Evidence of meeting #18 for Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities in the 43rd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was international.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Emma Rose Bienvenu  As an Individual
Clerk of the Committee  Ms. Marie-France Lafleur
Babacar Faye  President, University of Ottawa Students’ Union
Timothy Gulliver  Advocacy Commissioner, University of Ottawa Students’ Union
Bryn de Chastelain  Board Chair, Canadian Alliance of Student Associations
Jade Marcil  President, Quebec Student Union
Matt Reesor  President, University Students’ Council, Western University
Mackenzy Metcalfe  Vice-President, External Affairs, University Students’ Council, Western University

3:05 p.m.

President, University of Ottawa Students’ Union

Babacar Faye

Essentially, the resources that international students need are more information and more access to the information they need. I'm thinking about international students who want to come to Canada and have to apply for a visa.

Also, if they're coming to Canada, they should know what the expectations are: whether or not they're going to receive government aid, what they should expect when it comes to a national crisis like COVID-19 and what the Government of Canada expects from them. They should know how to prepare in the future, should an event like this reappear, and where they can find jobs or opportunities as well.

3:05 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Mr. Dong.

Thank you, Mr. Faye, Mr. Gulliver and Madame Bienvenu, for your very thorough and thought-provoking presentations today. They will serve a great benefit to our work. We very much appreciate the work that you put into them and the thought that you have put into answering our questions.

We're going to suspend for three minutes while we get ready for the next panel of witnesses. It will give you a chance to unplug.

We are now suspended.

3:10 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

We are now back in session, with our second panel of witnesses for the day. We thank them all for being here.

From the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, we have Bryn de Chastelain, board chair. From the Quebec Student Union, we have Jade Marcil, president. From the University Students' Council at Western University, we have Matt Reesor, president, and Mackenzy Metcalfe, vice-president of external affairs.

Mr. de Chastelain and Ms. Marcil are appearing together, so they will share their 10 minutes. We'll start with them and then move to Western.

Mr. de Chastelain and Ms. Marcil, go ahead for 10 minutes.

3:10 p.m.

Bryn de Chastelain Board Chair, Canadian Alliance of Student Associations

Good afternoon, Mr. Chair, esteemed committee members and fellow witnesses. I would like to begin my statement by acknowledging that I speak to you today from Mi'kma'ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi'kmaq people.

My name is Bryn de Chastelain. I am the chair of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, or CASA. I am also president of the Saint Mary's University Students' Association and a fourth-year student pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree with a double major in political science and economics.

CASA is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that represents over 275,000 students at colleges, polytechnics and universities from coast to coast. Through a formal partnership with the Union étudiante du Québec, with which I will be sharing time today, we are a trusted national student voice.

CASA has been at the forefront of student advocacy efforts throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. We've been clear that students, like other Canadians, have been hit hard by the pandemic's economic and social impacts. At a uniquely vulnerable point in their lives, students have been blindsided by lost income, online classes, a summer of isolation and bleak job prospects following graduation.

Thankfully, on April 22, the federal government responded to our calls for support with a generous and significant student aid package. As a student leader, I would like to express my gratitude for this immediate and considerable support, which was extraordinarily necessary in these unprecedented times. Many students are now seeing immediate support from either the Canada emergency response benefit or the Canada emergency student benefit, which together are providing an irreplaceable stopgap for students. These benefits are helping students to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads, and we thank you for that.

I would also like to highlight the generous additions to both the Canada student grants and the Canada student loans, which were also announced on April 22. These improvements will help ensure that many students in Canada can continue to access and afford their education despite COVID-19-related hardship. These supports are welcomed by students across Canada, but not everybody has access to them.

I would particularly like to highlight the lack of support available for international students during this quarantine period. Let's not forget that international students in Canada contribute an estimated $21.6 billion to Canada's GDP and support almost 170,000 jobs. On top of that, many international students in Canada plan to stay and contribute to our economy once they have graduated. According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, 60% of international students in Canada plan to apply for permanent residency once they graduate from school. Many also continue to live and work in Canada over the summer between semesters, and the COVID-19 pandemic has robbed them of their opportunity to support themselves.

