Canada Learning Bonds make grade with Nanaimo parents

Rose Touchie, a Nanaimo mother of three, is making time to upgrade her education at Vancouver Island University and is always happy to be in class.

“I just think it’s great,” Touchie, 30, said in an interview. “I’m what people basically just call ‘a nerd.’ ”

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She and partner Shane Hnetka, 27, also had few worries about turning their kids into nerds when they decided to sign them up for a registered education savings plan, RESP, and to get the Canada Learning Bond.

Touchie said her eldest, an 11-year-old girl, says she wants to be a hairstylist. The youngest, a three-year-old boy, just keeps saying he wants to be Spider-Man.

The mother’s move to sign the kids up for RESPs and a Canada Learning Bond is part of an aggressive push by Vancouver Island University to reach out to young families who qualify and would benefit.

The university is the first in Canada to hire a designated person to work full time on campus and in the community to get children signed up.

The Canada Learning Bond is a government grant that initially provides $500 to help start an RESP for a child. An additional $100 is added each year to a maximum of $2,000. Those who qualify are lower-income families receiving the National Child Benefit Supplement. Grant money goes back to the government if the child does not continue with education after high school.

Rolanda Murray, co-ordinator of the Vancouver Island University program to sign up kids for learning bonds, said all a parent has to do is go to their bank or credit union and sign up for the RESP. After that, the bank can apply to the federal government for the Canada Learning Bond.

“It’s just a small investment in time on their part, and they don’t have to put any of their own money in it to start,” Murray said.

But she said once that initial $500 deposit is made, something extraordinary can happen. Attention shifts to a long-term focus on the children’s future education possibilities. “Something in the family dynamic changes,” Murray said. “There is a paradigm shift for the parents.”

“They start talking to their kids about it, and statistics show that 85 per cent of the families that get access to that free money somehow start to find money of their own to squirrel away,” she said.

American studies have shown that $500 set aside for a child’s education increases the likelihood by four times that the child will attend post-secondary education, Murray said.

She said about 6,000 children in Nanaimo qualify for the Canada Learning Bond, but only 2,000 have been signed up. Murray said the No. 1 reason for the lack of signup is lack of knowledge. Most people are just not aware of RESPs or Canada Learning Bonds and how easy they are to get.

But for some, another obstacle to signing up is a mistrust of educational institutions. The mistrust is especially acute for First Nations families still dealing with the social aftershocks of the residential-school system.

So Murray said she and Vancouver Island University do their best to bring First Nations families to the campus to make them comfortable. The university has First Nations elders working as part of the university community.

Besides First Nations communities, Murray said she is teaming up with the school district in Nanaimo and social-service agencies to reach parents, especially if their children are eligible for the Canada Learning Bond.

“We want to partner with everyone that has any kind of contact with families and children in our community,” said Murray.

“Our ultimate goal is to see more people signed up, more children signed up,” she said.

“And we hope that when they reach Grade 10 and we start going out to recruit students, then we are competing well and they will choose [Vancouver Island University],” said Murray.

In Ottawa, federal tax officials are delighted with the results Vancouver Island University is racking up. “They are doing really great work,” Jessica Kerr, director general of the Canada Education Savings Program, said from Gatineau, Que.

“It’s very much aligned with our priorities,” Kerr said. “We want to see take-up among all Canadians, but especially among low-income families and indigenous peoples.”

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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