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Interview with Michael McDonald: Executive Director, Canadian Alliance of Student Associations


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/04/08


An interview with Michael McDonald, Executive Director of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA). CASA represents more than 250,000 post-secondary or tertiary level undergraduate students across Canada. It is the second largest organization of its kind in Canada. McDonald discusses: the bigger budget items to focus on; medium budget items of note; the nuanced, small line items of note within the budget; closing the education gap for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students; things more or less important to post-secondary students incorporated into the budget; provisions for students entering into trades and other areas; data or outcomes for funding relevant to the prevention of sexual violence; provisions for the Quebec Student Union; different emphases for different student collectives; and provisions for student mental health.

Keywords: budget, Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, CASA, Michael McDonald, students.

Interview with Michael McDonald: Executive Director, Canadian Alliance of Student Associations[1],[2],[3]

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let us begin with some of the basics of the new budget for the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), what would be the bigger things within the budget that student unions, student representatives, and the students that are represented by CASA at large should pay attention to in this new budget?

Michael McDonald: This budget was primarily focused on research funding. The main area where dollars were allocated from the federal government to post-secondary institutions. Specifically, some of the largest investments were in the granting councils that have ever occurred.

The granting councils, and there are three of them, are the National Sciences and Engineering Council or NSERC, the Canadian Institute for Health Research or CIHR, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council or SSHRC.

These three bodies provide significant funding to individual researchers but also to students at the undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate levels to conduct research. These are some of the largest and most prestigious research awards that one can win in any of these given fields.

It is estimated, at least from the budget numbers, that it is likely up to 8,000 new student applications from the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels who will be able to access the grants.

2. Jacobsen: What are some of the more medium-sized line items that should paid attention to as well?

McDonald: There is a renewed commitment to the funding for the Canada Summer Jobs program as part of the Youth Employment Strategy. This extends what was a funding commitment of 3 years in Budget 2016.

It extends it to 5 years, so an additional three years of expanded funding for the program. It also really importantly highlights the Youth Employment Strategy and the Canada Summer Jobs program in specific, should look to the Youth Employment Report on how to improve work-related learning and youth employment opportunities.

This is a report that CASA and its members submitted to a comprehensive set of recommendations. Some of the recommendations were adopted in the report. One was released back in June.

The budget is saying that this is what the program should look to when it is modernizing. It is a positive sign. We are looking forward to the future on how that will be implemented. Also, we are looking at specific funding that will impact student unions.

There is now $5.5. million dedicated by the federal government to the Status of Women Canada to created a working group to be able to tackle sexual violence on campuses. This material, specifically, is something that CASA’s Chair and a variety of other CASA members have spoken to the Status of Women committee about.

It is the first set of investments that we have seen from the federal government for this, to coordinate across the country and to share best practices. This was a good first start for the federal government.

They did institute some particularly strong language around what steps the federal government might take when institutions do not adopt best practices. They have said in the budget that the Canadian government may consider withdrawing funds.

This strong language is something we are happy to see. We are concerned what mechanisms or vehicles they are considering. We are waiting to see how this will be implemented before we comment on it further.

3. Jacobsen: As per the logical progression of the first three questions, what are some of the more nuanced, small line items within the budget that may be noteworthy?

McDonald: Initially, some of the other stuff that is important to highlight. There was a $10 billion funding allotment to the Post-Secondary Student Support program, which is the primary mechanism First Nations and Inuit students receive funding from the federal government for post-secondary education.

This $10 million allotment was to allow for Metis students to access the program. This expanded, specifically, access there. You also saw something like the $27 million over 5 years to support educational and labour market linkage data.

This is supposed to be able to help those entering post-secondary and in post-secondary learn about information about careers and sector outcomes. This is something that helps with job prospects and what jobs are connected to outcomes.

It provides more of the information and makes it more easily accessible and easily comprehensible.

4. Jacobsen: If you look at a national conversation around Indigenous – or First Nations, Inuit, and Metis – students, graduate and undergraduate but particularly for this conversation undergraduate, there are efforts to close the education gap, as it’s called.

For instance, the former prime minister Paul Martin has the Martin Family Initiative that has an emphasis on the health, wellbeing, and education outcomes of Indigenous youth in particular.

What are some parts of the budget, and you have noted some, devoted to working to close that gap through additional funding for Indigenous students in Canada?

McDonald: So, beyond the funding for the Metis funding announced in this year’s budget, last year, the government invested $90 million over 2 years, so $45 million this year and $45 million next year into the Post-Secondary Student Support program to provide additional support for Indigenous learners who would be accessing the program.

This is not thought to be enough to cover the demand for the program. Initially, it was implemented in 1997. it had a capped growth, like all services in Indigenous Affairs, of 2%.

While education inflation, so the costs of education, is greater than 2% each year, and on top of that, you also saw the Indigenous population who was capable of accessing funding increase larger than 2% every year.

This has resulted in a gap, where a significant number of eligible students who can attend post-secondary. They have been accepted, but have not been able to access it. The federal government is engaged in a review of this program.

This funding was designed to be short term. There are strong indications over the next year. There will be significant alterations to the program in how it provides funding to students and bands in general.

This is something that will see significant changes in next year’s budget. It is something the government has pledged to address. I know stakeholders outside the government are waiting for them to institute the systemic reforms that they made commitments to.

It is one that we are still waiting on.

5. Jacobsen: In terms of the scaling, though I do not recall off the top but do remember being a part of this, what are the sliding scale of things that are a part of this? How are those incorporated into this new budget?

Things more important get more focus and funding. Things less important to students get less focus and funding.

McDonald: From an advocacy side, when engaging with the government, we have seen significant investments in something like the Canada Student Loans Program over the last few years, which is the primary vehicle where students receive funding from the government.

In 2016 and 2017, there were significant investments either to expand the number of individuals eligible or the amounts of the grants that they would be able to receive. This process is one that this year did not see.

There was not additional funding to the Canada Student Loans program, even though CASA asked for additional funding for students with disabilities because they have not received additional funding in the last couple of years.

We acknowledge the federal government has been contributing significant finances to this field after the last little bit. Our members will go back to the Hill next year, likely, and ask the government to do more where there are additional cost barriers to post-secondary and potentially in the area of repayment – where being able to make sure students who didn’t carry substantial financial debts are not punished and protected from those loans.

6. Jacobsen: What are some provisions for students entering into areas that the country needs more and more as time moves forward such as trades?

McDonald: This is a complicated discussion. One of the good things in the budget that was also identified was that the community skills training, the skills program, is run out and provided funding for research initiatives held at colleges and polytechnics.

We did receive additional funding for five years there. This helps operate certain programs across the country that gives opportunities to students and businesses to work in an environment that allows to students to work on projects that are market-focused.

It allows them to get those skills from an employer while in study, and all the while leading in something that is in economic demand. When it comes to gaps in potential demand across the country, we do highlight and want to emphasize student choice and student choice in what field they want to enter into.

We advocate on assistance that covers everyone. No matter if you go to college, university, or a trades school, you deserve assistance to complete your studies. Anybody should have access if they are academically qualified to any program.

When it comes to the ideas behind potential gaps, very often, some of these will be self-correcting. A good example of this has been recently with – though the data is a bit more complicated than this – increased enrollment in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

It is sometimes in high demand fields. Significant numbers of students are entering into those fields. It has been at a decrease in other departments. Over time, what is outcome data does establish that we have not necessarily seen a large number of students that entered a field and then that was not proving to be lucrative for them, that means our best tracking data that we still have, which is any tax-linkage data out of somebody like professor Ross Finney.

The data ends up indicating students do quite well on average, whether they enter the arts, humanities, social sciences, sciences, and so on. We are somewhat hesitant as an organization to ever jump onto a “well we’re missing this right now.”

The thing about the educational system is that it has a delayed response to these things. if we say that we are missing out on a specific profession or field, those students may not get out of the post-secondary system for the next 2, 4, or 5 years.

They might be entering into a completely different labour market. The idea that we think is a better responder on what the needs of the students is what reflects their interests, the areas that they want to get into, and to build the jobs that they want in the future because they will be key components in the future for that as well.

7. Jacobsen: I want to touch on the sexual violence prevention on campuses within Canada for those represented by CASA. What have been, if there are, data or outcomes of similar measures that CASA will be funding other campuses in terms of the prevention of sexual violence in order to reduce the rate of sexual violence on campus, as this is a concern throughout the country?

