Q&A: Ontario Liberal leadership candidates talk student issues

All four candidates promise to reverse Student Choice Initiative if elected Premier of Ontario 

Liberal candidates from left to right: Steven Del Duca, Mitzie Hunter, Michael Couteau, and Alvin Tedjo.
Credit: 
Photo illustration by Journal Staff

The Journal spoke with four candidates for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party to ask about OSAP, the Student Choice Initiative, advocacy for low-income students, and sexual violence on campus. Here’s what the leadership hopefuls said:

These interviews have been edited for clarity.

 

Will you bring back the free-tuition program and restore OSAP accessibility?

Mitzie Hunter: I believe that we need to have a strong future for material and that means we have to invest in the skills and talents of our young people and those that are in post-secondary education. What I’m hearing all the time is that they are suffering under the cuts that Premier Ford has made to post-secondary education. The reductions in financial aid are affecting many students. They’ve lost thousands of dollars in financial aid. Many of them are having to take on part-time jobs. Some students have had to move out of residence, forcing long commutes on them to get to class. Some students have changed their program or changed their schools altogether as a result, so this is creating a lot of chaos for our students in post-secondary education, and I think that this is an absolute outrage because we need to be investing in Ontario’s students. I am absolutely committed to restoring the OSAP program for low-and middle-income students, and making sure that students get the financial aid they deserve.

Steven Del Duca: Yes. In my traveling around Ontario speaking with students, their families, friends, I tell them that I want them to envision what Ontario's education system looked like on June 6 of 2018, the day before voters in this province went to the polls, and to imagine the affordable and accessible tuition that existed at colleges and universities, class sizes that we had in place, and proper funding for secondary and primary. If I'm elected leader of the Ontario Liberal Party, and ultimately Premier of Ontario, I will begin by restoring Ontario's education system back to that state that existed on June 6, 2018.

Alvin Tedjo: Immediately, I would bring it back, and we would work to enhance it. The values and the friendships that you make, and what you learn inside and outside of the classroom is more valuable than anything I’ve ever done in my life, and we need more of that. If you don’t make post-secondary education accessible, affordable, and high-quality, then people aren’t going to go. People who can’t go are not going to have the means to come and raise themselves out of poverty. They are going to be a burden on the system longer and they’re not going to help stimulate the economy moving forward. We grow as an economy because we have talent. We have Amazon, Facebook, Google—they all come to cities across Ontario, and they pay taxes here. They don’t pay any federal tax in the United States. But they come here, they pay taxes because this is where the talent is, and that’s the most important thing to a company. Ontario is the number one jurisdiction for foreign direct investment in North America because of that. So, I think [Doug Ford] is absolutely moronic to think that cuts to education are not going to affect the economy. He wants to talk about being “open for business”, but the first thing you need to do is invest in education and invest in student success, because that’s how you get to the next level.

Michael Coteau: Yes. For me, there’s no compromise on that. We need to restore OSAP funding to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to reach their academic potential and align their skills with the economy today.

 

Aside from OSAP, how will you advocate for low-income students?

Mitzie Hunter: I mean, when you look at the student fees that we’re covering, really important programs and student experiences are the areas that I’m concerned about. Because if these clubs and programs and employment opportunities are not available, then it’s really students who are on low income that are most affected, because they are not able to benefit from that.

So you know, making sure that these programs are in place, first and foremost, to have a better student life and experience on campus, but also for the important services that they provide. In some instances, they are providing food banks [and] important hands-on learning employment opportunities that students need, and I think that these are important programs to have in place. In addition to that, student financial aid is really the best way to help and to aid-low income students. I have set a bold goal of a 90 per cent graduation rate from high school. So we’re going to have students of all backgrounds that are entering post-secondary education, some of whom will need help and support.

Steven Del Duca: I think that what we see now at Queen's Park is a government that has a completely different agenda with respect to education. I'm a big believer that the most important responsibility that government has is to make sure that every single individual in Ontario has a real opportunity to go as far in life as their talent and effort will take them. And the single greatest way to do that is to make sure that people have access to top-quality education at all levels, regardless of income level, so they don't self-select out of the process, so that they don't think that they can't have that real opportunity.

Alvin Tedjo: When we introduced free tuition [for low-income students], what it did was it reduced what people perceived to be the barriers to getting a post-secondary education. When you tell them that it’s going to be free, when you pre-qualify people in high school and say, ‘This is your next step, you can go get a college diploma or a university degree, and we’re going to tell you right now that you can do that so you can start looking at your options.” You give them that opportunity. You need to show them the path forward. Affordability is about communicating with people, telling them that these are the programs that are out there, this is why it’s important to get an education, and this is how we’re going to get you there.

Michael Coteau: The whole purpose of OSAP is to give people opportunity to go to post-secondary without building up debt so when they graduate, they can participate in the economy more fully. I would look for ways to ensure people carry less debt when they graduate and they can look for ways to work in business and capture the entrepreneurial spirit in Ontario. In addition to that, when it comes to affordability post-graduation, especially on home ownership, that’s an important option for young people. It’s about making sure the debt burden is not as bad as it is today, especially under Doug Ford. To make sure people have more options to tap into affordable home options. I have a series of different things I would like to do to expand the supply [of affordable homes]. The other thing that I think is the most important is making sure that when young people and students of all ages are in school and graduate, that there is alignment between the opportunity in the new economy and the skillsets which people are graduating with. When you bring those together, it better conditions the individual but also helps build the overall economy in Ontario.

 

Will you reverse the Student Choice Initiative?

