg said.
He describes the mistake with Shum’s file as a “huge error” and says Service Canada should have been working around the clock to fix it.
“To hear this example where we have this poor woman who’s been declared dead who’s not, waiting hours and hours to try to get some attention from Service Canada, it’s unacceptable.”
David Rotfleisch, a Toronto tax lawyer, did not work on Shum’s case specifically, but he said there should be one person designated within the system to help deal with incidents like this.
“The simple solution is to have someone dealing with this one particular issue, somebody co-ordinating at the federal level.”
Service Canada responds
In a statement to CBC News, Service Canada said in December 2021, a date of death was added to Shum’s file indicating her as deceased as of Oct. 15, 2021. Service Canada said after Shum’s visit in April, it took steps to remove the date of death from the system but the process was not completed correctly.
“On August 31, 2022, Service Canada completed the process correctly and removed the date of death on her account,” the statement said, adding Shum can now access her account to apply for her CPP retirement benefits.
Service Canada also stated that this instance was unusual, and it’s still investigating how the error occurred and why the change wasn’t processed correctly back in April.
The CRA said the cause of the error can vary.
“It could be human error, a miscommunication from another government department, or, most often, a mistake made when a return is filed on behalf of a deceased person with an incorrect SIN number,” the tax agency said in a statement.
For its part, the CRA said it had already implemented a number of safeguards in the system prior to Shum’s case, to lower the likelihood of this error from occurring. Those include revising forms and procedures to make it less likely that a taxpayer can make an error in their tax filing, and collaborating with other government departments to validate records.
“While the issue still occurs, the prevalence is notably reducing,” the statement read.
Shum says she deserves to know why and how this happened. She feels like her security was breached, because her data was changed without her knowing about it.
“The information was sent to every single department, fast. But when I want to correct it, it takes me almost a year to do it,” she said.
“The inconvenience, the frustration, the time and the effort, it’s not good.”