These international students are stuck in Canada with no job prospects, with groceries and rent to pay for, and with little financial support from the federal government. As it stands, international students are ineligible for the Canada emergency student benefit, meaning that those who have made less than $5,000 in the past year are left without access to desperately needed assistance. The Canada emergency response benefit is available to international students, but the Canada emergency student benefit is not, and we see that as fundamentally unfair. Many international students cannot work while in school and have lost the opportunity to do so over the summer. They need support, and we're asking the federal government to leave no student in Canada behind.

Now, despite this gap surrounding international students, CASA is strongly supportive of the federal government's overall student aid efforts thus far. Looking forward, however, we at CASA are hearing that students are still very worried about their finances and their health, as well as the quality and accessibility of the upcoming digital semester. According to a recent poll that we at CASA commissioned, 77% of students in Canada report being considerably stressed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. We're stressed about what the pandemic means for our future, about the health of our loved ones and about finding employment after graduation.

Students are reporting significant financial hardship despite the relief provided by the CERB and the CESB. Close to 70% of students in Canada say their summer employment plans have been negatively affected by COVID-19. Of that 70%, four in 10 say they've lost all of their regular summer income due to the pandemic, while 43% say they will be relying more on government loans to pay for the upcoming school year, and 59% say they are just as worried about covering their living expenses in January as they are today.

Students are seeing real financial hardship on the horizon, and that's why CASA is calling on the government to consider additional support for students beyond September 2020. Specifically, we are asking the government to extend the six-month interest-free moratorium on federal student loan payments past September 30, 2020.

Now, beyond financial concerns, CASA is also hearing that many students are second-guessing whether school in the fall is even worth it, given the less-than-ideal digital environment. Our data tells us that 39% of students have considered deferring or have already deferred their fall semester. Along with this, 31% have also considered switching or have already switched from full-time to part-time studies.

Students are rightly worried about the quality and accessibility of their classes in the fall, and we think the federal government can do more to ensure that our next semester is a success.

According to the CRTC, only 64% of rural residents have access to broadband Internet fast enough to sustainably access the kind of video conferencing applications used for online learning, compared to 100% of urban residents. The OECD also ranks Canada in the top 10 of the most expensive countries for broadband Internet access when adjusted for cost of living.

In the 2019 election, the Liberals promised to ensure that every Canadian would have access to high-speed Internet by 2030. CASA urges the federal government to accelerate this timeline and move forward with immediate steps to ensure that all post-secondary students have adequate access to reliable and high-speed Internet in time for school this fall.

Finally, we know that success in a digital classroom hinges on having the suitable technology to succeed. Digital learning, while necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic, will place the burden of possessing sufficient technology, like computers, on post-secondary students. According to our polling, almost 50% of students in Canada highlighted having the technology they need as a primary concern entering next semester.

That's why we're also calling on the federal government to ensure that all students have sufficient access to digital technology. Specifically, we're asking the government to commit additional funding to provide appropriate digital technology to any low-income student who needs it.

I would like to thank the committee once again for the invitation to come and testify and represent the voice of Canadian students.

I will now turn the floor over to my colleague Jade Marcil of the Quebec Student Union, and I look forward to answering your questions.

3:20 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Ms. Marcil, you have the floor for three and a half minutes.

June 12th, 2020 / 3:20 p.m.

Jade Marcil President, Quebec Student Union

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I want to begin by saying that I'm currently on territory that has been shared by many indigenous nations over the years, a land of sharing. I'm currently in the greater Montreal area.

Thank you for having me here today. I'm pleased to be with you.

I also want to thank my colleague, Bryn de Chastelain, for his presentation. The Quebec Student Union agrees with what he said.

My name is Jade Marcil. I'm the president of the Quebec Student Union. We're a group of university student associations that represents 91,000 students from many parts of Quebec.

I want to address two main topics. Since Quebec couldn't directly receive the financial assistance tied to Canada's loans and bursaries measures, but is receiving a transfer, we find it difficult to comment. However, we're very pleased with the assistance provided to students to encourage them to continue their studies. We sincerely hope that this assistance will be invested in the same way in Quebec.

