Content warning: mention of suicide.

The University of Toronto Students’ Union held an all-candidates debate for University–Rosedale MP candidates focused on the environment on October 3. The debate was a part of the 100 Debates on the Environment, a non-partisan initiative which aims to organize environmentally-oriented debates ahead of the federal election.

Liberal candidate and incumbent MP Chrystia Freeland, New Democratic Party (NDP) candidate Melissa Jean-Baptise Vajda, and Green Party candidate Tim Grant were present. Conservative candidate Helen-Claire Tingling was unable to attend due to illness.

Tensions over climate crisis

As part of the 100 Debates on the Environment initiative, the candidates were asked four questions on the environment which covered greenhouse gas emissions, water, wilderness conservation, and pollution.

All candidates agreed that party leaders should work to move beyond addressing the climate crisis as a partisan issue. They also found common ground in wilderness conservation, agreeing that Canada needs to move toward protecting a higher percentage of water and land. All agreed to protect 30 per cent of land, ocean, and fresh water by 2030. 

The Liberal Party’s environmental plan includes planting two billion trees by 2030, reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, and banning single-use plastics. However, the incumbent Liberal government received criticism from the other two candidates for inadequate environmental action made under Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. “We have about 10 or 11 years to reach our [environmental] targets. Right now, the Liberal government has put us 200 years behind that,” said Vajda.

“All three of the major parties support one or more pipelines across Canada,” said Grant. “We are the only party that can’t offer you a pipeline in this election.”

Responding to criticisms about the pipeline, Freeland said, “I think that decision was probably one of the most difficult for our government to make,” adding: “we recognize that we have to find a policy in which the environment and the economy can go together.”

Vajda said, “We are committed to moving away from relying on pipelines, [and] we aren’t in favor of expanding any pipelines.”

Regarding the Green Party’s environmental plan budget, Vajda said, “Their budget doesn’t even add up. Their numbers do not work.” 

The Green Party’s environmental plan includes more regulation on industrial farming, increasing funding to implement endangered species recovery, and restoring the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

Education and housing

Both the Green Party and the NDP want to move toward a free postsecondary tuition framework, while the Liberal plan involves a two-year interest-free grace period for loan repayment.

In response to both a question about education and youth unemployment, Grant advocated for a  basic income, saying, “[it] is going to be a huge benefit to students across the country.”

To combat the housing crisis, the NDP wants to build 500,000 rental units across Canada and impose a 15 per cent buyers tax on non-Canadians and non-permanent residents. The Liberal Party would impose a one per cent tax on vacant properties owned by non-Canadians who do not reside in Canada.

“We are the only party that would not offer a first-time homeowner’s grant,” said Grant. “We think rental housing, social housing, co-op housing in particular is the critical need and that’s where all the federal resources should go.”

Both the NDP and Liberals are committed to a $15 minimum wage on all federally-managed jobs, and the NDP wants to move further to a $20 “liveable wage.” In addition, the NDP wants to ban unpaid internships, as “young people shouldn’t be taken advantage of.” Freeland also wants to create 60,000 more co-op jobs for students, and implement a “right to disconnect” for employees, which will allow them to ignore work-related tasks outside of their work hours.

Health care and mental health

When addressing student mental health, Freeland acknowledged, “I am very aware of the extreme pressures on your generation, on students across Canada, and on students at the U of T.” The Liberal plan will invest $66 billion over four years into mental health, primary care, and in-home supportive care.

“The New Democrats will establish a national suicide prevention action plan that will take this very seriously… it is part of our universal health care plan,” said Vajda, responding to the same question about mental health.

Grant criticized the NDP’s implementation of its pharma care plan by 2020 as being unrealistic. The Green Party’s pharma care plan “is vastly more expensive for two years,” said Grant, meaning that the Green Party would pay the provincial share for two years before shifting the responsibility back to the provincial government.

Concluding the debate, Freeland said, “I leave this conversation very optimistic about our country,” while Vajda responded, “I have a little bit more of a sense of urgency here. I am running for office because I feel we need a change right now.” In their closing remarks both Vajda and Grant criticized the Liberal government for failure to implement electoral reform since the previous election.