Pearson’s election manifestoes of 1958, 1962, and 1963 (mostly written by Englishman and former Winnipeg Free Press editor, Tom Kent) all contained proposals for both a loan scheme and a system of scholarships. But upon coming to power in the last of those three elections, loans weren’t the new government’s first priority. In fact, Pearson’s team quickly became bogged down in a completely different policy arena: namely, pensions. The Liberals had promised a national contributory pension system, but were having an enormous problem getting buy-in, since both Ontario and Quebec had their own ideas about how a pension system should be run (for a real blow-by-blow of this, read P.E. Bryden’s, Planners and Politicians).
On March 31st, at a federal-provincial conference (remember those? They used to be quite common) on the pension issue, Premier Lesage provided an outline for what would become the QPP. It was widely judged to be a more advantageous plan than the one the feds were putting forward, and there was the prospect of the federal plan collapsing if some kind of arrangement could not be made (it seems ridiculous now, but at the time, the impasse over pensions was seen as being a threat to confederation itself – Peter C. Newman’s, The Distemper of Our Times does a good job of capturing this).
Over the course of the next two weekends, Kent and his Quebec counterpart held secret talks (so secret, in fact, that Pearson kept their existence hidden from the nominally-responsible minister, Judy La Marsh) to try to hammer out a deal. As the talks wore on, it became clear that this discussion needed to be about more than just pensions: what Quebec was really after was a more general freedom to craft its own social programs. What emerged on the 16th of April – 50 years ago this Wednesday – was a deal that cemented not only the CPP/QPP arrangement we have today, but also cemented the practice of “opting-out with compensation” from federal social programs. The first program to which this applied? The Canada Student Loans Program, which promptly started operation (oddly enough, under the auspices of the Minister of Finance) on August 1st of that year.
The CSLP was supposed to be complemented by a national scholarship system, but the plan never quite came to pass. Kent’s idea was a radical one: he wanted to get rid of the institutional grants, and move all the money into the scholarship fund; institutions would be able to raise their fees, and students would be able to access a massive need-based aid fund. The universities, predictably, thought this was a terrible idea. Much as was the case in the US when Pell grants were introduced, institutions far preferred money in their hands rather than in students’. But unlike the US, where grants were introduced by a Johnson administration at the height of its powers, by 1965 the Pearson minority government was an exhausted mess. Eventually, this promise morphed into a commitment to provide greater support to funding institutions so they could expand. It would not be until the 1990s that the Government of Canada would eventually fulfill the promise of non-repayable aid.