Obviously, I want to talk about the Canada emergency student benefit, or CESB. This assistance came at just the right time to support students in the summer, when jobs are always harder to find. Of course, there are differences between the regions. However, given the very high unemployment rate, we know that summer job opportunities have decreased significantly. The CESB is really helping our students. Many requests have already been made. We're pleased to know that this measure really supports our students.

A proposal has been made concerning the CESB and the amount granted. We're very pleased to report that the inclusion of people who have special needs, who are living with a disability or who have a dependant was well received. We must also support people who are facing very different challenges.

The CESB amount is $1,250 a month. The amount is fully withdrawn if the student earns over $1,000 a month. The Bloc Québécois submitted a proposal in the House. We understand that this proposal wasn't adopted, given how quickly the government needed to act. We consider that the assistance may need to be increased based on needs in the fall. We know that the measure had to be implemented quickly. However, we're pleased that the measure was implemented because it supports our students.

I also want to talk about research funding in Quebec. We think that research funding is very important. Quebec established the Fonds de recherche du Québec. In Canada, there are federal granting agencies. We want to point out that the extension for student research projects is very good, since many projects were delayed or even suspended as a result of closures in certain areas. I'm thinking in particular of all the education research, since schools were closed.

We want to stress the importance of ongoing support for research in the coming months. The four-month extension could be made longer. The assistance will be needed for the continuation of research and student projects in the fall and winter, depending on the economic recovery and the easing of the lockdown.

We're quite satisfied with the Government of Canada's response. We're very pleased that students were taken into consideration and that financial measures were implemented quickly and effectively. We hope that students will remain a focus for support measures in the coming weeks and months.

Thank you again for having us here today.

3:25 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Ms. Marcil.

Next we have the University Students' Council of Western University.

Mr. Reesor, you have the floor for 10 minutes

3:25 p.m.

Matt Reesor President, University Students’ Council, Western University

Thank you very much.

Good afternoon, Mr. Chair, distinguished members and fellow witnesses. Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak with you today.

My name is Matt Reesor. I am the president of the University Students' Council at Western University. Alongside me here today is our vice-president of external affairs, Mackenzy Metcalfe.

I represent the interests of 30,000 undergraduate students on our university campus. Personally, I would like to thank the Government of Canada for the action that has already been taken to support post-secondary students. The aid package has provided much-needed financial support for many of us. We greatly appreciate your consultation with post-secondary students on the government's response to COVID-19, and are excited to see it continue throughout the rebuilding process.

As I'm sure many, if not all of you, have experienced, COVID-19 has transformed our lives as we know it. This March as our university classes moved online, Western students experienced a shared sentiment of uncertainty. As we attempt to understand the new normal that we are living in, concerns about the state of our academic and co-curricular experiences, the quality and accessibility of post-secondary education, and our ability to maintain social connectedness continue to stress the vast majority of students.

Looking back and reflecting on the early days of the COVID-19 response, many of us had no idea where our society would be in one week, let alone three months.

As we sit here today in London, local restrictions have been lifted and we are starting down the path towards the new normal. We are only certain of one thing: our lives will change forever as a result of this pandemic. It is my opinion that we are still unsure of what the change will be, and I think we need to take time to reflect before setting a course forward.

With that in mind, I will be focusing the rest of my time to speak on what I know for sure, and that is how students are dealing with COVID-19 right now.

Throughout this time, our biggest priority has been supporting our students. The USC is continually engaging with students through candid conversations and formalized feedback, and we would like to take this time to share their stories.

A few weeks ago, I spoke with a second-year social science student at Western University who was living away from their hometown. The student expressed immense gratitude for the financial support provided by the Canada emergency student benefit, which has helped mitigate their financial concerns for this summer. In the same conversation, however, the student expressed anxieties about the looming expenses of heading back to school this fall. Like many students, this individual works throughout the summers and nearly all evenings to fund their tuition, school supplies, rent, food and personal necessities.

Over the past several years, the student has not had much trouble finding jobs at home or in London. But this year as COVID-19 hit, this process has become much more difficult. This student has already signed a twelve-month lease they're now responsible for. Their parents have not been able to provide financial support for the past couple of years. This individual currently has enough money to pay for the first two months of rent on a new lease, but will rely on summer employment to pay for anything past that. The student is not sure how they will be able to afford rent in a few months, not to mention another year of tuition and the other list of expenses.

