House Call with Carol Hughes

Student loan motion highlights how parliament can work

It took about a minute of the House of Commons’ time this week to adopt a motion that will extend the moratorium on repaying student loans from October 1, 2020 to May 31, 2021. While that may not seem like a monumental achievement, it’s moments like these—more so than grand-standing and theatrics—that have brought about change. The unfortunate thing about these instances is that few people witness or even hear about them. That might explain, in part, why parliament is seen as more dysfunctional than it may actually be.

The motion that will help those with student debt was brought forward by a New Democrat MP at the end of an average Question Period. As she sought unanimous consent, there were no swipes taken at the government, despite the fact that they had dopped the ball if they intended to extend the moratorium themselves. The tone was business-like, which made it easy for MPs to work together and pass it.

There is little doubt the relief was required. With COVID-19 rates skyrocketing, the stress on young people and recent graduates is incredible. They lost their summer employment. They have few job options and those available are often low-paying and put them at risk for COVID-19. To make matters worse, the government bungled a program that was intended to direct a billion dollars toward students. While the WE scandal was a black eye for the government, the students who would have been helped by the program were the ones who found themselves hung out to dry.

Even before the pandemic, the average student with debt owed $27,000 at the end of an undergraduate degree and a student who has to borrow to pay for their education will end up paying over $10,000 more than a student who is lucky enough to be able to graduate without taking on debt. Add to that a recent report from Abacus Data showing that young people in Canada have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19 and have had to make fundamental shifts in their education, employment and financial situation, and the need to help becomes obvious. According to the report, more than half of youth aged 15-30 have experienced an impact on their financial situation due to the pandemic.

Ultimately, student loans are a big part of the problem that young people can experience. This is why New Democrats propose moving away from loans and significantly increasing access to non-repayable Canada Student Grants. A change like that would help make sure that young people can start out in life without a crushing debt burden.

If our goal is for every Canadian to have access to quality post-secondary education, regardless of their income, this also means working with the provinces and territories to cap and reduce tuition fees and building toward making post-secondary education part of our public education system so kids can go from kindergarten to a career without the barrier of cost. This is an important goal and we believe that with the right leadership and political will, we can get there.

Meanwhile, don’t forget that parliament can work. This isn’t the first time that the government has fine-tuned their programs based on suggestions from New Democrats and likely won’t be the last. That doesn’t mean an end to partisanship or some of the fireworks the Commons are known for, but in a challenging time it is somewhat reassuring that parliament can buckle down and get results for Canadians.