Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau travelled to the heart of Doug Ford country Sunday, promising armloads of Liberal government largesse to university students in hopes of tapping into deep-seated anger over the Ontario premier’s cuts to education.
A re-elected Liberal government would increase student grants by 40 per cent and give new graduates two years to begin paying back their student loans, instead of the current six months, Trudeau said on a day when his party was choosing to lean in to its tax-and-spend, deep-deficit reputation.
In Ottawa, party emissaries were detailing the nuts and bolts of the Liberal election platform, which boasts billions in new spending, taxes on tech giants, wealthy Canadians and large international corporations, and another four years of red ink on the federal books.
“When I visit colleges and universities, or host town halls across Canada, the cost of education, and the debt that follows, are always top of mind,” Trudeau told an audience of students at the University of Toronto’s west-end Mississauga campus.
“Young Canadians heading off to school should be excited about embarking on this new journey, but are instead losing sleep, racking their brains over how to pay for it.”
Recent graduates wouldn’t have to start repaying student loans until they are making at least $35,000 — up from the current $25,000 threshold — even if it has been more than two years since they finished school, Trudeau said. New parents would be able to pause student loan repayments until their youngest child turns five, without accruing interest during that time.
The Liberals peg the cost of those measures at $280 million in 2020-21, increasing to $1.4 billion in 2023-24.
Trudeau repeatedly referenced Ontario Premier Doug Ford in his remarks, saying Conservatives like Ford and federal leader Andrew Scheer will take the country backward. The Liberal leader has for months been trying to tie Scheer to Ford, whose popularity is waning, but Trudeau’s Ford name-dropping has picked up in recent days, especially at campaign events in Ontario.
“Education matters to young people across the country, of course, but it’s especially top of mind here in Ontario, as Doug Ford slashes education funding and makes it near impossible to pay for tuition,” he said.
“When he was campaigning, Doug Ford said that not a single person would lose their job to pay for his massive cuts. Well, tell that to the 10,000 Ontario teachers who are losing their jobs.”
While education funding in Ontario is actually increasing, the amount school boards are getting per student is down. The budget watchdog found that while the Ford government’s move to increase class sizes will mean 10,000 fewer teachers in the system, it can likely be done through attrition, with no teacher being laid off.
But the higher class sizes have led to hundreds of cancelled course offerings and have sparked labour strife just as Ontario is bargaining new contracts with teachers and education workers.
For post-secondary students, the Ontario government brought in a 10 per cent tuition cut, but also cut student loan and grant amounts, leaving many college and university students struggling to pay for school. A six-month interest-free grace period for repayment was also eliminated.
Trudeau defended his attempts to tie the federal Conservative leader to the premier.
“Mr. Scheer is the person who has associated himself with Doug Ford,” Trudeau said. “You want a proof point of what Andrew Scheer…would do? Look at what Doug Ford has done.”
Scheer has declined to appear with Ford while campaigning in Ontario, but held an event with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, a long-time friend, on Saturday.
Students at a town hall event following the platform launch queried Trudeau on topics ranging from relations with China to online privacy, electoral reform and tariff tiffs with U.S. President Donald Trump.
“Andrew Scheer and Stephen Harper thought we should just capitulate,” Trudeau said, referring to free trade negotiations with Washington D.C. “Doug Ford said to me, ‘We should just give up on our countervailing duties, and maybe that would make them nice enough to lift the steel tariffs.’
“Some of the worst advice I’ve ever gotten in terms of negotiation,” Trudeau said.
Canada’s year-long standoff with the Trump administration over punitive U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs ended in May, when the two countries agreed to work together on a new North American trade pact that has since stalled.
The images of Trudeau in brownface that exploded onto the campaign less than two weeks ago came up only once Sunday, when a young audience member on the multicultural campus affirmed her faith in the prime minister: “I know you’re not a racist, sir, and I think your apology was sincere.”
Trudeau reiterated that his actions were “wrong — I should have known it then, but I didn’t.”