Canada 'unforgiving' to debtors

March 22, 2002

A Canadian scheme to help university graduates saddled with student-loan debts has benefited less than 4 per cent of the people it sought to assist.

Debt Reduction in Repayment is debt-forgiveness in name only, according to the Canadian Federation of Students. The federation claims that the plan has made no impact on the high numbers of indebted graduates. For the third year in a row, fewer than 500 graduates with loans they could not afford to repay have qualified for relief, compared with the 12,000 a year for whom the government designed the plan.

In the 1998 federal budget, finance minister Paul Martin called student debt a major problem and introduced relief measures that included general tax exemption on interest payments and an extended interest holiday for those having difficulty repaying their loans.

Debt forgiveness was aimed at those out of college for five years who found themselves unable to cope with repayment. Borrowers who earned less than the minimum repayment salary would have their student loans forgiven for up to C$10,000 (£4,450) and covered by a government-sponsored fund.

Canadian students borrow on average just over C$4,500 a year, with many leaving four-year programmes with debts of more than C$20,000. In the first year of the scheme only 44 students qualified for debt forgiveness, followed by 167 the next year. Last year 467 qualified.

Canada Student Loans Program was not available for comment but Claude Proulx, its manager of policy, told the Canadian press he agreed with critics that eligibility requirements had been too stringent. Many say qualifying salaries were pegged too high, with the government counting, as available money, a person's gross personal income rather than the money they take home after taxes.

Mr Proulx said the policy would be reviewed but "this is a decision that has to be made at the political level".

The government has yet to comment. In the meantime, Mark O'Meara's debt is growing by C$125 a month. He is a part-time community-college teacher in Vancouver and left university with a debt of C$,000. He has paid off C$2,000, but now owes C$30,000 because the minimum payment he can afford is below the interest.

"I'm continually paying but not making any headway," Mr O'Meara said. Now 44, he has suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome and declared himself bankrupt in 2000 - but was still not forgiven for any of his student loans.

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