McDonald: CASA will engage with the government to be able to provide those data points. We have been in consultation with Statistics Canada on the development on what will be its first reporting mechanism on the safety on campus, which includes sexual violence statistics.

One of the challenges that does exist right now is that there is not standardized data across the country. One of the challenges is also measuring the impact of initiatives taken by provincial governments and the federal government.

It is something where we lack the tracking data to see if it has been effective. We will continue to work. We are happy to see the federal government commit funding to Statistics Canada and happy to see some of the best practices are more easily shared across the country into the future.

But some of the data in Ontario where they have mandated that there will be sexual violence reporting on their campuses. It still will be available for a while.

8. Jacobsen: As well, the QSU or the Quebec Student Union and its 8 members represent about 75,000 students within CASA’s national voice now. What are some provisions within the budget that differ from other sectors of that budget that at for the QSU student collective?

McDonald: CASA and the QSU both advocate quite actively on the issue of fundamental sciences and on research funding in the country. Both student groups, that is French and English in the country, saw the importance in the ability to bring forth new dollars for researcher led research across the country, investigator led research

This is the important stuff. It crosses the country. Students from the East Coast to Quebec, to Ontario, to Manitoba, to Saskatchewan, to Alberta, to British Columbia, and the territories, all think it is important that the funding is available in an active way and in an accessible way for Canadian researchers and especially early career researchers as they are integral to the operations towards building an innovative economy.

These are the projects that will be turning into both the social science questions that we will be able to more tackle more comprehensively that we encounter with sexual violence on campus. The people who will be involved in significant new discoveries in those lucrative fields that a modern economy so requires.

So, both groups commit together to the benefit of all students. Luckily, in this situation, that benefit was spread pretty equally across the board.

9. Jacobsen: As well, if you look at the bigger picture of student association collectives, CASA being one. Canadian Federation of Students being the biggest. Then a bunch of smaller ones. Some defunct and some extant.

What are some different emphases that they have that differ from some of the ones that CASA has?

McDonald: As an example, we focus predominantly on our members and our members’ objectives. I think one of the positive things across the country is that student groups at the provincial level, the federal level, care deeply about making sure the experience of being a student is improved.

They care fundamentally about improving the lives of students on a day-to-day experience. How that is accomplished is different at times and on what is brought forward to the government on a given day may change, I do think – and this is a positive story – that they are all working on the idea that we can make the lives of all people pursuing study better.

That they can pursue higher quality education and can do so in ways that they don’t get burdened by long-term debts and respects the diversity of the students and is responsive to that diversity as well.

10. Jacobsen: Another concern is student mental health. So, an expansion of provisions for counselling services for students, whether it is call-ins or face-to-face, for the better wellbeing of students on campus. 

Are there any lines within the budget devoted to this?

McDonald: The federal government has very actively acknowledged the importance of mental health, but did not include anything specifically campus related. In part, that was because of the recent health accord with the provinces.

It did include mental health funding for each government. Those agreements did emphasize the mental health across the country. The federal government does have some tools to help engage in a healthy conversation.

However, this is the purview of the provincial governments. So far, from an administration of services, they link pretty directly and fed to their provincial partners. That said,  there are definitely areas around being able to understand the challenges faced by those who are experiencing mental health issues.

There probably needs to be better federal policy. That is being able to acknowledge clearly the real life situations of people who may be experiencing a mental health challenge and being able to reflect that in student loans policy.

That would be being able to take greater periods of time away from your student loans, which may be a break in study but would not punish a student by immediately forcing them into repayment.

Looking through experiences like this is something the federal government needs to adapt more actively on, beyond that, it is also making sure that the provinces have the funding necessary to support initiatives on campuses and support initiatives where the demand is.

That is where the real key components  of answering mental health questions in a post-secondary environment is that this is where students are first experiencing these challenges and are first experiencing the challenges that may stay with them for some years, and being able to address these at this time makes it more likely that they will be more likely to complete their studies, be more likely to enter the job market, and more likely to be able to do so in a comfortable and in a healthy way.

11. Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Michael.


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Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Executive Director, Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.

[2] Individual Publication Date: April 8, 2018 at; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2018 at

[3]DEC, Heritage College; Bachelors Degree, Political Studies, Bishop’s University; Masters Degree, International Environmental Law, Macquarie University.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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