[ SkipToMainMenu ]

Speech to the Canada Emergency Student Benefit Bill

Honourable senators, this bill is ostensibly about the present plight of students, but it is really about the future of our country.

It is a cliché to talk about young people as the future, but as far as clichés go, this one is hard to refute. The fact is that the cohort affected by this bill will be among the people who will rise to leadership positions across Canada in the next few decades. That is why it is so important that the current generation of future leaders emerge from the COVID-19 crisis with a renewed belief in the institutions and shared values of our country, with optimism and confidence in the future, and with the skills, experiences and aptitudes that will be needed to navigate the challenges of their lifetimes.

As our young people get ready to enter adulthood, leave school and join the workforce, Bill C-15 and all the measures taken in response to COVID-19 will shape the way they perceive their country.

They will, I hope, remember the lockdown of 2020 as a time when the country decided that science trumps politics; when collective interest supersedes self-interest; when we were aligned in our effort to not leave anyone behind; when essential workers were truly recognized as essential; and when the potential of young people was not sacrificed because of short-term economic calculation.

It is probably fitting that the young people who are experiencing their formative and pre-adult years, during COVID-19 and its aftermath, are referred to as post-Generation Z. They are also, by the way, seen as the children of Generation X or the grandchildren of Boomers, to use terminology that might resonate better with the demographic in this chamber.

If there is a term for post-Generation Z, I suppose it would be “Generation A,” which is quite appropriate if you believe that the world after COVID-19 will involve starting again from the beginning of the alphabet. Indeed, many of that generation have been calling for a reset of societal priorities even before the health crisis. But the reset that many are expecting to take place in our understanding of health and welfare, of politics, economics, the environment and international relations, may be less profound than we presume, and could be more malignant than we are hoping for. All of that will depend on how we respond to COVID-19 in the present and in the months and years ahead, and especially on how well our young people come out of this crisis.

Eschewing the normative connotations of alphabetical order, let me instead call the cohort targeted by Bill C-15 “Generation COVID,” or “GenCo,” if you like. By providing them with the means to enrol in a post-secondary educational program or to simply stay in one, we are saying to GenCo that investing in your future is an investment in Canada’s future.

It is useful that the bill requires an attestation on the part of students to declare that they are unable to find work, and that they are in fact seeking work. In this regard, the provision in the bill, whereby the minister must make available to students information about employment opportunities is helpful, as is the motion adopted in the other place, calling on the government to implement new incentives to connect students and youth to jobs in the agriculture and agri-food sector. Likewise, the yet-to-be-announced program to support volunteer activities related to COVID-19 could be an important outlet for students who receive the Canada Emergency Student Benefit, or CESB.

While not part of Bill C-15 as such, the new Canada Student Service Grant will help students gain valuable work experience and skills while they assist their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. For students who choose to do national service in their communities, the new Canada Student Service Grant will provide up to $5,000 for their education in the fall.

I am intrigued by the reference to “national service.” This is a term that has gone out of fashion in these more individualistic and cynical times. But why not? Will 2020 be the year when the idea of service to the nation regains favour? And if it took a wretched virus to bring that about, so what? We’ll take it.

It will, of course, be up to our young people to decide if they want to perform national service. And it will be up to them to rise to the challenge of imposed lockdown and shortage of employment opportunities by finding creative ways to stay busy, through paid or unpaid work and self-improvement activities.

Let me open a parenthesis to say that as I was listening to the Committee of the Whole and other comments made in this chamber, it struck me that there is a lot of concern across this chamber about the potential disincentive effects of the grant on students, and almost a presumption or insinuation that students will do their best to take advantage of it and not seek work, perhaps out of some kind of desire to be by the swimming pool or through sheer slothfulness.

I can tell you that as the Committee of the Whole was proceeding, I received feedback from one person in this demographic, who sent me the following email in response to what she heard in many of the questions: “Wow! Really? I feel that that’s a bit insulting to students. Is the argument that students are inherently lazy and would rather sit at home and play video games than contribute to society? They are bored and lonely and scared and looking for meaning in their lives. Surely the bigger issue is that there isn’t going to be enough work for them. Young people are dismayed that their normal summer jobs are not happening, not just because of the lack of income but because they really enjoy those jobs.”

I hope the coming summer will be one that defines Generation COVID-19 as the savvy, determined, resilient and innovative young adults who lead the longer-term recovery of Canada. How I Spent the Summer of 2020 will not be a blockbuster movie, but it could be the basis on which there is a renewed national spirit of youth-led optimism and hope for the future of this country.

I must say, however, that it is hard to be optimistic at the present time. While most of us on the Hill have been focusing on this important piece of legislation, perhaps the more illuminating parliamentary document that came out in the last 48 hours is the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s updated scenario analysis of the COVID-19 pandemic and oil price shocks. The report significantly revises downwards the PBO’s assumption regarding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and oil price shocks on the Canadian economy. To wit:

In our updated economic scenario, real GDP is assumed to decline by 2.5 per cent in the first quarter and then again by 20.0 per cent in the second quarter (both rates not annualized).

Let that sink in for a minute.

Real GDP is then assumed to rebound modestly in the third and fourth quarters as epidemic control measures begin to be gradually relaxed.

