Higher Education Strategy Associates

The Canada Post-Secondary Education Act

History lesson: Back in 1864, Canada West (i.e. Ontario) was getting hot under the collar about a little thing called representation by population.  Since the Durham Report, the two Canadas had been governed under a system that gave both Upper and Lower Canada a veto over legislation.  This had made sense when the two colonies were roughly the same size, but now that Canada West was growing faster, it seemed like a bad deal.

The solution to this problem was called federalism: two orders of government, with different sets of powers.  And Quebec was totally cool with rep-by-pop at the federal level, provided – and this is key – that Education remain a provincial responsibility.  Because on no account was Quebec going to let Protestant Anglophone Ontarians get their stinking dirty hands on their Francophone, Catholic school system, period.  In other words, the bargain on which our nation rests is that education shall never be a federal responsibility.

So why is there a Canada Post-Secondary Education Act, a private member’s bill, under consideration in Ottawa?

The short answer is, because NDP PSE critics always sponsor one, and have done for the last three Parliaments, at least.  And the reason they do so is that they’re in hock to the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), who drafted a model Act something like 30 years ago, and keep lobbying for its adoption.  Why CAUT thinks it’s such a hot idea is a mystery.  Partly, I suspect, it’s because many of its members belong to the shade of Anglophone political opinion that somehow believes “federal govt = important govt”, and important questions need to be dealt with by the important level of government.  More pragmatically, I suppose, it’s because Ottawa-based interest groups like CAUT always prefer constitutional interpretations that involve shifting the action to Ottawa.

You can see the CAUT version of the bill here, and you can see the NDP version of the bill – which is substantially different – here.  In some ways it’s a harmless enough bill.  Basically, it suggests that PSE transfers to provinces be conditional on a bunch of things that, for the most part, provinces already do.  But there are two extremely silly elements in the NDP version of the bill, which suggest whoever drafted it hasn’t spent a whole lot of time thinking through potential consequences.

The first is the stipulation that all post-secondary education in the receiving provinces must be “publicly administered”, that is “provided on a public and not-for-profit basis”.  That definition makes complete sense for community colleges, but less so for everyone else.  What happens to religious schools like Redeemer or Trinity Western?  What happens to foreign providers licensed to operate here (e.g. Charles Sturt in Ontario)?  What happens to the hundreds of licensed private vocational colleges and language schools?  Hell, what happens to union-run apprenticeship trades training organizations?  Add all that up, and you’re well over a hundred thousand students suddenly without a home.

The second is the exemption of the Act’s provisions on the grounds of the “unique nature of (its) jurisdiction”.  I’m sure this makes for good politics within the NDP caucus, where a large number are likely supporters of sovereigntist parties provincially, but it’s legal nonsense.  Sure, Quebec might be the reason education is a provincial responsibility, but constitutionally all provinces are equal, and none are more equal than others.

All of this is a footnote of course: private members bills rarely get to the floor of the house, and even if the present one did it would be voted down.  But for a party that may have a share of government after the next election, it’s a disappointingly amateur effort.

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