SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

Ahead of the Ontario provincial elections on June 7, The Varsity sat down with the MPP candidates for UTSG’s riding, University—Rosedale. The candidate for the New Democratic Party (NDP) is Jessica Bell, the founding executive director for the transit advocacy group TTCriders. She spoke with fellow NDP candidates for provincial parliament at U of T last March about women in politics. In her interview with The Varsity, Bell discusses transit, mental health, and her party’s plan to convert provincial loans into grants.

Bell focuses on improving mental health facilities, assisting students who are unable to pay for their own education or loans, and improving TTC funding while also providing fare relief for students and low income individuals. Bell also goes into detail about the NDP’s plan for funding these programs by incorporating a progressive tax system.

The Varsity: What is the NDP’s plan to alleviate transit costs for students?

Jessica Bell: When I think about transit, there’s two issues that come to mind. One is the cost, the high cost of fares that have been going up faster than inflation for years; and the second piece is about service quality, because when service quality is poor, which it has been, students spend way more time commuting and way less time doing what they want to do with their life. Our plan is to properly invest in the TTC and all local transit systems across Ontario, so the TTC can improve service in all routes across the city and [have] the option to reduce fares. As the Executive Director of TTCriders, a transit advocacy organization campaigning for better service and lower fares, we found the TTC wasn’t able to provide fare relief properly because they didn’t have the funding to do it… It’s the most efficient transit system in North America [but] when we have approached them and said, ‘Hey, what about a discount pass for low income riders, or two hour fare transfers so we can get on and off without paying twice, or further discounts for students,’ their response has been ‘we don’t have the money.’ By investing in the TTC, the NDP is giving the TTC money to provide this kind of relief.  

TV: Mental health services are in very high demand, especially among students. What type of mental health services do you plan on providing, how can they help students specifically, and how much of your provincial budget do you plan on spending on them?  

JB: I remember going through university, and stress and anxiety is a daily part of being in university, especially around exam time. And then there’s that added stress of, in my case, putting myself through university, and there are a lot of people I know who need to have a part-time job as well as going to school, and then it’s just compounding. So we’ve got a few pieces to it. One, we find that a lot of the stresses that students face are often related to affordability… We’re looking at making housing more affordable in particular, and student debt much lower, which would provide some kind of ease for students, especially if they are having to work and go to school full-time. We are looking at making a Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions because, as we’ve currently seen… mental health [care] is currently administered by up to 30 agencies and departments across Ontario. We’d want to amalgamate that.

We’re [also] looking at funding 2,600 more mental health workers, so that if someone is facing a mental health crisis or needs to seek support, there’d be a much shorter wait time… We’d expect up to 400 of them to be in high schools.

In addition to [reducing wait times], we’re looking at creating 30,000 new supportive housing units, so if people are struggling, there’s a place for them to go… We also have an opioid crisis in Ontario, and we want to declare it a public health emergency and take a harm reduction approach to tackling that, which would include safe injection sites.

TV: The NDP platform states that it will “take on student debt by converting loans to grants and creating thousands of student jobs.” Can you expand on this?

JB: Our plan to help students is a signature piece in our platform. We are looking at any new student loan — any new student OSAP provincial loan — [which] will be converted from a debt to a grant that doesn’t need to be paid back. We’re also looking at eliminating the [provincial] interest [on] all current student loans… I have a friend at the campaign office, she has $50,000 in student debt and she pays five per cent interest on that, which is ridiculous. It’s the government making money off of students, and you’re already pushed pretty tight when it comes to your finances… By helping make school so much cheaper, it pushes the idea that education is a human right… We’re [also] looking at creating 27,000 co-op positions, so students who are going through university or college can access a paid internship co-op position, so they can get that critical work experience and get their foot through the door in the career that’s important to them.

TV: You mentioned that the NDP plans to convert provincial loans into grants. Where will the funding for this come from?

JB: So we have a fully costed plan — it’s 98 pages. We are looking at that funding coming from general revenue, [which] is available because we’re looking at asking corporations and high income people to pay a little bit more. We’re looking at raising the corporate tax rate from 11.5 per cent to 13 per cent. We’re looking at increasing the personal tax rate for individuals earning $220,000 by one point, and by three points for those earning $300,000. So by creating a more fair and progressive tax system, we can provide these critical services that we need, such as making education more accessible and investing in mental health.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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