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Thomas Mulcair talks youth, post-secondary education

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DIETRICH NEU — The Carillon (University of Regina)

Thomas Mulcair, who’s been called a “pitbull” in the House of Commons and is now the leader of the official opposition, chatted with students during a recent pit stop at the University of Regina.

REGINA (CUP) — Federal New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair visited the University of Regina last week to discuss youth in politics. Before his speech, the U of R’s student newspaper, the Carillon, had a chance to speak with him about his thoughts on the government’s role in post-secondary funding and the effect young people can have on the political landscape.

The Carillon: You’ve recently been touring and speaking all over Canada. What are you hoping to accomplish?

Thomas Mulcair: We really want to try and engage [students and young people] and make them realize that what Harper is doing now affects the environment, affects the ecosystem long-term, and that there are economic decisions that affect them in the long-term.

We are trying to empower and make young people realize that they can do something themselves by becoming involved in the political process itself —60 per cent of students 18 to 25 did not vote in the last election.

That is a terrifying statistic. We are going to do everything we can to change that. For example, we bend over backward to put polling booths in old folks homes. Why can’t we do the same for university campuses? Why is that such a hard thing? Why can’t we make it really easy to vote?

In the May election of 2011, the voting took place when students were in the middle of final exams, or moving to start a summer job.

You once said, “When young people don’t vote, the right wing wins and democracy loses.” What do you mean by that?

TM: Well, the right wing wins because their demographics go to the polls; they know their demographic. And their demographic are people who have a much higher voter turnout percentage. Democracy loses in this situation because democracy is ‘people rule.’

So if you have this whole swath of people from a certain age population that are not involved, the voting process, democracy, loses because we have a government that doesn’t reflect the entire voting population. So we have to try so hard to get young people involved and not only get them involved but get them excited.

I look with a little apprehension at the fact that 60 per cent [of voters 18 to 25] didn’t vote in the last election, and I’m going to look for the best way to encourage, insight and engage them so they do come out and vote in the next election, and not let Stephen Harper win by default.

Do you have any specific ideas on how you would energize that 18- to 25-year-old demographic?

TM: There is a little bit of a push and pull that goes on. On one hand, we need to oppose what Harper is doing in government. At the same time, we need to propose what it is that we can do differently. It is a little bit that way with young people who will be voting for the first time, and we want them to see that [with Harper’s policies] that the next generation is being left with the biggest ecological, economical and social debt in our history.

Ecologically we just have to look at how we are developing the oil sands at the moment. We are not making the polluters pay, and we are not internalizing the costs.

Economically, your generation is being left with the highest debt year-after-year. The average student finishes university with over $40,000 in debt.

In terms of the social debt that we are leaving you, well, a large number of manufacturing jobs are leaving, and they are being replaced by low-paying, precarious work in the service industry with no pension to live on. And when those people move into retirement, your generation is going to have to pick up the slack for that as well.

So, it is making people conscious of what is going on, but it is also about making them realize that they can make a difference. And that is easy to say but you have to convince people.

What have you learned about what students actually want from the federal government through this process?

TM: The concerns are largely environmental; we hear a lot of that. Most young people are a little bit less concerned about the economics, except for the fact that they realize that consistent failure to invest in post-secondary education is playing tricks on them because they are being left with a massive debt. The only way to increase wealth is to increase knowledge.

The federal government should play a role in working with the provinces and territories to enhance what we are investing in post-secondary education and research, because I think right now we are starting to backslide in comparison with some other countries.

You once said, “The federal government’s historic role in post-secondary education and research is something that we have to get back to.” What do you mean by that?

TM: Well, there was a time before the Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien Liberals that we were involved in post-secondary education. Now these are provincially-run institutions. The federal government doesn’t directly run universities but that doesn’t mean that we cannot be involved in post-secondary. This disengagement that we are seeing now is only increasing the debt load for students, and it is becoming more and more difficult for universities to find funding at the provincial level.

We think that we should get back to the level of funding that we saw before the 1990s, before the Liberals started downloading that responsibility onto the provinces.

We should never see a situation in a country as rich as Canada, where people who are capable of studying in university have to renounce their studies because they cannot afford it. That will hurt society in the long run. We are starting to see young people who are saying ‘I can’t afford to do that,’ and that is a tragic loss for the whole society.

Are there any ways, specifically, that you guys were hoping to work with the provinces to fix the situation?

TM: Well, I think you have to sit down with the provinces and find out what everyone’s priorities are and then work on them.

You can’t make these decisions unilaterally, precisely because it is provincial and territorial jurisdiction. You have to sit down and listen.

What do you think about Saskatchewan’s tuition rates? We are among the highest in the country.

TM: Well, I think that if it ever becomes a barrier for a young person who is capable of doing those studies from doing those studies, then they have been failed by their society.

So I want the first federal NDP government to be sitting at the table with the provinces and territories to make sure the post-secondary education is affordable and accessible. I think we lose too much as a society if people who can go to university can’t because they cannot afford it. We have to be able to give young people that chance.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Photo: Julia Dima/The Carillon

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