As part of her week-long campus tour, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne stopped by the Waterloo region Jan. 24 to speak to post-secondary students at Conestoga College, Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo.

Kitchener MPP Daiene Vernile and Trinity-Spadina MPP Han Dong accompanied Wynne.

The Premier spoke at UW’s pub night, held at the Bombshelter Pub, and said post-secondary students are forming the ideas, the policies, the jobs, and the future, both immediate and distant.

“It is really important to me that I connect with students, that I connect with young people,” Wynne said during opening remarks, “because … you have a lot of important input to give government.”

Wynne also highlighted work the provincial government has done in the past few years, such as changing the OSAP system, further implementing work-integrated learning at secondary and postsecondary schools, investing in infrastructure, and maintaining Ontario’s high rate of labour participation.

“My vision of the Ontario that we can create is a much more even and more inclusive economy,” Wynne said at UW’s pub night. “With some of the rhetoric that is happening right now, in other parts of the world, I think it’s even more important  that in Ontario, with our diversity and our capacity, we continue to put forth that vision of an inclusive economy that works to make sure that everyone has a level playing field and a fair shot at success.”

Students at WLU's town hall asking the Premier questions. Photo by Steph Kent
Students at WLU’s town hall asking the Premier questions. Photo by Steph Kent

Popular questions that arose from both Wilfrid Laurier and UW pertained to post-secondary education and OSAP, like that of WLU student Anthony Zambito.

“How much longer do students need to continue to indebt themselves and their family to pay for their education,” Zambito said, “and when will Ontario adapt a quality universal education system for our students?”

Wynne said OSAP system tuition changes address Zambito’s question.

“[The answer] is to provide the opportunity to young people, and quite frankly, graduate students,” Wynne said, “or people who are trying to get back in the system to allow them to do that without accumulating debt.”

Wynne also said achieving universal education is not yet feasible within Ontario until there is a more balanced participation rate and level of people who enter post-secondary institutions within province jurisdictions.

Premier of Ontario Kathleen Wynne speaking to students at UW's Bombshelter Pub during pub night. Photo by Ramona Leitao
Premier of Ontario Kathleen Wynne speaking to students at UW’s Bombshelter Pub during pub night. Photo by Ramona Leitao

For those already burdened financially with earlier OSAP debts, Wynne said the provincial government can only ensure debt relief for students going forward.

“I wish government had the capacity to erase all the debt that students are carrying,” Wynne said. “We don’t.” 

Going forward, Wynne said, intended changes will make sure students won’t accumulate that kind of debt. “There are rules around when you can be asked to start repaying,” she added. “You have to be earning before you actually start repaying. There … also are caps on how much you can be expected to pay back.”

The Grassy Narrows community and high levels of mercury within its rivers was also a topic of conversation at both WLU and UW events.

“You continue to mention that you’re interested in repairing the relationship within this community … and yet nothing has happened,” said a WLU student during the town hall. “People continue to get poisoned by mercury, people continue to develop neurological disorders because of the mercury poisoning. When is Ontario actually finally going to clean up its river system?”

Wynne said if she had a report “that said categorically, ‘this is how you do it, there won’t be further damage, this is what you need to do,’ we’d be on it.” 

“The reality is that there are some reports that have a very strong cautionary note about disturbing the mercury and actually creating further contamination. I’m not willing to engage in something to make the situation worse,” she said.

The Premier said she  “would dearly love for there to be a simple solution.”

“I know it is a grave concern to many people who live in the south and people who live in the north, but we have to look at the science,” Wynne continued. “And I am going to have a conversation with David Suzuki because I know that he believes there is a solution to this, and I am open to hearing what that process would look like.”

Wynne also emphasized how the different desires of the community members made finding a solution more complex.

“I went to Grassy Narrows. I met with the community,” Wynne said. “There are many layers here, some of it’s about compensation … some of it’s about cleaning up the sediment, some of it’s about people feeling that they should be able to eat the fish.”

Some students did not appear to be satisfied with this response.

Premier of Ontario Kathleen Wynne speaking to UW alumna Hannah Enns. Photo by Meehakk Mulani
Premier of Ontario Kathleen Wynne speaking to UW alumna Hannah Enns. Photo by Meehakk Mulani

“We spoke with [Waterloo MPP] Catherine [Fife] and Kathleen [Wynne]… both of them were saying that ‘the community is divided and that we can’t do anything,’” said UW alumna Hannah Enns when she asked Premier Wynne the same question at UW’s pub night.

“The community isn’t divided on cleaning up. The community might be divided on future forestry … but this isn’t about that,” said Enns. “Honestly I thought it was a whole bunch of political bullshit.”

Some heckling took place during Wynne’s visit to UW’s pub night from an Ontario Public Service Employers Union (OPSEU) member.

“Public-private partnerships don’t work; we’ve already figured that out,” said OPSEU member Jeremy Thibodeau, in response to Wynne’s comments on the importance on investing in Ontario’s infrastructure to expand the province’s economy. “There’s no risk in privatization; it’s all for profit. You know that.”

According to Thibodeau and OPSEU vice-president Drew Finucane, members of the union have been attending and vocalizing their opinions at multiple talks that Wynne has attended, as part of their We Own It! campaign that fights privatization.

Despite the heckling, and some dissatisfaction from students, Wynne still enjoyed the chance to be able to talk to students and people of various cities during her campus tour.

Premier of Ontario Kathleen Wynne speaking at UW's pub night at the Bombshelter Pub. Photo by Ramona Leitao
Premier of Ontario Kathleen Wynne speaking at UW’s pub night at the Bombshelter Pub. Photo by Ramona Leitao

“One of the things I like about colleges and universities [is that] I get a whole range of questions,” said Wynne in an interview with the North Bay Nugget. “And they are really tough questions, you know? And that’s I think as it should be … They have a concern about issues and they were not afraid to say what they thought. And that’s — from my perspective — that’s how democracy works best.”

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