Trudeau announces $75M in pandemic aid for Indigenous students

Facing criticism over his government’s emergency relief packages and people falling through the cracks, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded with help for post-secondary students.

In all, Trudeau promised $9 billion in aid to students and of that, $75 million will be going to Indigenous students.

“In many cases post-secondary students’ school year ends or term ends now around the end of April and normally the beginning of May they’d be looking for summer jobs. This is something that is obviously not going to happen the same way or as easily this year. That’s why we’re moving forward with the Canada emergency student benefit.”

The new Canada Emergency Student Benefit will pay $1,250 a month from May until August for full time students and recent graduates – and $1,750 for students with dependents and those with disabilities.

Students who are graduating high school and moving on to college or university in the fall will also qualify.

At the government’s daily COVID-19 briefing, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said there will be provisions that will include money to extend scholarships, grants and internships.

“In addition we expand eligibility for the Canada student loans program for September,” she said. “We will also double the value of Canada student grants and increase the cap on Canada student loans from $210 to $350 per week of study.”

Students can also volunteer in critical service sectors this summer and receive between $1,000 and $5,000.

Trudeau defends aid packages

Trudeau defended his decision not to create a universal benefit that would ensure no Canadians affected by COVID-19 fall through the cracks.

He said his government’s approach has been to try to target its emergency financial assistance in stages to those who need it most, rather than to everyone at once, including those who don’t need it.

“There are millions of Canadians who need help. There are others who do not need help,” Trudeau told the nation Wednesday.

“We feel that targeting the maximum amount of help to the people who needed it quickly was the right way to begin to get through this process.”

The federal government will also expand existing skills development programming for youth to create up to 116,000 jobs and placements to help students find employment this summer and over the coming months.

“The reality is that it’s going to be really hard to find jobs,” said Qualtrough.

“We’re hoping students will find ways to keep themselves occupied to contribute, to upskill and just not stay sitting around for the whole entire summer.”

Qualtrough said her department has been working with provinces on creative ways to find student opportunities in areas like agriculture, food services and health and with community-service organizations to help them get work experience, but “tweaked to address the reality that we don’t have summer festivals or recreational summer camps for kids.”

The CERB, which provides $2,000 a month for up to 16 weeks for those who have made at least $5,000 in the last year and have lost income due to the pandemic, has faced growing criticism over the limits on eligibility. Many simply cannot access it, including those who were unemployed before the pandemic began and many marginalized Canadians.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has been calling for the CERB to be made a universal benefit to allow any Canadian in financial distress due to COVID-19 to qualify for benefits.

Sending money to everyone and then clawing back the money from those who don’t need it at tax time is the best way to ensure no one is missed, he said.

“For weeks, we’ve been calling on the government to give direct help to everyone,” Singh said in a statement Wednesday.

“It’s easy. The government should make the CERB universal so that students, and anyone else who needs help, can get the help they need right away.”

A group of 50 senators from different political and partisan backgrounds signed an open letter to Trudeau on Tuesday, also calling for the CERB to be turned into a universal benefit.

The senators say they have been hearing from many Canadians who have made it clear additional patches will be needed to the CERB to stop other groups from falling through the cracks.

A universal payment would ensure greater social and economic equity as well as greater efficiency, the senators say.

“In terms of efficiency, as we are already seeing, it can quickly get support to Canadians who are in dire straits. (The Canada Revenue Agency) can issue these payments by deposit or mail with little more than the push of a button. People in need require support today,” part of the letter reads.

“In the short-term, our focus must be on ensuring the CERB is available for all who need it.”

Trudeau acknowledged the government’s pandemic assistance programs are not reaching everyone who needs help, including seniors. He promised more announcements for seniors would be coming soon.

But he remained firm that his government’s approach is superior to a universal benefit.

“It’s not as easy as saying we’re going to send out a cheque to every Canadian regardless of their age or their region, it’s more complex than that,” Trudeau said in French.

“Our measures from the beginning recognized that some people lost their jobs because of COVID-19, not through any fault of their own, but they require revenue to pay for their groceries, their rent. That’s why we chose to go ahead in a targeted, rapid fashion to put in place what was necessary to help these people in dire need.”

With files from the Canadian Press

Reporter / Ottawa

Originally from the Cree Nation of Chisasibi on the eastern coast of James Bay, Quebec, Jamie has lived in Ottawa since 2015. Trained in journalism at Carleton University, he has worked as a freelance print journalist and as a writer/researcher for the Cree unit of CBC North out of Montreal. Jamie was hired as the reporter/correspondent for the Ottawa bureau in October 2019.