We appreciate the action the government has already taken to support students financially for the 2020-21 academic year. We request that the doubling of the Canada students grant and the removal of expected students and spouses contributions be extended to the 2021-22 academic year.

We've also heard concerns from many of our international students, some of whom have been unable to head home due to travel restrictions. Our international students pay considerable tuition fees and remain unable to access the CESB. We request that the government expand a pre-existing program or develop a new program to address financial concerns for these international students.

As a recent graduate, I can attest to the uncertainty of the job market. A recent survey by StatsCan has shown that almost one-third of students who had secure jobs prior to March 2020 have now lost them. The students of today are the workforce of tomorrow, and I know that the vast majority of students would take advantage of opportunities to engage in meaningful, skills-based work experience this summer and beyond.

As things continue to evolve in the coming months, we hope that the Government of Canada will continue to consult regularly with post-secondary students across the country to hear out their concerns and engage with their perspectives.

I think I speak for all student leaders when I say that we have the energy, the passion and the expertise required to inform your response to COVID-19 moving forward.

Mackenzy and I look forward to taking your questions.

Thank you.

3:30 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Mr. Reesor.

We are going to begin now with questions, starting with Ms. Dancho for six minutes, please.

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

Raquel Dancho Conservative Kildonan—St. Paul, MB

Thank you, Chair.

Thank you to the witnesses for being with us today. I really appreciated your opening remarks.

I'm going to ask about a range of things that impact students.

What do you think universities should be doing now to prepare in the event that you have virtual learning again in the fall? How can we adequately prepare for this, given that you had a crash course this March, as you mentioned, Mr. Reesor? What can your university be doing to prepare for the fall?

3:30 p.m.

President, University Students’ Council, Western University

Matt Reesor

That's an extremely important question, one that we've been attempting to answer as we go. I would like to defer it to Mackenzy Metcalfe, our vice-president of external affairs, as I think it is better suited to her.

3:30 p.m.

Mackenzy Metcalfe Vice-President, External Affairs, University Students’ Council, Western University

I think when it comes to preparing for fall online classes, universities are already taking measures to figure out what it's going to look like. Many universities in Ontario and across Canada have already made commitments to being either 100% online or offering a portion of courses in person. I think it's really university specific as to how many of the courses will be online, but I also think it's important that universities take steps to prepare students to be able to learn online, because it is a fundamentally different learning environment from the in-class, lecture-based courses they might be used to from high school or even prior university courses.

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

Raquel Dancho Conservative Kildonan—St. Paul, MB

Thank you for that.

My second question concerns financial aid for students. Many students are, of course, supported by their parents in university, but also, in addition to that, they access government student loans, which, if my memory serves me correctly, depend on the parents' earnings from the year prior. Of course, as was mentioned, many parents have taken a serious hit to their income this year. If the students weren't eligible last year because of their parents' income, it may not be the same this year going into the fall semester.

Do you anticipate there will be a significant impact on fall enrolment because of the lack of parental support or the lack of eligibility for student loans?

3:30 p.m.

Vice-President, External Affairs, University Students’ Council, Western University

Mackenzy Metcalfe

I do expect that many students will very seriously reconsider attending post-secondary education because of the costs. That is one of the reasons we are asking for students' expected income and spouses' contributions to also be waived in the 2021-22 academic year. When you apply for programs like OSAP in Ontario, you have to declare your parents' income, and those are for tax years that would not have been impacted by COVID-19.

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

Raquel Dancho Conservative Kildonan—St. Paul, MB

Over to CASA, I know that you represent, I think, 300,000 students. Do you have any idea what the impacts will be on enrolment if students can't access government student loans or perhaps direct support from their parents? Do you have any idea how many students will be impacted by that?

Mr. de Chastelain, could you respond to that?

3:30 p.m.

Board Chair, Canadian Alliance of Student Associations

Bryn de Chastelain

That's an important question that we need to be asking when considering the next steps.

We're already seeing a significant chunk of students, nearly 40%, already thinking about deferring their fall semester and potentially looking to come back at a time when university education is going to look a little more typical. In that regard, right now a lot of students are really thinking about how their university education is going to change as we continue to see universities across the country begin to shift to a hybrid form of delivery or, in some cases, completely remote or digital delivery.

