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Saskatchewan has asked Ottawa to rewrite Canada’s student-loan rules so that prospective transport-trailer drivers can better afford mandatory safety training programs, which the province instituted for the trucking industry after the Humboldt Broncos bus crash.

The province made the request in a letter in February, a month before its safety program for new Class 1 drivers took effect. The two governments have been reviewing options, according to the minister responsible for Saskatchewan’s Crown-owned insurance provider.

The mandatory training programs that the three Prairie provinces introduced for potential truckers cost thousands of dollars. Joe Hargrave, the cabinet minister responsible for Saskatchewan Government Insurance, said lightening the financial burden through student loans could attract more people to the trucking industry, add a layer of professionalism and allay concerns about affordability.

“This is a career,” he said in an interview. “It is not just: ‘Well, I couldn’t do anything else so I thought I’d be a truck driver.’"

The issue of safety standards for the trucking industry re-emerged in October, after The Globe and Mail reported that Alberta was considering relaxing the training standards for some semi-trailer and bus drivers, in part due to costs for new drivers. Under pressure from families tied to the Broncos, as well as a woman whose husband was killed when a semi-trailer crossed the centre line and smashed into his vehicle, Alberta reversed the most significant changes and proposals to ease the rules.

Provinces across the country lacking mandatory safety programs for new Class 1 drivers have pledged to implement their own standards, which could put more pressure on governments to provide financial support.

Meanwhile, some provinces are reviewing their trucking licensing regulations after The Globe recently published an investigation revealing how some immigration consultants and trucking companies abuse Canada’s temporary foreign-worker program to hire drivers who receive little or no training.

The Canada Student Loans Program that Saskatchewan wants revised operates in conjunction with the provinces and territories. To be eligible, full-time students must be in a program lasting at least 12 weeks (within a 15-week window) at a designated postsecondary institution. This means people taking Saskatchewan’s 121.5-hour mandatory entry-level training program for new Class 1 licencees – as well as those taking similar courses in Alberta and Manitoba – do not qualify for loans; the courses are too short and the driving schools are not on the list of eligible postsecondary institutions.

Driving schools in the Prairies are free to set their own prices, although Alberta imposed a $10,000 cap. Saskatchewan’s Class 1 training programs generally cost around $10,000.

“We need them to be able to get Canada student loans to be able to help them take that course,” Mr. Hargrave said.

The federal government confirmed Tuesday that it is looking into ways to address Saskatchewan’s request.

“We regularly engage our partners on matters of mutual interest and will be working with Saskatchewan and other provinces who have an interest in reviewing ways to support students in professional programs, including trucking,” Isabelle Maheu, a spokeswoman for Employment and Social Development Canada, said in a statement.

Saskatchewan, she said, is the only province that has asked the federal government about financial support for mandatory training courses for new truckers.

Some Saskatchewan employers are eligible to access funding through the Canada-Saskatchewan Job Grant if they want to put current or prospective employees through the Class 1 mandatory safety program. The course blends classroom instruction and practical training. The same applies for Alberta’s version of the program.

Roughly 230 new Class 1 drivers have completed Saskatchewan’s new safety course, according to Tyler McMurchy, a spokesman for Saskatchewan Government Insurance.

Great Plains College, a regional institution with multiple campuses in Saskatchewan, offers a program covering the classroom portion of the province’s Class 1 course. The college created this in the hopes of making the program more accessible and affordable.

Fritz Eckstein, a regional manager overseeing Great Plains’s skills and safety unit, said 12 people have earned classroom certificates since June, and eight more started the two-week course on Monday in Swift Current. The course costs $1,195 and requires 47 hours in the classroom.

Ontario is the only province that had Class 1 training standards in place prior to the Humboldt crash, which killed 16 people after an inexperienced semi-trailer driver ran a stop sign and slammed into the hockey team’s bus in April, 2018. However, safety advocates argue that the programs in the Prairies and Ontario are inadequate and should be considered a baby step toward higher standards.

Mandatory entry-level training programs are prelicensing courses and should not be confused with more rigorous pre-employment training, according to Terry Shaw, the executive director for the Manitoba Trucking Association. He supports prelicensing training, but argues pre-employment courses should be mandatory – and the focus of financial support.

“Our preference isn’t to see funded prelicensing training,” he said. “We believe it’s better to fund pre-employment training.”

Mr. Shaw noted that trades with apprentice programs, such as welders and carpenters, are publicly subsidized, and while trucking is not an official trade, it should be treated similarly. “Truck driver is a vocation, so we believe it should be provided similar vocational training supports as other industry occupations,” he said.

He favours Manitoba’s Professional Truck Driver Training program. The province funds this 244-hour course through a pilot project, he said. Students who complete this course simultaneously fulfill Manitoba’s mandatory prelicensing requirement, which took effect in September.

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