Jean Chrétien rose in the House of Commons to present his reply to the Speech from the Throne. About half-way in, he noted casually that there would likely be a financial surplus that year (a miracle, considering where we’d been in 1995). And he was planning to blow it on something called “Millennium Scholarships.”
Until that exact moment, his caucus had been in the dark about the idea. Indeed, cabinet had been in the dark until the day before. So, too, had the Privy Council Office – Chrétien had deliberately kept them out of the loop because he knew they’d hate it.
The way the project was pursued in the run-up to the 1998 budget didn’t do the Foundation any favours. There were two basic problems. One was that it wasn’t clear for months whether these were going to be merit scholarships or need-based grants (in French, the word “bourses” covers both). The civil servants at HRDC and Paul Martin wanted it to be about need; Pierre Pettigrew and the Finance mandarins wanted it to be about merit.
In the end, 95% was distributed “primarily” on the basis of need, while 5% went to merit. This mix was about right; broad fears of rising tuition and debt required a policy response that emphasized need. Conversely, had more been allocated to merit, the excellence awards would have been devalued – part of what made them special was the fact that they weren’t available to the tens of thousands of students originally envisaged.
The second problem was that no one in Ottawa – including HRDC – really understood how student aid worked. The result was a commitment to give the Foundation’s need-based aid to students with “the highest need” – that is, to exactly the students who already received grants from the provinces. The result was that Millennium awards ended up saving provincial aid programs a bucket-load of money. The Foundation did its best to get provinces to re-invest that money. Apart from Ontario and Nova Scotia it was pretty successful. With some justification, students were disappointed; Eddie Goldenberg was apoplectic.
This isn’t the place to recount the Foundation’s history (for that, I recommend Silver Donald Cameron’s A Million Futures. All you really need to know is that for ten years, the Foundation ran a national social program that wasn’t one-size fits all, it ran a merit program that was much more than just money-for-marks, and was rigorous about using empirical research to improve our understanding of how to improve access to higher education. It was just a different way of doing student aid.
The Foundation was created on the back of a cocktail napkin. But within the boundaries of that cocktail napkin, a lot of neat stuff happened. The country’s worse off without it.