SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

Ahead of the Ontario election, an All Candidates Forum was hosted at U of T by the Ontario branch of the Canadian Federation of Students, the Graduate Students’ Union, and the Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students. The candidates for UTSG’s riding, University—Rosedale, were invited to debate student issues.

Jessica Bell of the New Democratic Party of Ontario (NDP) and Jo-Ann Davis of the Liberal Party of Ontario took the stage at U of T’s Centre for International Experience to address student concerns as they vie for leadership. Candidates from the Green Party and the Progressive Conservative Party were unable to attend.

Graduate and part-time students

Discussing support for graduate students, Davis focused on the Liberal Party’s plans to reduce costs of living, which include introducing stricter rent controls to create affordable housing. Bell echoed Davis’ comments on the affordability of living in Toronto, adding that lowering transit costs and implementing workplace reforms that include and protect students are equally important to improving the graduate student experience.

Bell also noted that the NDP has a “faculty renewal plan” to introduce more tenure-track positions for sessional instructors, many of whom teach at the graduate level.

The candidates were also asked about their party’s plans to respond to the Ontario Student Assistance Program’s new policy that rolled out this past September, which, while making more grants available for full-time students, did not increase financial assistance for part-time students. Both candidates appeared to be unaware of this exclusion.

However, Davis expressed her devotion to ensuring that “individuals have an opportunity in all stages of their life… to learn.” Bell concurred, highlighting the NDP’s plan to introduce universal child care, which may assist part-time students who are also parents.

Indigenous and minority groups on campus

The candidates were further pressed on how their party would ensure that Indigenous students and those from other minority groups have access to post-secondary education.

According to Bell, funding healthcare, addressing the drinking water crisis, and working to reduce overall poverty in Indigenous communities are important steps the NDP would take outside of the classroom. She believes these initiatives would work toward broadening Indigenous students’ academic prospects.

Davis, who has been a Toronto Catholic District School Board Trustee since 2010, believes the accessibility problem starts with academic streaming in secondary schools.

“Students that are coming from various ethnic communities as well as students who are living in poverty” are disproportionately streamed into non-academic programs, she said.

Sexual violence and mental health

“Survivors need to be listened to, believed, and supported,” stressed Bell, when asked about what her party would do to help victims of sexual violence.

She asserted the NDP’s commitment to investigating all reports of sexual assault, funding sexual assault clinics and health and safety programs in the workplace, and investing in 30,000 supportive housing units across Ontario.

Meanwhile, Davis applauded the Liberal Party’s existing Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment, though she recognizes that sexual harassment in academia is “still an issue.”

On the topic of mental health, Davis said that her party is committed to ensuring that existing investments in mental health on campus are made more accessible to students.

Bell said that the NDP’s strategy to respond to the demand for greater mental health services involves the creation of a ministry for mental health and investments to add 2,600 mental health workers to the system.

Off-campus: transit, affordable housing, and $15 minimum wage

Bell, the founding Executive Director of TTCriders, an organization that advocates for improved TTC service, stood behind her party’s promise to invest in Ontario’s municipal transit systems. Bell hopes the investments will allow the TTC to lower fares and make accessibility upgrades.

Davis emphasized the importance of putting existing Liberal investments in transit to use, particularly in the downtown relief line, something she promises to work with City Council to improve should she be elected.

Affordable housing was recognized as another important student issue. Davis reiterated her enthusiasm for the work that the Liberals have done, citing Liberal MP Adam Vaughan’s recent successes in revamping public housing policy in the city.

Bell said that the NDP has pledged to create 60,000 affordable housing units in the province, as well as introduce inclusionary zoning and an out-of-province property speculation tax.

Finally, regarding workplace reforms, Bell and Davis both announced support for the increased $15 minimum wage, but also for closing loopholes that prevent students from earning the full wage.

In her closing remarks, Bell said that the NDP’s platform is full of “progressive, sensible, bold things that will help move Ontario forward, not backwards.”

Davis concluded by reflecting on why she is proud to be a part of the Ontario Liberal Party. “It’s not just because of the change that could happen,” she said, “it’s because of the change that has already happened.” She believes the Liberals have “shown that they’ve got vision and they’ve got the will to do things that aren’t always the most popular, but are the right things to do.”

Polls for the 42nd Ontario general election open on June 7.

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