Mitzie Hunter: Absolutely. I think it’s really important to have a campus experience that is supporting students. It’s something that all students contribute to because it builds a better campus life and a better experience. Many students that I talked to said the 75 or 85 dollars that they’re saving is not what is important to them. What’s important to them are the valuable services that these clubs and programs and activities provided on campus, especially for students who need them the most. I’ve talked to students who, for instance, are concerned that the LGBTQ clubs on campuses are not going to be operating as they have been to provide much-needed support for students who are vulnerable.

Steven Del Duca: Yes. In all of my travels to all the campuses that I've had a chance to visit, there is a very clear agenda that Doug Ford and his friends are pursuing—trying to destabilize the notion of public education, trying to destabilize the notion of the kind of quality of life that we want to see on campuses so that students flourish, so that they come out not just with a degree or diploma, but a sense of how they've grown in their time there so that they're secure, they're safe, and have access to all of the wonderful features that college and university life should provide in a province that's as prosperous as Ontario.

Alvin Tedjo: One hundred per cent. I was on the AMS Council, I was on the Board of Directors of the AMS, I contributed a couple of times to The Journal, and the value of that extra-curricular learning is intangible. I know for a fact that for myself, and for all the friends that I graduated with, these are the experiential learning opportunities that got us to where we are.

Michael Coteau: Yes.

 

How would you address the Student Voices on Sexual Violence survey results and will your government launch the survey a second time for future students?

Mitzie Hunter: Well, I think what’s important is that the present government has the data. It’s disappointing that they didn’t release all of the information that they collected so that students and administration on campuses can have this information to make better and more informed decisions. We have to have a campus environment that has zero tolerance for sexual violence and harassment, and have policies and programs that students are involved in making that improve campus safety and improve a healthy environment on campus for all students.

Steven Del Duca: I think it's really important for us to have access to information. It's really, really difficult for decision-makers to come up with policies and solutions that are supposed to help when it's done in a vacuum and when it's done with blind spots. So the more research that we have, the more information that we have back, it places all of us—not just the decision-makers, but everybody involved in the system—in an empowered situation.

Alvin Tedjo: Data is incredibly important. We can’t make smart decisions unless we have all the information. We can’t necessarily wait for three years until we replace the Ford government. The safety of people on campus is at risk if we don’t get that information. We need people to fight for that right now to get access to that information, and I think that’s important. People need to hear that, and people need to know that we need to start acting and organizing and trying to lobby and pressure as much as we can to get that information out there so that we can make the appropriate decisions in providing students with a safe campus space.

Michael Coteau: Making sure there is the right type of funding, not only on campus and through not-for-profits and public health, but we need to look for ways to ensure there are policies and funding for sexual violence put in place that support programs that educate people on the issue, especially on campuses. I think the previous government under Kathleen Wynne did a lot to talk about the issue and bring it to the forefront in mainstream media and provide the right type of funding for social media and traditional media communication. I think that’s an important piece. And yes to the survey. Data-driven decision-making based on information you pull in is the best way to approach issues. I would support a continued survey to better understand the challenges we have in front of us.

 

In this leadership context, what is your message to students?

Mitzie Hunter: I have bold moves that I’m making to help support our students as they, first of all, graduate high school with a 90 per cent graduation rate, as they enter post-secondary education, that they receive the financial aid and support and graduate with less student debt. My vision is one that’s future-focused. We want to have a strong and competitive economy in the future, so we have to make those investments now in the skills and talents of our people.

Steven Del Duca: My message to students is that elections matter and politics matter. And, you know, for those who might feel sometimes like it's a hopeless outcome, that it doesn't matter who they vote for, the results will always be the same. We now know, because of what happened here in Ontario on June/7/2018, that we have a Premier who doesn't really believe in quality public education. We see students that are choosing not to pursue the studies that they would otherwise have the talent to pursue because of cost pressures, because their families can't afford it. It's not just about getting involved, [students] should run for office. I say to young people everywhere, don't just get involved.

Alvin Tedjo: For the first time ever, millennials are the largest voting bloc. In this federal election we’re the largest voting bloc, we’ll be the largest voting bloc in the next provincial election in 2022. If we want our issues to be heard, if we want to fight climate change in a productive way, if we want to take advantage of the fact that the other parties aren’t doing anything for people of our generation and they’re not looking forward, if we want to invest in education because it leads to a stronger economy, we need to participate. And participating in the political process means voting, but it also means joining a party. And it doesn’t have to be my party, it could be any party. Right now it’s $5 to join the Ontario Liberal Party as a student, and that gives you the opportunity to vote and potentially be a delegate at the [Liberal Party] convention, and pick the next leader of the party who is going to stand up against Doug Ford in the next provincial election. That’s the cost of a beer at The Queen’s Pub. And if you don’t do that, if you don’t get involved, then you can’t sit back and complain. You have to understand that there are consequences to the decisions people are making without your consent.

Michael Coteau: My message is that I want to make sure Ontario is the best possible place on the planet for a young person to grow up, where they get the best access to opportunities and education, where they’re the healthiest and feel the most supported. I want to build Ontario’s dreams based on their dreams and aspirations. That’s my message to Ontario, because I believe when students and young people do well in this province, it has a trickle effect to everything around us, from building a strong economy, to producing better doctors and better business leaders, to building a better society based on the fact that we have a higher educated and increased literacy level in Ontario. To me, that is the pathway to tapping into the potential of the new economy and ensuring we can continue to build an environment that is clean, that is respectful, and there is social cohesion based on the fact that people can tap into opportunity. To me, it’s all about opportunity, and education is the great equalizer.

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