CA$9 billion pandemic support package for students unveiled

The Canadian government is relaxing the rules governing how many hours and where international students can work, as part of a CA$9 billion (US$6.4 billion) package of measures to help post-secondary students during the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Previously, international students were limited to working 20 hours per week (usually on campus). Now, provided that they work in “an essential service such as healthcare, critical infrastructure or the supply of food or other critical areas”, they can work a full 40-hour week, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said.

The government hopes that the lion’s share of the 11,000 international students enrolled in healthcare programmes in Canada’s universities and colleges (4% of the total) will be able to bolster the beleaguered healthcare workers in hospitals and long-term care facilities. As of 11 May, more than half of Canada’s almost 5,000 COVID-related deaths have occurred in understaffed long-term care facilities, mainly in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.

Announcing the raft of new programmes to help post-secondary students, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said: “For a lot of students, the month of May normally marks the start of a summer job. But right now, it might seem really tough to find something. You may have been looking for weeks without any success.” He told Canadian students: “We are here for you.”

These changes and the CA$9 billion for programmes such as doubling of student grants for the next academic year to CA$6,000, adding almost CA$2 billion to the Canada Student Loans Program, setting aside an additional CA$75 million for Indigenous post-secondary students and the creation of the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) are only the latest in a series of announcements of programmes, loans and aid packages to businesses and individuals that to date totals more than CA$145 billion. (The centrepiece of the government’s plan to keep workers in the general economy linked to their employers is a 75% wage subsidy on the first CA$58,700 of wages that translates to CA$847 per week.)

The government’s plans, announced on 22 April, include adding CA$80 million to the Student Work Placement Program to create another 20,000 post-secondary jobs, and brought praise from the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.

The alliance had been quick to criticise the fact that university and graduate students were not eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which gives workers who have lost their jobs because of the COVID crisis CA$2,000 per month “for groceries and paying the rent”.

Adam Brown, the chair of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, said the announcement was “great news for any student dealing with financial hardship because of COVID-19. We were especially heartened that the government listened to our concerns about students not being eligible for the CERB.”

Brown’s comments were echoed by Philippe LeBel, president of the Quebec Student Union, who reminded the press that though all of the country’s campuses are shuttered, hundreds of thousands of students were still continuing with their studies and readying for their finals. Students “can finally go through their finals or research without worrying about May’s rent”.

Putting the measures to help students in place required passing legislation through the truncated House of Commons (30 members meeting in person in Ottawa). Negotiations with the opposition parties led to an increase in the CESB from CA$1,750 to CA$2,000 per month, back-dated to March and extending through August.

Although in the end they voted for it, the official opposition, the Conservative Party of Canada, had argued that the grant was too generous. They also suggested that the students should work in the country’s agricultural sector, which, because of the COVID crisis, was lacking in temporary foreign workers.

Both points brought an angry response from Quebec separatist leader Yves Blanchet.

He said there are three things students are not. “They are not kids running with flowers in their hair, naked in the field. Neither are they young, lazy people smoking cannabis [which is legal in Canada] in the basement. And they are not either merchandise that you deliver to someone that says they need [them].”

Tens of thousands affected

Even though the government estimates that some 116,000 jobs will be created through the initiatives Trudeau has announced, it realises that tens of thousands of students will not be able to find work because of the business slowdown.

“We don’t have summer festivals; we don’t have recreational summer camps for kids” and other jobs that students work in, said Qualtrough. For those students who cannot find a summer job but who still want to “find ways to keep themselves occupied, to contribute, to upskill”, the government has launched a new volunteer portal called “I Want to Help”.

Through the new Canada Student Service Grant, students who volunteer will be eligible for up to CA$5,000 to support their studies next year. In announcing this grant, the prime minister spoke of the need to help out at nursing homes, homeless shelters, food banks and youth organisations.

In addition to the CA$291 million Trudeau’s government has injected into federal funding agencies to help tide postgraduate researchers over this period, another CA$1.1 billion has been earmarked for COVID-related research, much of which will employ postgraduate students.

Among the more than 90 COVID-related projects currently being funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research that will employee graduate and postgraduate students, there are a number that are not medical or epidemiological.

One directed by Christine Fahim of Unity Health Toronto, a consortium of Toronto hospitals, in partnership with three Chinese Canadian organisations and the government of Singapore, will “explore the cultural and political contexts of misinformation, stigma and fear” that have led to the stigmatisation of Chinese, Asian and other communities in Canada and abroad.

Professor Eve Dubé at Quebec’s Laval University is leading a study entitled “Sociocultural factors affecting communities’ response to countermeasures for COVID-19 epidemic: Identifying interventions to build trust”.

Adrian Mota, associate vice president of the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, said: “We believe that research into COVID-19 and its societal impacts must be broad based and include medical, public health and social science research.”