It's definitely something that's going to continue over the next few months as students make up their minds, but we're already seeing a significant portion of students rethinking their enrolment in the fall.

3:35 p.m.

Conservative

Raquel Dancho Conservative Kildonan—St. Paul, MB

Yes, 40% is significant. That's a lot of people who might not be returning. It's something for public policy-makers to consider, for sure.

I'd also like to talk about mental health. This was discussed in the last hour and was also mentioned in your opening remarks.

Can we qualify the mental health impacts a little bit? What have been the causes of the mental health strain? I know these are very obvious to students, but just for parents who are watching, for example, can we qualify that a bit? Why are students feeling considerable mental strain? A list of the things would be great to hear.

3:35 p.m.

Board Chair, Canadian Alliance of Student Associations

Bryn de Chastelain

That's a very important question. Thank you for raising it.

Based on our recent survey data, nearly 80% of students in Canada are reporting being considerably stressed at this time, and 60% of those students are saying this is a direct result of COVID-19.

There are a number of things to consider here. I would first draw your attention to health and wellness. A number of students are worried about the health and well-being of their family members, and potentially of their peers and their colleagues. It also goes to their future prospects, whether that comes to what university education is going to look like or stress about whether they'll be able to find employment after graduation as well. This is definitely a period of unprecedented uncertainty for students, and it's creating a number of challenges for how we view the next stage of our lives.

3:35 p.m.

Conservative

Raquel Dancho Conservative Kildonan—St. Paul, MB

I can understand that for sure, as uncertainty is very challenging. I remember coming out of university that trying to find a job was stressful enough, let alone in a COVID-19 economy.

I'd love to hear a little elaboration on those mental health impacts from the other panellists as well, given that 60% of students are being significantly impacted by their mental health. What are you hearing from your students?

3:35 p.m.

President, University Students’ Council, Western University

Matt Reesor

I would love to speak to that, because it's a large priority that relates to what I spoke to in my opening remarks regarding connectedness and uncertainty—two words that come to mind whenever I've been speaking to any students at our campus.

I think the main thing people are missing is the aspects of university that aren't within the classroom; things that aren't necessarily tangible, but the in-between conversations and interactions that can mean a lot. We've definitely felt that absence, especially for many of us with the feeling of fatigue that comes with numerous calls on Zoom, or whatever platform it may be. We're definitely working on that and trying to find any way possible to increase those human interactions in a manner that's still safe and controlled, given that Western is utilizing a blended model.

3:35 p.m.

Conservative

Raquel Dancho Conservative Kildonan—St. Paul, MB

Thank you.

3:35 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Ms. Dancho, and thank you Mr. Reesor.

We're going now to Ms. Young. You have six minutes, please.

3:35 p.m.

Liberal

Kate Young Liberal London West, ON

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

Thank you to all our witnesses. Of course, I'm most interested in talking to Mr. Reesor and Ms. Metcalfe from London, because that's where I'm from—London West. I appreciate your being on this Zoom call.

I wanted to pick up on the mental health issues because I'm very concerned that in another six months we're going to be hearing some tragic stories from post-secondary education. I wonder what advice you might have for some of the students who are going to Western or another university in the fall, and some of the challenges they may face.

3:35 p.m.

President, University Students’ Council, Western University

Matt Reesor

I've asked myself that question every day since taking my post. The main aspect of Western's community involves the orientation program. Various things we operate offer that connectedness and the bonds that form as a result of many of the programs we're offering.

To directly answer your question on advice, I've been attempting to do this myself as I've been working in this new Zoom paradigm and that is to take time for myself. There need to be opportunities for rest and for people to get away from looking at their screens for 10-plus hours a day.

My advice to students would still be to reach out in any way possible to their loved ones and their friends, especially as they're coming onto our campus. A big task on our plate—and we're working with our vice-president of student support and programming on this—is to work toward online programming that can create these connections and relationships that last your entire university experience.

My advice is that we take care of ourselves and our loved ones.

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

Kate Young Liberal London West, ON

Ms. Metcalfe, would you like to comment on that?