Conservatives promise to boost federal contribution to RESP to 30 per cent

WINNIPEG — Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said Tuesday he wants to help parents save up to send their children to college or university by increasing the amount of money the federal government contributes to the pot.

Scheer was continuing his week of pocketbook promises on a campaign swing through Winnipeg, where the Conservatives are hoping to take back some of the six seats they lost to the Liberals and NDP in 2015.

He is proposing to increase Ottawa's contribution to registered education savings plans (RESPs) to partly match what parents contribute. The current program will add 20 per cent to any parental contribution up to $2,500. Scheer would increase that to 30 per cent, meaning the maximum annual contribution from the federal government would go from $500 to $750.

Scheer said for most families, being able to afford a post-secondary education — be it university, college or trade school — takes years of parents' "scrimping and saving."

"There are very few Canadians who can just write a cheque to cover a year's worth of tuition, textbooks and living expenses," he said.

Scheer visited a beauty school in Winnipeg Tuesday where tuition tops $13,000 for a 10-month program, and made his announcement while stylists and manicurists-in-training trimmed hair and painted nails in the background.

Scheer made the announcement in Winnipeg Centre, one of the poorest ridings in the country, where more than four in 10 kids live in poverty. Liberal Robert-Falcon Ouellette, who is seeking re-election in the riding, said bringing an RESP announcement that mostly benefits the better-off to a riding with so many people just struggling to get by  shows the Conservatives to be out of touch.

The Liberals pointed to a Statistics Canada study from 2017 that found almost one-third of families in the top 20 per cent of incomes had RESP accounts, while only 10 per cent of those in the poorest 20 per cent did.

Employment and Social Development Canada data does show that between 1997 and 2012, the number of families at the lowest income levels who contributed to an RESP had quadrupled, however the take-up rate among lower-income Canadians was still much lower than that of those at the highest income levels.

Scheer defended the policy and said in addition to the overall increase, low- and average-income families will get an additional top-up — up to $100 more a year for low-income families, and up to $50 more for middle-income families, if they can contribute $500 themselves.

"This policy does help low-income Canadians who are able to put something aside by increasing their additional grant," said Scheer.

The increase would come on top of the existing Canada Education Savings Grants, which is an additional boost that low- and middle-income families can apply for after setting up RESPs.

Scheer also said the Conservatives would continue to increase social transfers to provinces for things like education and health care, and those help low-income Canadians. He added that the number of low-income families taking advantage of RESPs is going up.

Scheer's day also saw the Conservatives forced to retract several tweets from the party and staff claiming RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki had confirmed the RCMP is investigating Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Lucki was asked a question about it at a news conference about the arrest of a Canadian allegedly trying to sell national secrets, and said she wasn't there to talk about SNC-Lavalin. But, she said, "we do take all investigations very seriously and investigate to the fullest."

The Conservatives immediately jumped on that as confirmation of a full investigation, not the less-formal inquiries the RCMP have previously talked about, with graphics declaring it had finally been confirmed that Justin Trudeau is under police investigation.

The Mounties quickly said Lucki was talking generally and is not commenting on anything about the SNC-Lavalin case. The Conservatives deleted their tweets.

Later at an afternoon campaign stop in the riding of Saint Boniface-Saint Vital, Scheer delivered his stump speech to a packed campaign office. There was lots of enthusiasm but also some crankiness, with some complaining Scheer's tardiness — he was about 15 minutes late, not at all bad by most politicians' standards — was disrespectful and was going to cost him votes.

Others complained that the space was too small — the campaign office in a strip mall was sweltering on a hot September day in the Manitoba capital — and said former prime minister Stephen Harper would have had the rally in a bigger space.

At least one man was there specifically to give Scheer a piece of his mind over Scheer's comments about abortion. John Devries said he has spoken to both Scheer and his local Conservative candidate, former MP Lawrence Toet, because he thinks Canada's lack of laws against abortion is a travesty.

"I wish I could vote for them but I just don't think I can," said Devries, while waiting for Scheer to arrive. He said he, and others who think like him, likely will just stay home on election day, because there is nobody else he is interested in helping elect.

Scheer has said he would not vote in favour of any bill that tries to reopen the abortion debate in Parliament, which is virtually the same position Harper took during his time in the prime minister's chair.

The Conservatives got good news at the end of their campaign day: their chartered plane, in Conservative colours and with "Team Scheer" emblazoned on it, was back in service after being hobbled by a ground-steering malfunction the day before.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press