International students need financial help during COVID-19

Elizabeth May (Saanich—Gulf Islands)
2020-04-29 18:24 [p.2275]

Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to rise today.

I am pleased to rise to speak to Bill C-15, an act respecting Canada emergency student benefits. This is another bill in response to the urgency of the COVID-19 crisis, the great pandemic. It is an unparalleled and unprecedented situation.

We have never been through anything like this before, and we are seeing level after level and aspect after aspect of debate taking place in this place on different pieces of legislation as we rush to fill the gaps.

There are a few things to say about this, but before I do, I want to acknowledge that I am honoured to speak today on the unceded territory of the Algonquin nation and express to it our enormous thanks for its patience and generosity. Meegwetch.

We are in the midst of something that we can say is unknown to us, but I was very taken with the analysis by the parliamentary budget office, and I want to speak to that for just a moment.

I am hearing from some constituents who are saying, “Yes, we need all the help we can get right now in this pandemic, but who’s going to pay the bills for all of this? What are we going to do when the bills fall due?” I think it’s important to take a moment there.

I have been privileged to participate in the finance committee meetings and to ask questions of the Bank of Canada governor, Stephen Poloz, who with his team has done an amazing job; to have an insight into what governments all around the world are doing; and to let Canadians know that we are certainly not alone in this. I think it is obvious that we are not alone in fighting the public health crisis that is COVID-19, but we are also not alone in deciding that there are certain prescriptions for an economy that will help us all.

I do not think Canadians have noticed the absence of certain things, but let me just say that there is an absence of things that we would not want to see, such as runs on the bank. We are not seeing people lining up, saying, “I better get my money out right now. I don’t trust the system.” We are not hearing people say, “I can’t make my credit card bills because of usury levels of interest rates that have been hiked up.” We have seen that rates are supposed to be going down. A lot of these things we are seeing are the result of very specific prescriptions that are being followed not just by the Bank of Canada but by central banks around the world.

To colleagues and friends here, I recommend the International Monetary Fund review of what is going on. The trillions of dollars that are being spent by governments around the world are, in a sense, backstopped by monetary policy that says we can get through this, but we have to do a couple of things. We are going to ramp down interest rates to as close to zero as possible, so that the cost of borrowing goes down. We are going to introduce more liquidity into the system with a number of measures, including the Bank of Canada’s purchase of federal bonds and provincial bonds in the billions and billions of dollars. Bond purchases by our central bank do not add to debt or deficit. They increase liquidity and keep cash in the system so that we do not have a credit crunch.

It is important to note that we have been through situations when things were much worse for our financial picture than now. Even when we get through this, after all the money that is planned to be spent, our debt-to-GDP ratio will not be nearly as bad as it was in the early 1990s.

We have the International Monetary Fund report and the report from the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. No one is sanguine about this, but if we read the International Monetary Fund reports and the report from the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, as Canadians we are left knowing this: We are not in this alone, and the measures taken by the central bank and by the finance minister and the government are so far not putting us in financial peril.

One of the things we do not mention enough is that we are in a very privileged position. An analogy used by Stephen Poloz when he was speaking to the finance committee is that just as COVID-19 will be much harder for people who have underlying health conditions and do not go into this situation in a healthy state, so too are nation states more at risk when they do not go in healthy. However, we are in a privileged position. Our debt-to-GDP ratio was the lowest in the G7 when this crisis hit, and we had historic levels of employment.

Certainly in my living memory, it is the closest thing to full employment that I have ever seen in Canada. This is what the Governor of the Bank of Canada meant when he talked about fiscal firepower, and the finance minister has used the same term.

That is not to say that this is not a deep economic crisis that has befallen us, along with a big deep public health care crisis that has befallen us, but just to say that it is not piling on debt, while being a deficit for sure.

The PBO suggested that when spending is temporary, such as it is now, we would most likely expect to bounce back as we did at the end of the Second World War with a large surplus in 1947, but only if certain conditions are upheld. One is that we need to hold the country together. I am so grateful to every province when I hear the deputy prime minister say that there are weekly calls with every premier of every province and territory with the Prime Minister. That is a very healthy thing.

