Award recipients cheated, say students

Last Thursday, the Canadian Millennium Scholarship Foundation celebrated its first anniversary with much fanfare by giving themselves a collective pat on the back. Students from across the country were present for the event but were divided in their opinions on the effectiveness of the program.

The CMSF held its first Annual Public Meeting and luncheon in Calgary Sept. 14 at the Palliser Hotel. In attendance were the Foundation’s Board of Directors, members, student leaders from the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations and the Canadian Federation of Students, and members of the general public. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien graced the luncheon with his attendance.

"I am delighted to be here with you today to celebrate the creation of an initiative in which I take great personal pride–the Canadian Millennium Scholarship Program," said Chrétien at the start of the luncheon. He was introduced by the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the CMSF Jean Monty as "the man who first envisioned the creation of a private scholarship foundation."

The Foundation was created one year ago and given a $2.85 billion one-time grant to distribute to needy students across the country in a fair manner over a 10-year period.

The CMSF’s accomplishments after one year are impressive–93,000 students across Canada were awarded scholarships. Even more impressive is the fact the Foundation, a national group, was able to coordinate the scholarships with each individual province and territory. Education in Canada is a provincial jurisdiction and according to CMSF, provinces guard their responsibilities jealously and don’t voluntarily cooperate when they believe the federal government is moving in on their turf. As a result, the scholarships are administered differently in each province and territory.

"We’re OK with how the majority of the issues have been handled," said Mark Kissel, National director of CASA, an umbrella organization of student unions that includes the University of Calgary Students’ Union.

Kissel acknowledged that there may be some problems with the Foundation in some provinces, but maintained these were provincial problems, whereas CASA is a national lobby group that petitions the federal government. Kissel was in attendance at the luncheon and APM along with U of C Students’ Union President Toby White, but neither of them raised any concerns during the question and answer period.

However, the University of Alberta SU VP External and Northwest Regional Director of CASA Naomi Agard did raise some issues. Agard claimed that last year, eligible award winners in Alberta received between $2,000-$4,000 each. This year, Alberta students were only awarded between $1,000 and $3,000, due to an increase of 2,000 students in the post-secondary system.

"Since more and more students are entering post-secondary, are these awards levels going to get smaller and smaller [in future years]?" asked Agard.

CMSF CEO Norman Riddell responded by saying that Alberta, like all provinces, has a "unique" arrangement with the CMSF in distributing the bursaries. Although the amount of money that Alberta gets from the CMSF has been fixed for the next 10 years, if more students become eligible for the scholarship, the Alberta government has agreed to make up the difference, using provincial money to equal CMSF grants.

"I’ve never seen a province give money to a federal agency on cheques with Canadian flags on them, but there’s a first for everything," added Riddell.

But Agard said this is not happening.

"If this agreement exists, then the Alberta government isn’t honouring it," she said.

Ontario post-secondary students have a different set of problems to deal with, according to CFS Chairperson Michael Conlon and University of Waterloo SU VP Education Mark Schaan. In Ontario, students are allowed to borrow up to $10,000 per year for their studies. Any debt above $7,000 is forgiven and not required to be repaid. But students who were eligible for CMS monies and who were above the maximum threshold have not seen their awards. That money has gone to the provincial coffers to pay down their debts over the $7,000 mark, which they believed they did not owe.

"This has resulted in a savings of $75 million [for the Ontario government]. About $70 million [of that] has gone into [Ontario’s] general revenue," claimed Conlon.

"Ironically, it benefits students who have less debt," added Schaan. "It’s penalizing students with greater debt."

Ridell responded that the foundation is not a lawmaking body and unfortunately cannot "force" provinces to change their behaviour, although he did urge both CASA and the CFS to continue their lobby efforts. Conlon, whose organization has beefs with the way Millennium money is distributed in Nova Scotia as well, added that the time for diplomacy is over.

"From our standpoint, we’ve done what we can," said Conlon. "I’m suggesting that the [CMFS] Board should consider the reality that diplomacy has not worked. They have the ability to take action that we don’t, quite frankly. They have the legal right to audit the provinces. [Some of the provinces] are breaking a contract."

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