Show, don’t tell: Canada’s COVID-19 response doesn’t meet students’ needs or reflect their realities

If you’re a young person in Canada right now, chances are you’re used to the government letting you down. Whether you’re a teenager in Ontario affected by education cuts, a university student looking at climbing tuition and housing costs, or happen to live on the planet that’s being gutted for oil money and mining deals, it’s easy to become cynical with rhetorical pronouncements and sloganeering about young people being “our most important resource”the future of our country. 

But somehow it still stings to have my cynicism proven right. 

Even for a generation like mine, whose entire lives have essentially consisted of a series of steadily escalating financial and ecological crises devastating our crumbling futures, COVID-19 was completely unprecedented. We were thrust into a crashing economy with ballooning housing costs and a crumbling low-waged job market and expected to pull ourselves up by our student-debt-financed bootstraps to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. Even in the best of times, young people are barely keeping our heads above water. 

In his April 22nd press conference, Justin Trudeau announced the government’s new student-specific COVID response benefit, the Canadian Emergency Student Benefit (CESB). At first I was hopeful: “COVID-19 has meant that there aren’t as many jobs out there for students,” Trudeau said. “And without a job, it can be hard to pay for tuition or the day-to-day basics.”

Yes! Exactly! Finally, he gets it! I’m financially independentI pay my own rent, buy my own food, and live 4,000 km away from my hometownand I couldn’t believe that people like me might finally be getting the help we need. 

But, somehow, right after Trudeau explained that he understands young people are facing the exact same problems as everybody else, he went on to proudly announce that he would be giving us just over half of what was being offered through the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). While the rest of the working population would receive $2,000 a month, student recipients of the CESB are getting $1,250or $1,750/month for students with a disability or a dependent. We don’t even get that full $2,000 amount if we’re taking care of a whole other person

COVID-19 shut down the country in mid-March, long before most young people had secured a summer job, which leaves a majority of students ineligible for CERB. Students aren’t a monolithwe aren’t all lucky enough to be able to depend on our parents for food and shelter, and the fact that the government assumes that’s the norm for 18-to-24-year-olds (not to mention older post-secondary students) says a lot about what kinds of people they’re prioritizing. Not the poor ones, or ones that can’t fall back on their family for support, that’s for sure!

There isn’t a secret student discount for rent. I can’t exchange my UBC transcript for free groceries. Surprisingly, my hydro bills still demand payment despite the fact that I’m trying to get a degree. Basic expenses like transportation, food, housing and utilities can cost well over a thousandor thousands ofdollars a month, not to mention the fact that tuition can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year for students that fund their own education. Considering that many of the service industry jobs most affected by the crisis are the most common sources of income for young people, the government’s recent announcement leaves thousands of students with no idea how they’re going to make it through the summer. 

Student debt is already a crisis: Canada’s current student debt balance is currently estimated at over $28 billion owed to all sources of government. And the research shows us that student debt is also a gendered issue. 

What happens once students can’t get jobs, and the $300/week from the CESB isn’t enough to cover rent, utilities, and foodlet alone tuition fees when classes resume? We’ll be forced to take on even more debt, the ramifications of which will follow us long after this crisis is over. In addition to having to postpone major life decisions, student debtors often turn to other sources of credit, including credit cards and payday loans. Debt already looms over my generation, and the long-term implications of underfunding young people in this crisis could impact our finances for decades, if not the rest of our lives. 

Despite the fact that it’s clearly possible to offer a living wage through the CERB to people who need it, the government is making the decision that a significant number of my generation doesn’t. But the CESB is an acknowledgement of our situation, not a solution. It’s more than we’re currently getting from the federal government, but considerably less than is needed for us to survive a sector and a job market already ravaged by austerity and now reeling from the impacts of COVID-19. And we deserve better.


Rayne Fisher-Quann is a student, activist, and public speaker. In all of her work, she strives to make room for the voices of young people in politics, policy, and advocacy. You can follow her on twitter @raynefq.