Refugees to Canada do not get more government funds than do our senior citizens. That is an urban myth that originated with a mistake in a 2004 Toronto Star letter to the editor – and repeated in a recent reader letter.

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For more than a decade now, an inflammatory chain email has travelled the globe, making claim that refugees to Canada receive more government assistance than do our senior citizens.

That is false. As we open our borders to welcome Syrian refugees to our country, let this be perfectly clear: Refugees to Canada do not get more financial help from the federal government than Canadian pensioners do.

Unfortunately, the myth that they do is rooted in a mistake in a Toronto Star letter to the editor published in 2004. And although the Star’s then-ombudsman, Don Sellar, sought to set the record straight in a column headlined, “Can we dispel this urban myth?” the misinformation has continued to circulate through the Internet.

The growth of social media – particularly Facebook — has given this lie even more power. Wikipedia even has an entry about this “urban legend” stating that it originated in an erroneous Toronto Star letter to the editor. The entry adds “This apology and correction of the mistake had, however, very little impact on the circulation of the newly born urban myth.”

Indeed, this mistake has now come full circle. The Star itself republished this misinformation last week– once again, in a letter to the editor.

The Dec. 2 letter, entitled, “Let’s help ourselves first” stated “Canadian seniors who worked and paid taxes all of their lives are worth only $550 a month, but soon-to-be-voting refugees will get $2,500 a month plus benefits.”

That resulted in an email from another reader who told me the history of the myth that refugees receive more government assistance every month than seniors do and implored, “Please do what you can do to stop this before it starts again.”

Letters to the editor express readers’ opinions and the Star aims to publish letters that represent a range of views on public issues. This letter was selected for publication largely because it was short and made a point that provided an opposing perspective to the Star’s strong editorial view in support of Syrian refugees.

Given the number of letters submitted, it is nearly impossible for the Star’s letters editor to verify every fact in readers’ letters – and thankfully, factual errors in letters are rare because editors do catch many mistakes. Still, given the potential inflammatory nature of the “facts” cited, I don’t think I would have published this letter without further checking.

Continue reading this story on the Toronto Star website, where it was first published.

H.G. Watson was J-Source's managing editor from 2015 to 2018. She is a journalist based in Toronto. You can learn more about her at hgwatson.com.