I think it is very important that no matter how much sparring is going on today while we are meeting in person, behind the scenes there is tremendous collaboration and no one party can claim credit for things. Yes, the Greens advocated that 10% was not enough and we had to have 75% in the wage subsidy, and that was done. I think that is a credit to all of us in this place, those who came to it more slowly and those who advocated first. We have to work together or we will not get through this.

Back to where we are in terms of our financial position, I am hoping we do not bounce back in the sense that we go to an economy such as we had before, which had glaring inequities. I hope that we bounce forward and that when the pandemic is over that we look at an economic prescription for the country that is consistent with the urgency of the climate crisis, that is consistent with getting people back to work, but doing things like retrofitting our buildings to make sure that we maximize energy efficiency, even that every building could produce more energy that it uses. That is doable. Also, that we have an electricity grid that works as a national energy corridor east to west, north to south, and it is 100% renewable energy.

There are things that we can do so that we can come out of this crisis with, again, closer to full employment and with less social inequity, with clear action to ensure our seniors are well housed and well cared for, with clear action to make sure that we do not have a social safety net full of holes but that it is repaired, and that we move toward guaranteed livable income.

I just made a note of the most recent book title that came to my attention. I commend it to my friends in the Conservative Party because it was written by a Conservative. Senator Hugh Segal’s new book is out and it is called Bootstraps Need Boots: One Tory’s Lonely Fight to End Poverty in Canada. I would love to see that fight be less lonely and I thank our former parliamentary colleague, former Senator Hugh Segal, for bringing forward a book at a time when the topic of guaranteed livable income, or universal basic income, has never been as hot a topic.

I will pause parenthetically because of my recent exchange with the hon. member for London—Fanshawe about the fact that I say guaranteed livable income and others say universal basic income. We have adopted, as Greens, the term “guaranteed livable income” because if we want to make sure that the amount that every Canadian receives actually creates a situation in which they find their situation livable and not beyond some level of poverty from which they are moderately better off than they were before. That is a debate for another day.
We are here to look at Bill C-15. It is coming again, as we have seen, in waves, in response to the pandemic.

We can look at it and see that first the government looked at people who did not qualify for EI. What did we do? The Canada emergency benefit, CERB, came in first and then we had to make sure that that amount of money was improved upon by looking at things like reducing student loans. Bill C-13 in this place had 19 different parts and was dealing with the impacts on individual Canadians. There was not enough there for small business. We have been pushing harder on that. Bill C-14 gave us more, looking at programs to help small business with access to loans to cover their rent.

New announcements are made almost daily and we still have people falling through the cracks. We still have small business falling through the cracks. However, some of the people falling through the cracks who are helped today are our students. It is terribly important to recognize that for many students who did not earn $5,000 last year, they will not qualify for the CERB. For some other reasons, they certainly cannot expect to find jobs this summer in their chosen field and the Canada summer jobs program cannot absorb the number of people who need the income supports right now and who need enough money to live on.

Many students are, as we have heard today, people living as a married couple with children, or a single mom with children also going to school. Currently, the benefit provided in this piece of legislation is not adequate to help all of those people with their bills because the amount of money in the initial offering is $1,250.

However, I note that under this legislation the minister may make changes by regulation to improve that. That of course is the minister of employment and social development. This piece of legislation requires that the minister receive approval by the Minister of Finance to make changes to the amount received or the weeks it is available.

Personally, I would have gone in the other direction with this legislation. The Conservatives have made it more restrictive. I would have made sure that the minister for employment and social development could make those changes without permission from the Minister of Finance because they make so much sense.

I want to pause because I note the minister for employment and social development has been with us all day today. I want to thank her for her hard work. I know she has been working around the clock like many ministers. I know she is a mom with kids at home. Like all of my friends with kids still at home, keeping the kids occupied while also being on a computer and the phone day and night to make some of the most massive changes in that portfolio and in living memory is daunting. I want to thank her for her diligence.

The missing piece in this that still concerns the Greens greatly is what we are doing for international students. This legislation applies to a person who is a Canadian citizen, it certainly applies to indigenous Canadians, it applies to permanent residents as found under the definitions in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act or a protected person under the meaning of that act as well. What do we do about our international students?

