What is (and isn’t) social assistance for the purposes of family class sponsorship


Authored by Maxwell Musgrove, Lawyer at Chaudhary Law Office

Canadian immigration penalizes individuals who rely on social assistance by prohibiting them from sponsoring family members and making them inadmissible to immigrate themselves. The Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations (IRPR) defines social assistance. However, its definition may not be satisfying or conclusive for those trying to figure out whether a government benefit they are receiving will prohibit them from sponsoring their spouse or other family member.

A clearer interpretation does exist and is applied by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). This article seeks to demonstrate how that interpretation fits in the IRPR’s definition of social assistance and improve transparency around this subject so individuals can make more informed decisions.

The natural starting point is to analyze how social assistance is defined in the IRPR, which is the definition used in most immigration law contexts. Everything that follows are interpretations from this definition. The IRPR defines social assistance as:

“any benefit in the form of money, goods or services provided to or on behalf of a person by a province under a program of social assistance, including a program of social assistance designated by a province to provide for basic requirements including food, shelter, clothing, fuel, utilities, household supplies, personal requirements and health care not provided by public health care, including dental care and eye care.”

This definition is quite broad but contains some limiting language. For example, social assistance is provided “by a province” meaning that programs provided by the federal government will not count as social assistance. This became very relevant at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, as it meant that Canada Emergency Response Benefits (CERB) were not considered social assistance.

Additionally, the words “health care not provided by public health care” imply that public health care is generally not social assistance, even though it is provided by provinces. This shows that some benefits provided by provinces will not be considered social assistance.  This is likely an inevitable part of the definition, as provinces provide all sorts of services, like health care and education, which would not ordinarily be thought of as social assistance. However, this raises a question about how these services are distinguished from social assistance.

Some IRCC Program Delivery Instructions (PDIs) build on this with the department’s interpretations. For example, in the PDI Applications under family classes: Assessing the sponsor, IRCC provides examples of what it considers social assistance, ending the list with “other benefits that would be widely available to residents of a [province/territory], including persons who are employed.”

This PDI interpretation is supported by another part of the definition, “to provide for basic requirements including…” The list of examples that follow is instructive as to what social assistance for immigration purposes looks like. However, what is and is not a “basic requirement” remains vague and unclear.

These ambiguities are, seemingly, resolved by the following portion of the definition, “under a program of social assistance.”  A “program of social assistance” is perhaps a term that should also be defined. However, IRCC appears to have its own definition, which appears in the previously mentioned PDI: “Any amount appearing on line 14500 [of a Notice of Assessment] is considered social assistance.”

PDIs are not binding authority. However, they contain IRCC’s own interpretation of Canadian immigration laws, and as such, they are highly informative when inquiring about how the department will interpret a provision and are often useful to Courts interpreting the same provisions.

The interpretation provided by IRCC is consistent with the definition found in the IRPR, and, perhaps more importantly, is useful. Amounts that appear in line 14500 of a Notice of Assessment are amounts that a province has paid out under a program that the province itself considers social assistance. Because it appears in a Notice of Assessment, it is easy for IRCC to identify. As for applicants, because of the way line 14500 is calculated, they can know whether they have received social assistance based on whether or not they have received a benefit from a provincial program for which they were issued a T5007 tax form.

If an applicant is unsure about whether a program they are considering receiving benefits from would affect their and/or their family’s immigration they may ask if the program will result in them being issued a T5. They may also benefit from consulting with an immigration lawyer to confirm their eligibility to sponsor.

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