Thomas Mulcair, a professor and lawyer, assumed office as the leader of the Official Opposition on March 24, 2012. Since then, the leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) has been locked in a battle with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau over which party will win the next election.

The Varsity sat down with Mulcair to discuss post-secondary education, Bill C-51, sexual violence on campus, and the CUPE 3902 strike.

The Varsity: What do you see as the role of a university education in the twenty-first century?

Thomas Mulcair: It’s of course personal. The individual can add to their life and their experience in the world. But I think if we want to be honest with ourselves, it’s also social and economic. It’s true that the only way to create new wealth is to create new knowledge. There’s that practical side of it. But also in the world in which we live today, the role of a university education is more important than ever — getting people to understand, as objectively as possible, the world around them. Our sources of information have increased exponentially, but the ability to wade through it doesn’t necessarily follow suit. That’s why critical thinking and a good broad-based education will always, in my view, remain important. I think, in this world, this interconnected world, more than ever having the ability to wade through things… I think university education — any form of education, but especially a university education — is more important than ever in our society.

TV: Through what mechanism should post-secondary education be funded?

TM: I’m not one of those people who thinks it should be tuition-free. I come from a really large family of 10 kids. It was very, very hard for me to go to university because we didn’t have any money — financially, I mean, it was hard. But despite that, I didn’t begrudge the fact that I finished with a reasonable debt that I had to pay back. Quebec invests quite heavily in support programs — loans and bursaries for students. I don’t think I would have been able to go to a place like McGill [University] if it hadn’t been for the fact that I was in Quebec and there was that level of support. My bottom line is always that, nobody who is able to do their studies should ever be discouraged from doing them for purely financial reasons. We have to make sure that it’s affordable.

TV: Can you talk a bit about the specific initiatives or programs that you’d like to see the federal government implement under a more active role?

TM: I think that the first thing that you can do quite easily, because you can work quite fast on it with provinces and territories, is increase funding for research. That’s easy. And right now, in Canada, we’re backsliding quite a bit. We used to have one of the higher percentages in terms of the OECD or the G20, and now we’re constantly backsliding in terms of our position on that. It’s not terribly surprising. We have a government that doesn’t believe in science of any kind — social, or pure and applied. It’s also said that if you’re going to have a good government you need to practice fact-based decision-making. Mr. Harper practices decision-based fact-making. It’s not quite the same thing. So I think that that’s an easy place where we could get back involved.

TV: We have an ongoing strike at the University of Toronto involving some 6,000 teaching assistants, exam invigilators and other academic staff. Do you have any comment on the precarity of employment among non-tenured faculty?

TM: That’s a really good point. Having been contract faculty for several years at Université du Québéc à Trois Rivières, and at Concordia [University]… Those are really lousy working conditions. And there’s a massive difference between full-time, tenured staff and the ones who are doing the heavy lifting as part-time sessional lecturers or teaching assistants. And they have to be paid decently. It’s not as if young people aren’t paying enough tuition for them to have a decent salary. So that’s something we are strongly in favour of correcting.

TV: There’s been a lot of discussion lately surrounding sexual harassment and sexual violence on postsecondary campuses. Do you see the federal government playing any role in combatting sexual harassment and sexual violence?

TM: The federal government has an obvious role with its share of law enforcement and lawmaking in Canada. The Criminal Code, unlike the United States where criminal law is done state-by-state, here in Canada it’s a federal code. It applies across the country. And changes to that legislation over the years has broadened the definition of what sexual assault is, and made it easier to get prosecutions. In the past, it used to be very hard because it was based on a very strict definition. That’s changed over the years. That’s a good thing. With regards to actual programs themselves, more often than not, that type of social side is left to the provinces. But the federal government could play an active role, as it does in a lot of crime prevention aspects.

TV: Do you have any concerns over how Bill C-51 would affect students and academics?

TM: We’ve been paying a little bit less attention to the way it could affect academics, but students, as key actors in our society who are often at the forefront in contesting things… will be in the same position as environmental groups, of which students are often members, or First Nations communities, for the good and simple reason — and there’s a great [article] in today’s National Post, of all papers, by someone who just tears a strip off Harper on this on a purely technical side; says it’s a massive invasion of our rights and freedoms with no tradeoffs. There’s nothing in return for it. Harper can’t even give me a single example. I asked him six times. He can’t give a single example of why this bill is necessary — what it goes after that existing legislation does not go after. Everybody who’s looked at this agrees that it throws the net far too wide. It does constitute a real threat to your rights and freedoms in our society… We’re a party of principle. We’re going to stand up to this one. We’re opposed to it, and we’re going to vote against it.

TV: Can you talk about specific policies that the NDP would implement to improve youth employment and youth outcomes?

TM: The job market is incredibly tough for young people. Toronto has 16 per cent youth unemployment, which is huge. It’s totally unacceptable. We also know that we could help the job creators, which would often include self-employed… We’ve also proposed to lower the business tax rate… Across Canada, young people are paying a very heavy price for the shift in our economy. Mr. Harper has killed off large sections of the manufacturing sector. Those were good jobs that were killed off. They’re being largely replaced by part-time, precarious work — more often than not in the service sector… One of the other things that we’re putting on the table is to boost the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, which will be a strong signal to the provinces and territories to follow suit. And we hope that they would. We think that getting a decent living wage into people’s hands, although $15 an hour is not a lot, it’s still a lot more than the $10 an hour that you’re making in some provinces now.

TV: Does the NDP have any specific plans for diversifying the Canadian economy?

TM: The biggest mistake [the Conservative Party] made is to put all our economic eggs in the extraction basket. It’s a huge mistake, and we called them on it a long time ago. I called them on this since I became leader, but long before that when I was finance critic. It’s a mistake. Keeping a diversified, balanced economy… is actually good because when there’s a shock, whether it’s falling oil prices or something else, the more diversified, the more you can absorb that shock because you’ve got other pillars to the economy. You don’t only have the primary sector of extraction, whether that’s fisheries, agriculture, forestry, mining, and the like. But you’ve got a strong secondary sector, with manufacturing, upgrading, refining. You’ve got a tertiary sector, the service sector. You’ve got a very viable, balanced economy, and you’ve got the ability to absorb shocks. By putting all our economic eggs into the extraction basket, they left us exposed to a drop of that basket. There are a lot of broken eggs on the floor right now. That’s another reason that the Conservatives are playing a hide-and-seek game with the budget — it’s the peek-a-boo budget — because they know it’s a lot worse and they were going to ride into this election campaign saying that the books had been balanced.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.