We have something in the order of potentially half a million international students in this country now. The international students program contributes over $20 billion to our economy and leads to the employment of 170,000 Canadians. As we all know, international students pay far higher fees. They come into Canada and of course contribute to our economy by paying their rent and buying their groceries.

I do not know how many members saw on CBC a few nights back a young woman being interviewed about her experience as a foreign student in Canada. Her landlady was telling her not to worry and that if she could not pay the rent, she would not charge her. She was also giving her groceries. That is a really wonderful Canadian moment. It brought tears to my eyes to hear this young student saying that if it were not for her landlady, she would have neither a roof over her head nor food.

What about the international students who do not have a landlady like that? So far here are their options. If they made $5,000 last year, they can qualify for the CERB, but if they did not make that amount of money, they will not qualify. If they are an international student and also a permanent resident, they would qualify under today’s bill for the emergency benefit for students. However, if they are not a permanent resident, if they only have their student visa to be in Canada, they would not qualify.

We still have a problem. It has been identified by the Canadian Federation of Students, which is asking for improvements to this bill. It has two asks. One is that it be $2,000 a month, which is something the minister can do by regulation after this bill passes, but we would have to come back here and re-legislate this to change the definition of “student” in order to allow it to apply to an international student, unless we tinker with one of the other programs such as the Canada summer jobs program. There is still a deep concern for people who are falling between the cracks.

For the simplest way to avoid falling between the cracks, I go back to my earlier reference to a guaranteed livable income. That would be one way of making sure there would be no one in Canada so economically insecure they would be pushed out of the place they are living, unable to afford food, and unable to find a job and not fitting any of the existing programs.

I am grateful for the effort of everybody in the cabinet who have been working so hard, as well as all the civil servants who clearly have been working. As members of Parliament, we are on the phone with them on Saturdays and Sundays. If Canadians do not know, everybody I can find within any government department is working really long days seven days a week.

I have worked with them on rescuing Canadians stranded in other countries. It is extraordinary. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the whole team at Global Affairs Canada seem to have converted themselves into what I have been doing at home myself, part-time travel agent, but to rescue over 20,000 Canadians from over 144 countries is a monumental feat. However, I see the same level of hard work happening when we have Sunday phone calls and my questions are being answered by officials in the Department of Finance, correctional services or indigenous services.

By thanking everyone involved, I am not saying everything is perfect, but for Canadians watching or listening to this now, they need to know that thousands of people are working in ways that I have never seen a government work ever in my life. It is important to say to them, as we say to our front-line health care workers, to the people in our neighbourhoods who are still stocking the grocery store shelves, who are driving the trucks, who are planting their fields now so we will have food in this country, to everybody who is doing the work while most of us are locked up at home, we are deeply grateful, including all of the civil servants who I know have been knocking themselves out.

I heard a story from a friend about a family Zoom call and the husband of one of the people on the family Zoom call mentioned that his wife was working in the federal civil service. He started to say “my wife”, broke down and started crying. There is a level of strain on families working in the federal civil service and I want to pause to say thanks to everyone who is working so hard.

When I mention the gaps, it is not to say this is not good enough and I am angry with the government. It is to say we have to keep working. Maybe, in hindsight, we can agree it would have been better to bring in one measure, as we have been advocating, but I am not angry the Government of Canada has failed to do that so far. What we need to do is help each other as much as possible. I think that means being kind toward those who we see are falling short of what needs to be done, recognizing that nobody has ever worked this hard ever.

If we hold together as a country and keep our partisanship to a bare minimum, though I would actually like to see it erased into a nothingness that says we are all in this together, there is plenty of time when it is over to try to get a gotcha point in to try to score something for television, but right now we need to be deeply grateful that we are in this country.

We could be anywhere around the world and trying to rescue people. Knowing what is going on in places like Ecuador and India, knowing what might happen in the continent of Africa, knowing how hard people are working and knowing how relatively safe we all are, I know every single person in this place recognizes how very fortunate we are as a country and as a people.

I also ask us to think in this moment about whether we cannot do more for the developing world, if we cannot do more to avert famine, if cannot see ourselves stretching ourselves a bit more. However, for now, I will be voting for this legislation, but with a very strong plea that we do more for our international students, that we figure a program out where it is needed, so that no student falls through the cracks.