Students falling through the cracks in gov't aid programs

As hundreds of thousands of Canadians out of work because of the COVID-19 pandemic began applying for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) on Monday, people like UNBC student Chris King are falling between the cracks.

King will be graduating from UNBC with a bachelor of commerce degree in marketing later this month, and said he had several promising leads on jobs before social distancing orders were put in place in response to the pandemic. But those opportunities have evaporated in light of the economic uncertainty, and he has no job and isn't eligible for the CERB.

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"My job prospects are dismal," King said. "(The) CERB doesn't apply to students, it says that clearly on the website. The (B.C.) NDP released a press release with what they are doing for students. They're giving extra money direct to schools to give out through the emergency grant program, which is good obviously, but since I'm not a student as of the end of the month, it doesn't apply to me."

King said he knows of several other students graduating this year who are in a similar situation.

"I'm definitely not alone in this situation," he said. "Personally, I think a more universal approach to the federal grant system would help. I think the Trudeau Liberals, instead of putting all these criteria to qualify, should just mail $2,000 (per month) to every Canadian."

The current CERB program offers $500 per week to those eligible to receive the benefit. As of Monday afternoon, 532,000 people had applied to receive the benefit, The Canadian Press reported. In a media briefing outside his home in Ottawa on Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said government staff were processing 1,000 applications a minute.

Trudeau said the government is already looking to tweak the $24-billion benefit program to help more people, including students, people who have had their work hours reduced but not been laid off and people who were already looking for work when the pandemic hit and opportunities dried up. More details on those changes would be coming soon, Trudeau added.

"If they'd just taken that and mailed it to everybody, it would streamline the system and would help a lot of people who fall through the cracks," King said. "Maybe there are people who are making $70,000 a year who could use $2,000 (a month). They could claw that back through next year's taxes."

In B.C. the provincial government announced $3.5 million on April 2 to supplement existing student emergency financial assistance programs at 25 public post-secondary institutions including UNBC and the College of New Caledonia. And on April 3, the province announced $1.5 million to supplement the Indigenous Emergency Assistance Fund, which assists Indigenous students who are experiencing an unexpected financial emergency.

“During these extraordinary times our students are facing many challenges, financial and otherwise, as they adapt to the current reality,” UNBC interim president Geoff Payne said. “This additional funding from the Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills and Training will help students when they need it most.” 

Northern Undergraduate Student Society president Jingyu Chen said the provincial grant may help students, if the process works smoothly.

"The one-time investment of $3.5 million in emergency financial assistance would definitely ease the financial burden for struggling students, but it remains to be seen as to how effective the financial aid process will be and how difficult it is for students to navigate the process," Chen said in an email. 

"We would like to see support from the province and university with respect to additional online mental health and counselling services for students. Furthermore, support for students in navigating the emergency financial assistance process is also essential. Additionally, food insecurity is a heightened risk, since students don't have enough money to support their nutritional needs."

The lack of employment opportunities is a major financial challenge for students currently, Chen said, as many have seen their part-time incomes disappear and summer job prospects remain uncertain.

 

INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS, INTERNATIONAL PROBLEMS

International students are facing all the same challenges Canadian students are facing, plus dealing with issues around applications and renewals for student visas and study permits, Chen said.

College of New Caledonia Students Union chairperson Navi Brar knows first-hand the challenges facing international students. Brar grew up in India and has been studying kinesiology at the college since 2017 – one of nearly 1,600 international students who attend CNC.

"It's my last semester, I'll be done next month," Brar said in an interview in late March. "Before this, I was looking for jobs in Canada. When this thing happened, it shut down everybody."

Moving to find work is also difficult or impossible right now, he added. He'd hoped to look for work up in the Yukon or down in Vancouver, but "everything is just paused."

With an international student visa, international students can work up to 20 hours a week in Canada while studying, he said, but many – including himself – have seen their hours cut or have lost their student jobs entirely.

While Canadian students might have the option of moving in with their parents to weather the storm, for many international students going home isn't an option, he said.

"It's very difficult, I cannot go back home right now," Brar said.

With the travel restrictions put in place in India, there is simply no way for him and many others like him to get home.

Through his work with the student's union and on the board of governors of the college, Brar said they are working to try to provide assistance for students - both financial and the support they need to get through the semester and finish their classes and exams in an online environment.

"We can provide laptops if students need them (to complete school work)," he said. "We're trying to do stuff (to help), but it's so unpredictable."

A spokesperson for CNC said the college is offering its student support services remotely and additional information has been developed and posted on the college website to help students with common questions and concerns.

The college's student housing remains open and students will be able to stay into the spring and summer if they need to, the spokesperson added.

UNBC manager of international operations Bjorn Petersen said his department is working to support the approximately 400 international undergraduate and graduate students who were attending the university when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.

The university doesn't have numbers on how many students have chosen to, or been able to, return home to be with their families during the outbreak.

"A lot of international students make B.C. their home. A lot of students want to stay here and work, so they can earn money to offset the cost of their eduction," Petersen added. "(But) we have seen some international students move out of the residences. We have just about 75 students identified as international still in residence."

UNBC ended face-to-face classes on March 19 in response to the pandemic and moved to an online learning model. Students living in residence were encouraged to move out if they were able.

"We had about half of our exchange students have returned to Prince George from exchange. Some are electing to stay, for various reasons," Petersen said. "And likewise, some of our exchange students here have gone home. But some are electing to stay."

The international students living in residence hail from 30 countries, Petersen said. Some of those students – like those from India, Nigeria and Peru – simply cannot return home when the semester ends, because their home countries have closed their airspace to international flights, he said.

The university does typically operate its residences as guest accommodation during the summer months, and students who are unable to find alternative housing may be allowed to rent residence space over the summer, he said. However each student will be handled on a case-by-case basis, and if B.C. public health officials order the university to close its residences they may have no choice but to close the residence buildings.

Many students living in residence, regardless of where they're from, may find it difficult to find accommodation when the semester is over.

"Everybody is finding themselves in the same boat," he said.

— With files from The Canadian Press

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