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Ottawa school board pulls Fraser Institute essay contest asking if minimum wage hike is a bad idea

The Fraser Institute says its student essay contest — which asks if hiking minimum wage is a "bad policy" — isn’t biased and shouldn’t have been pulled from Ottawa-area high schools.

Conservative think-tank behind the contest says questions are unbiased, open-ended

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board circulated, then pulled, an essay contest that asked students to write about whether or not hiking minimum wage is a 'bad policy.' Ontario just raised its minimum wage to $14 an hour and plans to go to $15 next year. Alberta's goes to $15 this fall. (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg)

The Fraser Institute says its student essay contest — which asks if hiking minimum wage is a "bad policy" — isn't biased, and shouldn't have been pulled from Ottawa-area high schools.

"This is all about encouraging students to engage in the policy world," said Niels Veldhuis, president of the conservative think-tank.

In January, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) circulated the contest, but then yanked it last week after determining it was looking for a pre-cooked conclusion.

"It was only asking for one particular point of view: [raising] minimum wage was a bad thing, and tell us why and we'll give you money," says board trustee Theresa Kavanagh.

The posting for the essay contest, targeting both high school and university students, opens with the question: "Increasing the Minimum Wage: Good Intentions, Bad Policy?"

It also provides students with research showing the wage hike is indeed a bad idea. It includes the claims that 88 per cent of minimum wage earners in Canada do not live in low-income households, and that raising the minimum wage can result in fewer employment opportunities, particularly for young people and immigrants.

The contest also links to a Fraser Institute study and animated video that suggest that raising the minimum wage is a "misguided policy." 

The competition asks students to ponder these four questions when writing their essays:

  • Should provincial governments increase the minimum wage?
  • What impact would such an increase have on the Canadian economy?
  • Is raising the minimum wage an effective way to provide assistance to vulnerable Canadians?
  • Is there an alternative to raising the minimum wage that targets low-income earners more precisely?

Three top prizes of $1,500 will be handed out to a high school student, an undergrad and a graduate.

The wage debate begins

Raising the minimum wage has become a hot topic of debate ever since Ontario increased its to $14 on Jan. 1. Alberta plans to hike its minimum wage to $15 by October.

The Fraser Institute's essay contest didn't raise concern for the OCDSB until the independent news site PressProgress published a report about it.

Ottawa school board trustees learned that the essay contest had been circulated after reading about it on a news site. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

Kavanagh says she and fellow board trustees felt the contest was one-sided, and were shocked to learn from PressProgress that it had made its way into the schools.

"I couldn't believe it. I was pretty upset," she said. "[The contest is] problematic and we shouldn't be part of it."

She says trustees alerted the board's director, and within days the contest was pulled.

"The bias contained in the [essay] question and the resource materials should have made this contest ineligible for distribution," board spokesperson Sharlene Hunter said in a statement to CBC News.

"This one slipped through."

Kavanagh is unsure who originally approved the contest and concludes it was a case of human error.  

"That's our assumption here, that it was done in the spirit of 'Oh, here's something for our students,'" she said.

"They didn't look very carefully, and that's a shame and it's embarrassing."

No bias here

The Fraser Institute believes the school board made an error not in distributing the contest but in pulling it.

Veldhuis says asking students if raising minimum wage is a bad policy is not leading them in any one direction.

"It's not a statement, it's a question," he said.

He also says the four essay questions students are asked to ponder when writing the essay are clearly open-ended.

"None of these questions are biased," he said.

As far as the accusation of providing one-sided research, Veldhuis says students are free to use other sources, as well.

"If you're really passionate and you have empirical evidence and you believe that [raising the minimum wage] is absolutely the right thing to do, I'd encourage you to write the essay," he said.

Veldhuis says the Fraser Institute plans to talk with the OCDSB about why it believes the contest is a good project for students. "I happen to think, that through engagement, they'll probably come around to our view," he said.

Meanwhile, the board hasn't completely tossed the contest. Instead, spokesperson Hunter said it's using the incident to teach students about critical thinking.

"Schools have been asked to use this as a learning opportunity to discuss with students and staff the importance of a contest which encourages students to consider all sides of an issue."

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris has worked as a CBC video journalist across the country, covering everything from the start of the annual lobster fishery in Yarmouth, N.S., to farming in Saskatchewan. She now has found a good home at the business unit in Toronto. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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