The race for Toronto Centre is heating up. As the campaign for the seat previously held by Bob Rae enters its final week, the candidates are redoubling their efforts to get their messages out to voters. This has included voicing their opinions on issues that matter to students.

“Rising tuition fees are a big, big concern for students, and they just keep going up and up, and Ontario in fact is one of the worst in terms of support universities get in order to keep tuition fees low, so that’s something we need to work on,” said Linda McQuaig, candidate for the NDP. “The NDP has a very specific proposal on this,” she went on. “We think that the federal government should be involved; we think that federal money going to the provinces for post-secondary education should include a special package earmarked for reducing tuition fees. Universities, colleges, post-secondary education, that is a public good.”

“It’s absolutely important that universities and colleges be accessible, and they can’t be accessible if fees are unaffordable.”

Chrystia Freeland, the Liberal candidate, gave some context to the problem of rising tuition: “I think it’s an issue in a few ways,” she said. “It’s an issue for how do students afford it to be able to get access to university; it’s an issue in terms of the impact it has on the lives of students afterwards, and it’s not just that tuition costs are high, but that often translates into graduating with a lot of student debt, which then has to be paid off at really high interest rates.”

She added as a caveat that while rising tuition costs are a serious concern, universities need adequate funding in order to provide a high quality of education, which is also a major concern for students: “If we’re going to say ‘Okay, tuition costs can’t rise anymore,’ we need to realize universities are going to have to get their money from somewhere,” she stated.

McQuaig and Freeland are both career journalists. Both have written extensively about class differences and social welfare. McQuaig has authored almost a dozen books on the topic. She has often criticized conservative economic policies such as corporate tax breaks and the social inequality she contends that they create.

John Deverell, the Green Party candidate, also began as a journalist. He argued throughout his career against Canada’s “winner-takes-all” elections, which he considers undemocratic, and instead advocates for a system of proportional representation for parliament. This would entail giving each party a percentage of seats equal to the percentage of total votes it receives. Originally a Liberal, Deverell resigned from the party when it proved unreceptive to his proposals to change Canada’s electoral system.

Deverall offers a different take on the matter of tuition. “We’ve got a whole cohort of young people, all of whom are having difficulty in the labour market; it’s not just students or young graduates. So the broader question is the shorter of money in the pockets of people who need it,” he said. “We put on a carbon tax to try to redirect the consumption patterns and the production patterns in our economy, but to avoid the charges of ‘tax grab’ and so on and so on, we turn around and say carbon tax money will be redistributed to all Canadians in a Canada income supplement, to all Canadians over the age of 18.”

Deverell argues that the Green proposal will allow more flexibility to students because the cash payment from redistribution of the carbon tax revenues can be used to help with any expense, including tuition, cost of living, and others. He contends that this is a more effective method of dealing with students’ financial difficulties because it directly addresses the broader problem of lack of income rather than trying to solve the problem through manipulation of the minimum wage or tuition levels.

The candidates also spoke about the issue of youth unemployment. “The burdens that we’re putting on young people right now are burdens that we’re transferring to Canadian families overall,” said Freeland. “There’s this amazing number that 43 percent of Canadian families with children in their 20s have had those kids ‘couch-surf’ at home.”

“This is an untypical [sic], not very political answer,” Freeland continued, “but I think we shouldn’t trust anybody who pretends this is an easy problem to solve, or there is an obvious answer that you can write on a postcard and that’s it — press this button; it will be fine. This reality is nobody’s figured it out yet, and the first step is to try.” She contended that the first step to solving the economic problem is acknowledging that one exists, which she said the Harper administration has failed to do.

Deverell stated that the the government ought to help those who have difficulty paying back their loans after graduation. “Those who are able to cash in on their university degrees and make more income should pay back their loans,” he said. “Those who have great difficulty after they’ve acquired their degrees should get a gentler treatment on the tax side of things.” He noted, however, that not everybody goes to university, and that the government must be careful when deciding whether those who entered the workforce without pursuing a degree should need to contribute to this aid.

McQuaig gave her take on youth unemployment: “That’s something I would say the NDP has been very concerned about addressing,” she said. “For instance, we argue the Conservative and Liberal governments before the Conservative government have been dramatically reducing corporate tax cuts, and they argue that this is a way to create jobs. It hasn’t worked; we have massive unemployment, and among students, among young people, it’s double the national average. The NDP argues instead, if you’re going to give corporations any tax breaks, it’s got to be linked to job creation.”

Freeland, McQuaig, and Deverell participated in a debate at Carr Hall on November 16. The candidates discussed two questions at this event. On the issue of foreign aid, McQuaig committed to meeting the Pearson government’s guarantee to contribute 0.7 per cent of GNP to aid, which Canada has thus far almost always failed to meet. Deverell argued that emphasizing trade rather than aid would be a much more effective way to promote prosperity for developing countries, and Freeland stated that the Liberals would raise current foreign aid commitments, without committing to the 0.7 per cent rate.

The only other question the candidates had an opportunity to discuss was on what issue they would be most likely to vote against their own party. Freeland stated that she would vote against the Liberals if they were to advance an anti-abortion policy. McQuaig and Deverell said there were no issues on which they would vote against their party.

After this, the debate ended early because of an interruption by independent candidate Kevin Clarke. Clarke shouted at the candidates from his seat, and then stood up and loudly challenged Freeland and McQuaig to a debate while running around the room. He, at one point, jumped onto a piano. Organizers attempted to calm him down and return him to his seat twice, and then called campus police to escort him from the building.

Geoffrey Pollock’s campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The by-election is scheduled for November 25.