ST. JOHN’S, NFLD. (CUP) — Although government officials are considering changes to the legislation outlining access to Canada Student Loans for refugees, advocates say the process has already gone on too long.
Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) administers the federal student loan program under the Student Financial Assistance Act. According to the act, refugees cannot obtain Canada Student Loans because only landed immigrants and Canadian citizens are eligible.
Two years ago, a private member’s bill proposed the words “protected person” be added to the Act’s definition of a qualifying student, thus allowing refugees in Canada to apply for financial assistance.
The bill, presented by Toronto MP Bill Graham on behalf of human rights lobbyists, was defeated when it failed to attract all parties’ support in the House of Commons.
Janet Bench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, says her organization is one of many groups now petitioning government to bring forth legislation similar to the defeated bill.
“We are urging . . . the federal government and the provincial governments and the territorial governments . . . to change their criteria for access to the loans and bursaries so that it’s not only citizens and permanent residents that are eligible but also refugees,” she said.
Katalin Deczky, a policy director for the Canada Student Loans program, says HRDC is considering such a move.
“Any extension outside of [citizens and permanent residents] would need changes in the act and, therefore, parliament approval,” she said. “It’s certainly under consideration.”
According to Deczky, granting refugees access to student loans has already been brought up at meetings of the National Advisory Group on Student Financial Assistance, which makes recommendations to Stewart about changes to the loans program.
“Acts of parliament are quite lengthy to change and it certainly will take time,” she said. “I really can’t comment because this is decided by parliamentarians, not by bureaucrats.”
Bench, however, says the issue has been talked about for long enough and the federal government’s lack of action is delaying the process provincially.
“It’s been discussed for years and it seems to take forever to actually get to happen,” she said.
“Some of [the provincial governments] were willing to indicate to the federal government that they would be willing to make the change if the federal government made the first move.”
Both federal and provincial governments contribute to the student loans program.
The provinces contribute 40 per cent of the loan a student receives, while Ottawa provides the remainder. For this reason, provincial authorities say it would be ineffective to pursue changes without federal support.
Sandra Kelly, Newfoundland’s minister responsible for post-secondary education, says changes made only in the province would not have an impact and the issue needs to be examined nationally.
“I would like to ask that it be put on the agenda [of the Canadian Council of Ministers of Education] because I know that there are other changes that are needed to the Canada Student Loan program,” she said.
“We have so few people who become refugees in Newfoundland . . . it would be very uncommon here in our province to have refugees who were looking at attending university.”
However, Donna Geoffreys, director of the Refugee and Immigrant Advisory Council in St. John’s, says the regulations are a form of discrimination that impact refugees locally. She says Newfoundland sees a number of refugees being denied access to student loans.
“Taking a certain year, you could say there were 15, or 20, or maybe 25 [refugees] that were ready for university education, or to continue or to go back into, and they couldn’t,” she said.
“So it depends on what you call large. These are people that would benefit if they could get into the university – they’d obviously have to get a loan, there’s no way they could go through.”
Ally Ayoob, president of Memorial University’s International Student Centre, says he knows of cases where refugees attending Memorial have had to delay their education due to lack of funding. He says the struggle to finance post-secondary education is a problem for everyone in society.
“Financially, [refugees are] not safe. So that means they have to resort to any small job and that [causes] lack of education – they can’t go to school,” he said.
He says the government is “not improving the underclass people, it won’t be improving the economy if you don’t give [refugees] the chance and financial support.”