Vaibhav Saija emigrated from India just five months ago, but already he's had a quintessentially Canadian experience -- tax-return dread.
Fear of the forms propelled Saija and his wife, Mamta, into the basement of a downtown government building last week, where a team of volunteer tax experts, armed with calculators and computers, have for years helped low-income people fill out their tax returns.
"The tax thing is a sensitive thing, and I didn't want to make any mistakes," said Saija, who is working at 7-Eleven while looking for a job in his field of diagnostic instrument sales and marketing. "I wanted to take the help of these volunteers and have someone senior help me."
Saija is one of about 30,000 people helped annually by the free tax-preparation program run by the non-profit Community Financial Counselling Service and the Canada Revenue Agency. The program has volunteers all over the city and province, but its hub is the basement auditorium of the Norquay Building on York Avenue, which looks like a crowded cross between an H&R Block office and an ER waiting room.
Clients include new immigrants who struggle with English, students and people who find it difficult to file online or access the old-school paper forms and people. Clients also include people who are simply baffled by a tax code that only gets bigger and more complicated every year as governments continue to create micro-targeted tax credits like this year's new "super-credit" for first-time charitable donors.
"I just don't have the patience," said Monique McLean as she gathered up her documents, shook hands warmly with the volunteer across the table and headed out with a $33 refund.
That's close to what McLean normally gets, but the average CFCS refund is much higher, roughly $800. In a typical year, the CFCS's volunteer tax program does 30,000 returns in Manitoba and secures roughly $22 million in refunds. That's money that goes back into the pockets of the poor instead of padding federal government coffers.
Dean Storozuk, who got his taxes done for the second year by a CFCS volunteer, got a whopping $1,000 refund. What does he plan to do with the windfall?
"Party," he said with a grin. "Before I start back to work at the stadium."
Last year, Storozuk got a heftier refund after his visit to the volunteer tax program, but his seasonal work was cut short this year by an injury. His refund tides him over until football season starts.
Red River College student Jie Cao heard about the CFCS's free service from friends and happily abandoned his attempt to file his taxes online.
"I tried," said Cao, who is studying in Winnipeg from China. "I found it really hard, really confusing."
Cao got $600 back. Since he's a business administration student, he plans to save it.
Roughly 500 people volunteer to prepare the tax returns and their ranks include many retired accountants as well as a retired aeronautic engineer and some who time their holidays so they can do other people's taxes.
First-time volunteer Henry Shukeir, a management consultant, said most of the 61 tax returns he'd done so far were fairly simple because most low-income people have few investments or RRSPs. Some clients come in well-prepared, with all their receipts itemized and the deductions partly tallied. Others just arrive with old bus passes and child care receipts and other bits of paper.
It's impossible to tell how many other low-income people simply fail to file their tax returns and never get their refunds. CFCS executive director John Silver said the agency usually does another 300 tax returns over the spring and summer as people trickle in to file late, especially once they realize their monthly child-tax benefit is contingent upon getting their tax forms in.
Roughly half the clients have jobs and the other half might live on some form of government support such as social assistance or old age pension.
The low-income tax program has been around, in some permutation, for 40 years. It blossomed when some inner-city activists, including a young Premier Greg Selinger, realized poor people were losing 60 per cent of their refunds to unscrupulous tax-preparation outfits along Main Street.
At tax time, the lineup of people waiting to sit down with an expert can snake around the elevators in the basement of the Norquay Building. Saija arrived just after dawn and by mid-morning tax expert Rais Dar had combed through Saija's tidy green binder of receipts, done the math and concluded the couple was due a $500 refund. The family plans to spend the money on their son and on setting up their new home in Winnipeg.
"A couch," smiled Saija.