By Sarah Smellie
Typos and small mistakes led to thousands of people on Prince Edward Island failing the Canadian Red Cross’s authentication process to obtain money in the aftermath of post-tropical storm Fiona.
Emails obtained through access to information legislation show about 30 per cent of Islanders who applied for money were initially rejected, leading to long lineups and short tempers as people had to verify their identity in person.
In an email to provincial government officials sent Oct. 14, 2022, Bill Lawlor, a director with the Red Cross, said the problem was the sheer volume of Islanders who had been affected by Fiona and were looking for financial aid. Over 55,000 households had already registered for help since the storm hit in late September, he wrote.
“We are now faced with 16,500 households on P.E.I. who have not passed and are located literally everywhere across the island,” Lawlor wrote. “This is not being shared to offer excuses for current frustration levels …. As committed, we will continue to work towards solutions which will provide assistance to those not yet authenticated.”
Fiona slammed into Atlantic Canada early on Sept. 24, 2022, and knocked out power for much of Prince Edward Island, leaving some in the dark for weeks. Food thawed and spoiled in fridges and freezers, and some businesses temporarily closed, leaving workers without income.
The province announced on Sept. 30 that it would distribute $250 to affected households through the Red Cross, a non-profit agency that provides disaster relief. In the following weeks, some residents reported spending hours in lineups to verify their identity before they could be paid, sometimes only to be turned away and told to return the next day.
Emails show that part of the problem was that the smallest of mistakes in completing the Red Cross’s online form could result in rejection.
After days of back and forth, including an offer to have members of the legislature vouch for their constituents, the Red Cross agreed on Oct. 16, 2022, that the province could pitch in with the validation efforts. Soon afterwards, an official with the Housing Department said she had confirmed the identity of nine unsuccessful applicants in a sample of 10.
“One client put 1949 as their date of birth rather than 1947, but everything else matched perfectly,” she wrote in an email. “Another wrong date of birth entered 1935 instead of 1934.”
“I understand that there are very minor errors (i.e. a mis-key or a typo) that is off in a number of the applications,” another department official responded. “Can the Red Cross allow us to utilize the judgment in these situations to authenticate where it would seem as though an error was made in the application when all other pieces match.”
Patrick Davis, an official with the province’s Department of Social Development and Housing, wrote to Lawlor on Oct. 17, 2022, in response to a message in which Lawlor indicated that some information provided by residents must match exactly with the Red Cross’s records. The exact nature of the information is redacted.
“Exact match on your record means to me letter for letter, and that may not be practical,” Davis said. “It is also likely a source of your 30 per cent fail rate.”
In an email Wednesday, the agency objected to the classification of these authentication attempts as failures. “They were identified as individuals who either required additional assistance to validate their registration to ensure they received support, or were potentially fraudulent registrations that the system successfully detected,” the email said.
The initial rejections may have occurred for a variety of reasons, “including legal names not used when registering, providing an incorrect address, or registering multiple times.”
Lawlor said in his emails with P.E.I. officials that the 30 per cent rejection rate was on par with the agency’s other financial distribution efforts in the country. Eric Kennedy, an associate professor of disaster and emergency management at York University, said that’s a problem.
“It’s certainly a much, much larger number than we would like to see,” Kennedy said in an interview Wednesday.
But there’s no simple solution, he added, noting that the Red Cross has to find a balance between properly identifying people and ensuring they are being responsible with government money while also ensuring that people have quick access to funds they need in an emergency.
“We are always going to have major challenges when it comes to things like data management,” Kennedy said.
The Red Cross said Wednesday that it is taking steps to improve the authentication process, “while also balancing the need for security, privacy integrity, and fraud mitigation.”
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