Green Party leader Elizabeth May once again graced Guelph with her presence Wednesday in order to announce a major policy initiative to address the needs of Canada's students. On the porch of Raithby House, in front of a growing, curious crowd of students, May promised to eliminate tuition and reign in student debt in a bid to motivate typically apathetic young people across the country a reason to paint their ridings green.
Among the key planks of the Green Party's National Student and Education strategy is to immediately cut tuition fees for student without adequate financial needs, and remove the two per cent cap on tuition for all First Nation and Inuit students. That's just the wind up though for the Green Party's intention to abolish tuition fees for all post-secondary education and skills training by the year 2020 by constructing a system of federal grants to pay for universities and colleges.
In addition, the Greens pledge to cap any existing or future student debt at $10,000, abolish interest on new student loans, increase available bursaries, create a national "Community and Environment Service Corps" that will provide municipalities with $1 billion per year to hire youths, and a Guaranteed Livable Income for all people in Canada.
"At least one Federal party in this campaign is thinking about your future and is taking some dramatic steps to stand up with and for our youth, our students, and our education system," May said.
"We've created a situation that is really impossible with levels of debt that are through the roof for obtaining an education," she continued. "We're already spending billions on a complicated framework that simply isn't working. Between the various federal programs we're spending billions of dollars and not delivering affordable education and at the same time we're burdening students with interest bearing student debt."
The Greens want to address the implications of student debt and underemployment of Canada's youth. According to May, the weight of student debt and increasing tuition is putting millions of Canadians on a backfooting, starting their working lives with a huge debt and facing a job market that's difficult to break into. The result is stress from inability to pay debt, and an inability for young people to start building their future.
In addition, the Green Party is also pledging to end unpaid internships, passing legislation to end the practice for federally regulated businesses, and working with provinces to find ways to get the rest. Working with provinces and institutions is a big part of the Green plan since education is technically provincial jurisdiction.
"The reality of our relationship federally/provincially is that it's never been worse than it is right now, and the source of that problem is that Stephen Harper hasn't wanted to hold meetings and sit down with provincial governments to talk about any of the issues they're facing," May explained, adding that energy, housing, and climate are all issues that require cross-country co-ordination. "We're the only country in the industrialized world that does not have national strategies for key issues."
"I am very happy to see the Green Party recognize that education is a right for all of us, and not just a privileged few," said Bilan Arte, the National Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, who was in attendance at the press conference. "It is past time for all federal parties to emphasize real solutions. There are examples of governments around the world that make what I see as an obvious decision to invest in youth and make post-secondary education systems truly public. It's far past time that we reverse the debt dependence to finance college and university."
The College Student Alliance applauds the Green Party's announcement, but want it known that education issues are about more than money. "Affordability and accessibility is important to Ontario college students, however issues such as quality and accountability need to be discussed further," said CSA president Jeff Scherer in a statement released after the announcement. "It is important for students to know where all of the political parties stand in relation to these other issues facing students."
As for the Guelph riding specifically, May was asked what she thought the chances are for her party's candidate in the Royal City, former Ontario Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller. May called Miller "one of the best qualified candidates in this election of any party," and said that Guelphites, and indeed all Canadians, should stop thinking about voting strategically. "In a democracy, it's about voting and not gaming the system," May said. "It's not a concern in Guelph, and right now the Conservative candidate is not positioned to come up the middle. You can vote for what you want."
Of course, the Green Party is pragmatic about its chances, and May was asked if she hopes one of the other parties might pick up the baton. She said that they already have. "Every single one of the big and bold ideas in this campaign have come from the Green Party," May declared adding that the other parties are currently "duking it out at the edge of the status quo."