Blurb: Lower income Canadians often can't afford to pay a professional to complete their tax returns. Fortunately there are alternatives.

Volunteer programs: free tax help for lower income Canadians

By Peter Diekmeyer o

For lower income Canadians, filling out a tax return can seem like a waste of time. Many don't have significant amounts of income to report. Those that do, often fall below the basic personal income threshold, so they don't owe any tax.

For lower income Canadians, --many of whom are poorly educated or recent immigrants who don't understand English well,--doing their own return can seem like an insurmountable burden. Yet hiring a professional is often prohibitively expensive. As a result there's a strong temptation to just throw the forms in the garbage.

But according to one expert, filing your return, -- even if you won't owe taxes,-- is more than worth the trouble. And if you can't afford to pay someone to do it for you, you may be eligible to have your returns completed for free.

"Eligibility for several federal aid programs is based on information collected from an individual's tax returns," said Sam Papodopolous, a spokesman, with the Canada Revenue Agency's Southern Ontario branch. "Those who don't file their income tax returns, could lose their benefits."

Among the many federal revenue assistance programs that draw information from individuals' tax returns, are the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), the Canada Child Tax Benefit and the Goods and Service Tax rebates.

The Volunteer Tax Program
To make it easier for lower income Canadians to file their returns, 34 years ago the Canada Revenue Agency set up the Volunteer Tax Program. The program enables eligible lower income Canadians to have their returns completed for free, by specially trained volunteers.

The program is run in cities across Canada in conjunction with a wide range of community based organizations. For example partners in the greater Toronto area range from the Afghan Women's Organization to the Working Women's Community Center.

For a partial list of volunteer tax programs listed by province click here.

The Volunteer Tax Program quickly became a huge success. Last year 16,000 volunteers completed tax returns for more than 500,000 Canadians.

"It's very useful and it was a big help to many of our members," said Rita Wong, a director at the Lighthouse Community Center, on Bathurst St. in downtown Toronto, which ran a volunteer program on Monday nights throughout March and most of April. About a dozen volunteers produced returns for about 350 of the organization's clients, during its 2004-2005 campaign.

According to Wong, clients for tax return preparation services offered at the Christian-based organization came from all walks of life, ranging from students, to seniors and the unemployed.

Eligibility requirements
To be eligible to have your returns completed under the Volunteer Tax Program, you must have income of less than $20,000 a year for an individual or $30,000 for a family. However according to Papodopolous, there are certain additional stipulations. For example if you have rental income or are self-employed, you'll be ruled out.

"In specialized cases, in which individuals need to attach a statement of profit and loss or a balance sheet, we refer them elsewhere," said Papodopolous. "In those cases they'll probably have to consult an accountant." The returns of deceased or bankrupt individuals, or those with capital gains, losses or employment expenses are also ineligible for the program.

How to volunteer
Part of the reason for this is that most, but not all, of the volunteers in the program are ordinary citizens, who just want to give back a bit to the community. As a result most are unable to do much more than complete simple returns.

"We do get some accounting students, full-time and retired accountants. And many Canada Revenue Agency employees also participate," Papodopolous said. "But the vast majority are people like you and me."

Volunteers are given a basic six-hour course in how to complete a tax return. Second year participants get a three hour refresher course each year that details major changes. According to Papodopolous volunteers are always in demand.

"They are the backbone of the program. Without them we can't operate," he said with a laugh. "So if anyone wants to help out, they should call us."

The bottom line is that lower income Canadians face two big obstacles if they want to file their own income tax returns: their complexity and the fact that hiring a professional can cost too much. The Volunteer Tax Program is a perfect solution, because it can help them overcome both.


For more information about Canada Revenue Agency's Volunteer Tax Program call 1-800-959-8281 or click here.

To volunteer your time to help complete the tax returns of lower income individuals in your community click here.


Peter Diekmeyer ( is a Montreal based business writer.



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