The PBO’S real GDP forecast for 2020 as a whole is a decline of -12%, which would be by far the weakest on record since the current GDP series started in 1961. To put this in historical perspective, the weakest growth in real GDP on record, that is to say -3.2%, was observed in 1982, and that was roughly just one quarter of the PBO’s projected decline.

Colleagues, it is important to recognize that the decline in economic output is created by the coronavirus, and not because of prior weakness in the Canadian economy, except in the case of the oil and gas sector, which was already facing pressure from a glut of global oil. The economic downturn would be much worse if Parliament did not respond with such aggressive measures as were contained in Bill C-13, Bill C-14 and now in Bill C-15.

But if the PBO is correct, we ain’t seen nothing yet. The reason is that even after the economy begins to rebound, the lagged effects of an economic downturn on business activity — especially large-scale insolvencies — will continue to be felt. Colleagues, we are nowhere near the end of the kind of government intervention that will be needed for the Canadian economy to stabilize, let alone to begin a sustainable recovery.

Many of us in this chamber have been focused on affected groups that have been neglected in the current suite of COVID-19 relief programs, and there is yet more work that needs to be done and perhaps more program fixes in the offing, but the next big thing will be industry and corporate bailouts. We have only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of programs such as the orphan oil well cleanup, which is of modest help to our fossil fuel energy sector, but not nearly enough to combat the twin crises of virus and virulent price wars in that sector.

It is only a matter of time before we have to turn our attention to proposed bailouts for the transportation, entertainment and hospitality, commercial real estate and agri-food sectors, among others. In this regard, the role of parliamentarians, especially senators, in thinking about the principles and objectives of corporate rescue packages will be crucial. While we need to consider first and foremost the livelihoods affected by major corporate failures, we also need to reflect on the distribution of losses among shareholders, bondholders, executives, and not least workers. We also need to think about the kind of economy we want to have in the decades ahead, and not create moral hazards for ourselves as so many industrialized economies have done in times of financial crisis.

Alas, it is not only corporate bailouts that will occupy our attention in the months ahead. Based on the PBO’s latest scenario outlook, we can expect a moderate recovery in the third and fourth quarters of 2020, based on the assumption of a gradual relaxation of social distancing measures. The PBO declined to offer an economic outlook beyond December 2020 because of the extreme uncertainty we are currently facing, but it is my best guess that 2021 will not see the economy roaring back to pre-crisis levels. I hope I am wrong, but even if I am half right, it is highly likely we will need income support for Canadians well into next year. The problem, of course, is that the legal authorities for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which is the primary mechanism for income support currently, will expire on October 2. Other COVID-19 relief programs also have best before dates in the fall, including the CESB, which is part of the bill we are considering today.

The point, colleagues, is that the Government of Canada is almost certainly going to have to come up with income support programs that extend beyond October 2020, possibly through all of 2021 and maybe even spilling into 2022. In looking at how we might address income support on the expiry of current programs, my strong belief is that the government should design a program that commits to a minimum 12 months of support rather than, say, to extend CERB for another three or six months, subject to repeated reviews. The benefit of a 12-month time frame for income support is that it provides certainty to households and businesses in terms of their personal and corporate planning, and would therefore aid the recovery process. I would, however, redesign and indeed simplify income support so that the rebooted programs capture all of the vulnerable groups that need to be captured, rather than making ad hoc patches to a disparate set of programs as and when new groups are identified. Let’s call this new mechanism the “12-month COVID recovery income support plan.”

I believe some version of a guaranteed livable income should be at the heart of a “12-month COVID income support plan.” The reason is not because I am fully persuaded of the merits of a guaranteed livable income vis-à-vis pre-COVID social assistance, but it is because I believe GLI is a more efficient way of distributing income support in the very context of the massive transfers that I believe will, one way or another, have to be provided to Canadians in the year ahead.

We have before us, colleagues, an opportunity to provide income support through a temporary guaranteed livable income and to test its efficacy through rigorous measurement and evaluation of the impacts on a range of health, economic, fiscal, education and social indicators. I am not so naive to think that a national GLI can be instituted by the fall of 2020, but even if one or two provinces opt for GLI as a preferred approach to income support, that will provide a basis for comparing and contrasting results in those provinces with the more so-called bespoke income support approaches taken in the rest of the country.

Which brings me back to Bill C-15 and the plight of students in the current health crisis. The CESB will come to an end in the middle of September, and we, of course, hope that the crisis will also have come to an end and classes can resume in the normal fashion. If that is not the case, however, we will surely need some form of further support for this cohort of Canadians. In that scenario, the CESB will essentially blend into a form of CERB, which again invites the possibility of a merger of the two programs by way of a GLI of some sort.

Colleagues, we have now been called back for three emergency sittings, each time to deal with bills which offer bespoke relief to individual Canadians and businesses on a temporary basis. I fully appreciate the reasons why the programs have been developed in this way, and do not fault the government for its focus on immediate solutions that are premised on short-term outlooks.

It is looking increasingly clear, however, that the fallout from COVID-19 is not going to go away quickly and that we need programs not only to help us get through the so-called flattening of the coronavirus curve, but that can also help us to bend economic recovery upwards. I hope the next round of COVID-19 legislation is about flattening as well as bending. Thank you.