If Ontario’s Greens are able to exert their influence on the next government, students at the province’s universities and colleges would no longer have to pay interest on their educational debt.

The party, whose leader Mike Schreiner won its first-ever seat at Queen’s Park in the 2018 election, says it would also reverse Doug Ford’s cuts to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) and turn loans into grants for low- and middle-income post-secondary students.

“Making life more affordable for students and recent grads is about improving mental health, boosting the economy and protecting people’s wallets,” Schreiner said during a virtual announcement on Friday. (Schreiner tested positive for COVID-19 this week and is not campaigning in public.)

Younger people are most acutely affected by a range of economic, social and environmental crises, both in general and specifically in Ontario, where rents are steep and homeownership a distant dream for many. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant massive job losses in retail and hospitality, where the workforce skews younger, along with the extended closure of schools. Virtual learning has also disrupted teens’ and young adults’ social development and worsened their mental health.

Schreiner was joined on the call by Shelby Bertrand, a post-secondary student and the Green candidate for Ottawa Centre, who said the cost of higher education was from an era when only those who didn’t worry about money pursued it.

“Students are stressed out, students are pessimistic about their future because of money, and our system right now reflects unrealistic expectations for a demographic that is not the majority,” she said.

The Greens' candidate in Ottawa Centre, Shelby Bertrand, joined Schreiner for the announcement. Photo via screengrab

The Ford government cut $670 million from OSAP prior to the pandemic, making more than 34,000 students ineligible for financial aid and forcing them to choose between more debt or dropping out.

It cut domestic student tuition fees by 10 per cent in 2019-20, which saved students around $450 million a year but has not been replaced by additional public investment in the schools they attend.

The Ontario Greens are pushing to reverse Doug Ford’s cuts to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) and turn loans into grants for low- and middle-income post-secondary students. #ONpoli #ONelxn

The Greens estimate their post-secondary moves would cost a combined $500 million this fiscal year and $1 billion in each of the next three years, noting Ontario currently has the lowest per-capita spending on post-secondary education and highest tuition rates of any province.

But the Greens may have a hard time differentiating themselves from the larger parties also working to dislodge Ford’s Progressive Conservatives from government ahead of the June 2 vote.

The NDP and Liberals have also committed to reversing Ford’s OSAP cuts and converting more loans to grants, with the NDP saying it will wipe out any interest owed or paid by anyone who still holds a provincial student loan. The Liberals’ platform promises to eliminate interest on current and future loans and put a cap on tuition fees.

One of the Greens’ brightest hopes for expanding their parliamentary presence, deputy leader Dianne Saxe, meanwhile won the backing of renowned environmentalist David Suzuki on Friday, along with Schreiner and Parry Sound–Muskoka candidate Matt Richter.

Saxe, a former environment commissioner who clashed repeatedly with Ford as his government dismantled a cap-and-trade framework and the climate actions it funded, will challenge the NDP’s Jessica Bell, who won the University-Rosedale riding, which includes the University of Toronto’s downtown campus and the nearby provincial legislature, comfortably in 2018, taking almost half the vote.

Mitra Yakubi, the chair of the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, said the Green move responds to long-standing calls from students for more affordable education, adding they want to see a sustainable plan to make it free.

“Out of the four political parties that hold seats at Queen’s Park, students have not seen a platform that prioritizes free education,” Yakubi said.

Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer